Learning a new language can be exciting, fun, and sometimes also frustrating. Grammar rules are completely different, pronunciation is wacky, and you can never remember exactly where the adjective goes. And when going to your French course becomes frustrating, it’s easy to simply give up.
Never fear! Here at Superprof we have a little primer to help you learn French online: some basic French grammar tips and ideas to help you learn and advance outside of French lessons, whether online French courses or in one of the other UK cities.
The Difference Between French and English Grammar
French is a Romance language, meaning it descends directly from Latin with very little influence from the indigenous language (Gaulish, a Celtic language). English, on the other hand, is a Germanic language, descending from Anglo-Saxon but so peppered with Old Scandinavian and, yes, Old French influences that it is now far removed from its German ancestry. This means that, when learning French, enough things are similar that we often get cocky and stumble on the differences. Here are a few points in which the French grammar differs from English.
The French Alphabet
The French alphabet has a few additions:
- three accents (aigu, as in été; grave, as in à; and circonflexe, as in tôt)
- one diaeresis (as in Noël)
- a cedilla (always on the letter c: français, garçon.)
- two ligatures: the more common œ, appears in words with the letter combination “oeu” such as cœur. The second one, æ, only appears in latin phrases and certain proper names.
French uses the period and comma much like English does; however, the semi-colon (see what I did there?) is usually replaced by a dash.
There is often a space before a colon, a semicolon, an exclamation point or a question mark, though this punctuation is controversial among French speakers.
Marie fait sa liste de courses : une baguette, deux litres de lait, un onion.
Que me veux-tu ?
The French quotation marks look different too, being more like angular double-parentheses than the little hovering commas used in English. In a dialogue, they encompass the whole exchange and not the individual speeches.
“Que me veux-tu ? demanda Jean.
- Riens. Je voulais juste te voire, répondit Marie
- Je ne suis pas si beau que ça.”
In abbreviating “number”, French-speakers write N° instead of “Nr.” While we’re at it, they also write numbers differently, reversing the way commas and periods are used in English:
- 1.5 (one and a half) is written 1,5 in French
- 1,500 (one thousand five hundred) is written 1.500
French doesn’t capitalise as much as English. For example, adjective designating an ethnicity, religion or language are not capitalised like they are in the English language (see what I did there?):
La langue française - the French language
Une crème anglaise - custard
la religion catholique - the Catholic religion
Months and days of the week are not capitalised in French:
Nous irons faire les courses lundi. We will do our shopping on Monday.
Vous allez en vacances en juillet. You are going on holiday in July.
In titles, French generally only capitalises the very first letter ("Lettres de mon moulin"). There are exceptions:
- if the first word is a "small word" and the second a noun, the noun will often be capitalised too ("La Guerre des boutons")
- if the second word is an adjective, it can be capitalised along with the noun that follows ("Le Petit Prince")
- if the title is only two words ("Sans Famille")
- if the title only has two nouns, both might be capitalised ("Le Corbeau et le Renard")
Spelling vs. Pronunciation
English speakers are used to the written language looking quite different than the spoken language. English spelling is difficult enough - but unlike Spanish or Italian, French spelling is not that easy to learn, either.
That’s because spoken French is another language. The rules of French spelling were codified a long time ago, and French idiom has since evolved. Mostly, it means that certain sounds were elided, or dropped when they appeared at the end of words.
Thus, the letters “s”, “t” and “x” are very often silent at the ends the of words, though (because this is French), there are a number of exceptions.
Homonyms and Homophones
French also has an amazing amount of same-sounding words. Some are written alike (homonyms) while others are written differently, but all are pronounced the same. This can lead to a great deal of frustration in listening comprehension. In fact, one of the most iconic fairy-tale moments may come from a misunderstanding: a slipper lined with the fur of a grey squirrel (vair, nice and warm in winter) became a slipper of glass (verre) - both are pronounced “vare” - and the most impractical piece of footwear ever to be lost at a ball was born.
