At first glance, French grammar may look quite complex: there are quite a lot of inflections, a great deal of homophones – words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same, etc. This may cause some confusion, especially for new learners.
However, the French grammatical system is fairly regular with only a few exceptions. It means that if you master the rules you do not need to memorize all the exceptions to accompany them, contrary to, for instance, in English.
This article gives an overview of French grammar to give you a general idea of its system and of the points you need to pay attention to when learning.
French nouns are inflected for number and gender, but not any other grammatical categories (such as case).
Every French noun has a grammatical gender, either masculine or feminine. The grammatical gender of a noun referring to a human usually corresponds to the noun’s natural gender (i.e., its referent’s sex or gender).
For such nouns, there will very often be one noun for each gender, with the choice of noun being determined by the natural gender of the person described; for example, a male singer is a chanteur, while a female singer is a chanteuse.
A noun’s gender usually can’t be predicted from its form. There are some trends, but in general it’s best to learn each noun with together the respective gender from the get-go.
In terms of spelling, the plural is usually formed from the singular by adding the letter -s (e.g. maison > maisons ‘houses’). Nouns ending in -au, -eu, and -ou often take the ending -x instead (e.g. jeu > jeux ‘games’).
However, the endings -s and -x are mostly mute except for a few situations, so the plural form of a noun generally has the same pronunciation as the singular.
Articles in French agree in gender and number with the noun they determine; unlike with nouns, this inflection is made in speech as well as in writing.
French has three articles: definite, indefinite, and partitive. The difference between the definite and indefinite article is similar to other Romance languages (for instance, Spanish) or even to English, except that the indefinite article in French has a plural form.
- une femme – a woman
- des femmes – (some) women
- la femme – the woman
- les femmes – the women
The French partitive article is often translated as some, but often also simply omitted in English. It is used to indicate an indefinite portion of something uncountable, or an indefinite number of something countable: « J’ai du café » (“I have some coffee” or simply “I have coffee”).
An adjective must agree in gender and number with the noun it modifies. French adjectives, therefore, have four forms: masculine singular, feminine singular, masculine plural, and feminine plural.
The masculine singular, an adjective’s basic form, is listed in dictionaries. The feminine singular is normally formed by adding -e to the basic form. This -e is mute, which makes many masculine and feminine forms homophonous (masculine civil and feminine civile ‘civil’, both pronounced /sivil/).
The plural is normally formed by adding -s to the singular (masculine and feminine), which is also often mute.
Adverbs in French are used to modify adjectives, other adverbs, verbs, or clauses.
Most adverbs are derived from an adjective by adding the suffix -ment, usually to its feminine form (-ment is analogous to the English suffix -ly): e.g. grandement “greatly”; lentement “slowly”.
Some adverbs are derived irregularly (bon “good” – bien “well”) and others do not derive from adjectives at all.
French pronouns are inflected to indicate their role in the sentence (subject, direct object, etc.), as well as to reflect the person, gender, and number of their referents.
There are personal pronouns (je, tu), possessive (le mien, le tien), interrogative (que, quoi), relative (qui, lequele), and demonstrative (ceci, cela) pronouns.
In French, pronouns can’t be dropped, therefore, they feature prominently in the language. Impersonal verbs (e.g., pleuvoir – to rain) use the impersonal pronoun il (analogous to English it).
Verbs in French are conjugated to reflect the following information:
- a mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, conditional, infinitive, participle, or gerundive)
- a tense (past, present, or future, though not all tenses can be combined with all moods)
- an aspect (perfective or imperfective)
- a voice (active, passive, or reflexive)
Finite forms depend on grammatical tense and person/number. There are eight simple tense–aspect–mood forms, categorized into the indicative, subjunctive and imperative moods, with the conditional mood sometimes viewed as an additional category.
The eight simple forms can also be categorized into four tenses (future, present, past, and future-of-the-past), or into two aspects (perfective and imperfective).
The three non-finite moods are the infinitive, past participle, and present participle.
There are compound constructions that use more than one verb. These include one for each simple tense with the addition of avoir or être as an auxiliary verb. There is also a construction that is used to distinguish passive voice from active voice.
As in English, the subject must be included (except in the imperative mood), as stated above, pronouns cannot be dropped in French.
French prepositions link two related parts of a sentence. In terms of word order, they are placed in front of a noun in order to specify the relationship between the noun and the verb, adjective, or another noun that precedes it.
Some common French prepositions are: à (to, at, in), à côté de (next to, beside), avec (with), de (from, of, about), en (in, on, to), par (by, through), pour (for), quant à (as for, regarding), sans (without), sur (on), vers (toward).
French usually expresses negation in two parts, with the particle ne attached to the verb, and one or more negative words that modify the verb. For example:
« Je ne sais pas. » — “I do not know.”
« Il ne fume plus. » — “He does not smoke anymore.”
This is a very brief overview of French grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the French grammatical system and the main points you should consider when learning.