The verb devoir serves many functions; equivalent English constructions are varied.
Table of Contents
- I. Devoir As a Verb in Its Own Right
- II. Semi-Auxiliary Devoir in the Conditional
- III. Semi-Auxiliary Devoir in the Indicative
- IV. Semi-Auxiliary Devoir in Concessive Constructions
- V. Ambiguities
I. Devoir As a Verb in Its Own Right
When devoir is not followed by an infinitive, it has the meaning “to owe.”
- Voici ce que je vous dois. (Here is what I owe you.)
- Il devait des sommes folles à tout le monde. (He owed everybody incredible sums.)
- Vous me devez une explication. (You owe me an explanation.)
- Je dois ma vie à cet homme, qui m’a secouru aux années 70. (I owe my life to that man; he helped me out back in the 70s.)
- Il ne veut rien devoir à personne. (He doesn’t want to owe anything to anybody.)
- The past participle dû, due, dus, dues (owed, owing, HENCE: due)
- Je ne réclame que ce qui m’est dû. (I claim only what is coming to me = what is due to me.)
- …l’obéissance due à l’église… (the obedience due to the Church)
- Cette maladie est due à un microbe des plus malins et des plus maléfiques. (This illness is due to a germ [that is one] of the trickiest and most malign.)
II. Semi-Auxiliary Devoir in the Conditional
Since this use of semi-auxiliary devoir is particularly straightforward and easy to understand (in my eyes, at least), I like to treat it apart from its uses in the indicative, which are more complicated and less predictable.
How to Translate Devoir in the Conditional (Je devrais, j’aurais dû)
As “should, ought to,” followed by
- (if a present conditional) the present infinitive (in green).
Je devrais téléphoner à mes parents.
= “I should telephone / I ought to telephone / my parents.”
- (if a past conditional) the past infinitive (in green).
J’aurais dû prévenir les autres.
= “I should have warned / I ought to have warned / the others.”
Interestingly, whereas English indicates the presentness or pastness of the recommended action in the infinitive (“to telephone” or “to have telephoned”), French indicates presentness or pastness in the personal verb (devrais, aurais dû).
Devoir in the conditional indicates what I call a “weak” obligation. For devoir meaning a “strong” obligation, see Part III.A, immediately following.
III. Semi-Auxiliary Devoir in the Indicative
As a semi-auxiliary, in the indicative devoir has three main functions, not all of which are used in all possible tenses. These functions are:
- Obligation. Used in four tenses: present, passé composé, imperfect, and future.
- Probability. Used in three tenses: present, passé composé, and imperfect.
- Expectation. Used in three tenses: present, imperfect, and future.
Devoir in the indicative, when it indicates an obligation, means a strong one, an obligation that the subject has every intention and every expectation of fulfilling (if it hasn’t been fulfilled already).
- Je dois faire mes devoirs. (I must / I have to / I gotta / do my homework.)
- Il a dû1 aller voir sa tante. (He had to go see his aunt.)
Note that devoir in a perfective tense (passé composé or passé simple) means two things:
- The subject had an obligation to do something;
- The subject actually fulfilled the obligation: the obliged action took place.
Contrasting Strong Obligation (Devoir in the Indicative) with Weak Obligation (Devoir in the Conditional)
Devoir in the indicative means something you must do (present) or had to do (compound past). Devoir in the conditional means, present: something you might very well not do; past: something you ought to have done, but didn’t.
- Devoir, indicative
- Je dois aller voir ma tante = “I must go see my aunt.” (I’m definitely going.)
- J’ai dû aller voir ma tante = “I had to go see my aunt.” (I definitely did it.)
- Devoir, conditional
- Je devrais aller voir ma tante = “I ought to go see my aunt.” (But chances are I won’t.)
- J’aurais dû aller voir ma tante = “I ought to have gone to see my aunt.” (Shame on me.)
The meaning can be: an activity the subject was repeatedly obliged to perform.
- Il devait sortir les ordures chaque matin. (He had to take out the trash every morning.)
Devoir in the imperfect can also be used to refer to an obligation before the point when the obligation is fulfilled.
- Je devais me présenter au commissariat avant 10 heures; donc, je me levai à 7 heures bien malgré moi et fis soigneusement ma toilette. (I had to / I was supposed to / report to the police-station by 10am, so I got up groaning at 7 and groomed myself carefully.)
Be aware, however, of the use described in in III.C below, in which devoir in the imperfect is used for an expected action that does not take place.
- J’ai déjà consacré six ans de ma vie à cette thèse. L’année prochaine, je devrai l’achever. (I’ve already spent six years of my life on this thesis. Next year, / I must / I will have to / finish it.)
- Nous devrons y aller la semaine prochaine. (We must / We will have to / go there next week.)
Here, the verb will be translated as “must” in the sense of “is probably.”
- Il a l’air vieux; il doit avoir soixante ans. (He looks old; he must be sixty.)
- Vous avez réussi à l’examen. Vous devez être très content de vous-même. (You passed the exam. You must be very pleased with yourself.)
- Il ne m’a pas salué; il a dû oublier mon nom. (He didn’t greet me; he must have forgotten my name.)
Here, the meaning is: a thing that probably happened, repeatedly.
- Pendant les bombardements vous deviez avoir très peur. During the bombings / you must have been / you were probably / very afraid)
Il t’aimait; il devait venir souvent te voir. (He must have come often to see you.)