Here are some common French homophones:
- Auteur (author) / hauteur (height)
- Avocat (lawyer) / avocat (avocado)
- Dans (within) / dent (tooth)
- Foi (faith) / fois (times, as in maths) / foie (liver)
- Pâtes (pasta) / pâte (dough) / pattes (animal legs)
- Peau (skin) / pot (pot)
- Poids (weight) / pois (peas)
- Quand (when) / quant (as for) / qu’en (only when) / camp (camp, side in war or opinions)
- Sain (healthy) / saint (saint) / sein (breast)
- Sceau (seal) / seau (bucket) / saut (jump) / sot (idiot)
Some other differences between English and French grammar are the existence of genders, verb forms and sentence structure.
Gender and French Grammar Rules
English has no genders. At least, it recognises that there are males and females among living beings, but it only differentiates in pronouns. English has one article, and that is neutral: “the” (”a” for the indefinite article).
French, on the other hand, assigns genders to all things, both animate and inanimate. This means that there are several articles:
- Le la les (definite)
- Un une des (indefinite)
Learn more about French gender rules.
This not only means that you have to write the gender of nouns on your flash cards and learn them with the noun, it also means that you have to make sure everything attached to the noun agrees with it. Beginner French students have spent many an hour sweating over their adjectives, pronouns and possessive pronouns!
The singular nominative pronouns are: il (masculine) and elle (feminine). Both form the plural with an “s” (ils, elles).
Here is a small table for the demonstrative and possessive pronouns in French. They come before the noun and take their gender and number from it:
|Singular masculine||Singular feminine||Plural masculine||Plural feminine|
|Possessive 1st person singular||mon||ma||mes||mes|
|Possessive 2nd person singular||ton||ton||tes||tes|
|Possessive 3rd person singular||son||sa||ses||ses|
|Possessive 1st person plural||notre||notre||nos||nos|
|Possessive 2nd person plural||votre||votre||vos||vos|
|Possessive 3rd person plural||leur||leur||leurs||leurs|
Making sure adjectives and participles agree
The most difficult part of dealing with gender and number in French grammar is making sure everything agrees that should agree.
Adjectives generally take an -e in the feminine, and -s in masculine plural and -es in feminine plural - but again, there are many exceptions. Beginner French learners should consider putting the feminine and plural of irregular adjectives on their flashcards when learning French vocabulary.
Past participles only agree with the subject if the auxiliary verb is “être”. However, if the object comes before the verb (relative clauses and pronouns), a past participle with “avoir” can agree with the object of the sentence.
Regular and Irregular Verbs in French Grammar
When learning how to speak French, verbs and verb tenses are very important. You should not only learn French verb conjugation, but also learn how the tenses are used - this is slightly different from English usage, though the verb forms may look similar.
The simple tenses
The simple tenses are the simple present, simple past, imperfect past (imparfait) and simple future:
- The simple present is used to describe an action actually happening, or one that happens regularly.
- The simple past is used for punctual actions that take place in the past.
- The imperfect past designates a past action that took place over a certain length of time, or a one that was repeated, or a supposition.
- Future actions are expressed with the simple future.
Here is table with the simple tenses of the regular verb “aimer”:
|simple present||imperfect||simple past||simple future||past participle|
|J'||aime||aimais||aimai||aimerais||aimé (m.), aimée (f.)|
Composite verb tenses
Composite verb tenses are made up of an auxiliary verb + the past participle. The auxiliary verbs used in composite tenses are “avoir” and “être”. A few of the most common composite tenses are:
- The passé composé is often used instead of the simple past. It is formed with the auxiliary verb in the present.
- The pluperfect has the auxiliary verb in the imperfect. It is used to describe an action in the past that took place just before another past action.
- For past actions that take place a while before another past action, use the passé antérieur, formed with the auxiliary verb in the simple past.
- The futur anterieur is used for what takes place just before another future action. It is formed with the auxiliary verb in the simple future.
Regular vs. irregular verbs
French has two blocks of regular verbs: verbs in ER and verbs in IR. This said, there are some irregular verbs that end in -er and a good number of irregular verbs end in -ir. Other irregular verbs end in:
- oir (pleuvoir, s’asseoir)
- a consonant + re (coudre, tondre, mettre, rompre, suivre, vivre)
- -aître and -oître (paraître, croître)
- vowel + -re (luire, cuire, inclure, croire, boire, faire, éclore, dire, lire)
The two auxiliary verbs “avoir” and “être” are both irregular.
There is not much you can do except learn the verb tables. The endings for the tenses always remain the same, but the verb stem can change somewhat.