- J’attends un paquet. Il doit arriver d’un jour à l’autre. (I’m waiting for a package. It’s bound to arrive one of these days.)
- Il doit pleuvoir demain. (It’s supposed to rain tomorrow.)
Note that this use of devoir refers to something expected to happen in the near future. “Should” could also be used to translate it:
- Il doit arriver bientôt = “It should arrive soon”
—but do not confuse this function of devoir with the weak obligation indicated by the conditional (je devrais = “I should, I ought to”).
1. Unfulfilled Expectation (“Was Supposed to, Was Expected to”)
When something was supposed to happen, but didn’t.
- Il devait arriver vendredi passé, mais il y a eu une grève des cheminots. (He was supposed to arrive last Monday, but there was a rail-workers’ strike.)
- Je devais aller voir ma tante ce soir-là, mais la voiture est tombée en panne. (I was supposed to go see my aunt that evening, but the car broke down.)
- Nous devions faire un pique-nique, mais il a plu. (We were supposed / We were going to / have a picnic, but it rained.)
2. Expectation in the Past (“Was to, Would”)
Devoir can be used this way when a historian refers to something that will happen later in time than the exact moment being discussed, but is past with regard to us, and consequently bound to happen.
- Le jeune René, qui devait un jour dévoiler au monde sa nouvelle méthode « pour bien conduire la raison », avait alors 12 ans. (The young René, who / was to / would / was destined to / reveal one day to the world his new method “for the proper guiding of reason,” was at that time 12 years old.)
- Les prophètes n’avaient-ils pas dit que le Messie devait naître à Bethléem? (Had not the prophets said that the Messiah / was destined to / was to / would / be born in Bethlehem?)
Do not confuse this “would” used to express “expectation in the past” with conditional “would” (as in: “If that were true, I would bite my pillow.”)
This use is analogous (and in a sense identical) to “expectation in the past” (the second imperfect use described above). It can appear when the historian has elected to write in the “historical present” (a practice French historians are much given to). The translator into English will often do best to transpose such passages into the past, since “historical present” is not a common feature of English historiographical prose.
- Etienne Pascal décide d’éduquer son fils lui-même. Le jeune Blaise, celui qui devra briller tant dans les lettres que dans les sciences, ne reçoit donc d’autre éducation que de son père. (Etienne Pascal decided to educate his son himself. The young Blaise, he who was to shine so much in both letters and sciences, thus received no other education than from his father.)
For more on the Historical Present, see the French Language File Functions of the Present Tense, Part IV.
IV. Semi-Auxiliary Devoir in Concessive Constructions
Here devoir is once again used to express a future expectation, but a highly unlikely one: “Even if such-and-such were to happen,…” The semi-auxiliary appears, most elegantly, in imperfect subjunctive (with inversion):
- Dût-on me rire au nez, je dirai toujours hautement mon admiration pour les œuvres de Stephanie Meyers. (Even if people were to laugh in my face,2 I will always proclaim loudly my admiration for the works of Stephanie Meyers.)
—or in the present conditional, again with inversion (and still somewhat elegantly):
- Devrait-on me rire au nez,… (Even if people were to laugh in my face…)
—which is itself a stylistic step up from the very plain imperfect indicative (introduced by si, and with no inversion):
- Même si on devait me rire au nez… (Even if people were to laugh in my face…)
For more on concessive conditional sentences, see the French Language File French Concessions Part V.
Watch out for the following cases in which missteps are possible.
A. Devoir in the Present Tense
In the present tense. devoir can have any of the functions: obligation, probability, or expectation. Context (or simply the sentence itself) should make clear which one is pertinent.
Obligation. Elle doit aller voir sa tante = “She has to / She must / go see her aunt.”
Probability. Elle doit être contente d’elle-même = “She must be / She is probably / pleased with herself.”
Expectation. Elle doit recevoir le faire-part bientôt = “She is bound / She is sure / to receive the announcement soon.”
B. Devoir in the Compound or Simple Past
In a perfective past tense, devoir can have two quite different functions: obligation or probability. Mistakes are a more serious issue here.
Elle a dû taper le compte rendu elle-même
—could mean either, depending on context:
- “She had to type the report herself” OR:
- “She probably typed the report herself.”
C. Devoir in the Imperfect
This is a tricky one, since in this tense devoir has a wide range of functions. I summarize them here:
- “had to” (obliged action repeatedly performed)
- “was supposed to, had to” (obligation before the point of fulfillment)
- “[past verb] + probably, must have” (repeated probable action or condition)
- “was supposed to, was expected to” (expected action that does not take place)
- “was to, would” (an event that will occur, but has not yet occurred at this point in the narration)
My advice: concentrate on the functions that seem strangest to you, that is, farthest from what seem to you the obvious meanings of devoir. For me, these are the two functions under 3. Expectation: “was supposed to (but didn’t)” and “was to, would (at a later point in the past)”.
Expected but Unfulfilled Action. Elle devait nous téléphoner, mais elle ne l’a pas fait. (She was supposed to telephone us, but she hasn’t done so.)
Action to Occur at a Later Point. Dans quelques années il devait rompre les chaînes qui l’entravaient et émerger au grand jour. (In a few years / he was to / he was destined to / he would / break the chains that hobbled him and emerge into the full light of day.)
- = Il dut (simple past)
- Note that in English we can say: “Were one to…”