French Grammar Rules for Sentence Structure
When learning to speak French, it’s important to put the words in the right order. Basic French sentence structure is similar to the English one, with the order Subject - Verb - Direct Object - Indirect Object.
But like many other languages, when the direct and indirect objects are pronouns, they are placed differently within the sentence. Sometimes the place of the pronoun in the sentence is dictated by whether its a direct or an indirect object; but in French, it depends on which pronoun it is.
All pronouns come between the subject and the verb, in the following order:
Subject + Me, te, se, nous, vous + le, la, les + lui, leur + (adverbial pronoun “y”) + en + Verb.
In other words, in a sentence where “me” and “la” are used, “me” comes before “la”.
Il me la donne. He gives it (f.) to me.
But if the pronouns are “leur” and “la”, la comes before leur:
Il la leur donne. He gives it (f.) to them.
Adverbs and adverbial phrases can come at the beginning or at the end of a sentence; but if it is a single-word adverb it can also come right after the verb.
Hier, il m’a donné son cartable. Yesterday, he gave me his school bag.
Il m’a donné son cartable hier.
Il m’a donné hier son cartable.
Il y a deux jours, il m’a donné son cartable. Two days ago, he gave me his school bag.
Il m’a donné son cartable il y a deux jours.
But NOT Il m’a donné il y a deux jours son cartable.
Relative and conjuctive clauses
Relative clauses come right after the noun they are defining. If the noun is a subject in the main clause, it will come right after the subject and before the verb (if the relative clause is very long, it should go between commas).
If the noun is an object, it comes after the main clause, pulling its noun with it to the back. In other words, in a simple subject + verb + direct object + indirect object sentence, if the relative clause relates to the direct object, the order will be: subject + verb + indirect object + direct object + relative clause.
For example: La chienne apporte à son maître la balle qu’il lui avait lancée. The dog brought the ball he had thrown to her master.
Subject (chienne) + Verb (apporter) + Indirect Object (son maître) + Direct Object (la balle) + relative clause attached to “la balle” (qu’il lui avait lancée).
Conjunctive clauses basically play the part of direct objects and appear with verbs indicating intent, thoughts, opinions or states of being. They can either be infinitive clauses (where the verb is not conjugated, but remains in the infinitive) or use the conjunction “que” with a normal sentence:
Il fait semblant de m’aimer. He pretends to love me.
Il se dit qu’il serait mieux sans elle. He tells himself that he will be better off without her.
Yes/no questions can be constructed in two ways:
- By inverting the subject and predicate and hyphenating them:
Voulez-vous danser? (Do you want to dance?)
- By placing “Est-ce-que” at the start of the sentence. This is considered both more idiomatic and less elegant - your French teacher will prefer it if you use inversion; your French friends won’t care:
Est-ce-que vous voulez danser avec moi?
Any other question is formed using question words. They come at the beginning of a sentence and the Subject + Verb combination that follows is inverted and hyphenated.
Comment allez-vous ? How are you doing?
The most common words for introducing questions in French are:
- Qui (who)
- Que (what)
- Où (where)
- Comment (how)
- Pourquoi (why)
- Combien (how much)
- Quel/quelle/quels/quelles (which).
The Best Books for Learning How To Speak French
When you are learning French, you might not want to turn on your computer whenever you have a grammar question. Books are portable, easy to use and are not dependent on the life of your battery (of course, many of these books are available as ebooks, too).
Another advantage of french grammar books over blogs and apps is that they go into more depth than the average language blog. They are not constrained by the usual length for a website page (who enjoys scrolling forever) nor the size of a smartphone screen.
The Dummies language books (French for Dummies) are often a good place to start. The compendium edition includes both a phrasebook for your holiday in France.
The “Façon de Parler” series has both textbooks and exercise books to train your grammar knowledge.
You can make your own vocabulary flash cards (and you might want to think of investing in a French-French dictionary) or buy some, from the Usborne series, for example. Flash Sticks has an interesting concept with flash cards on sticky notes you can leave around the house or attach to the thing whose name you are learning (though I don’t recommend putting post-its on your pets.)
Or if you are more of a visual learner, try out children’s image books, such as the "Caillou" bilingual picture book or Larousse’s Grand Imagier Photos des Petits.
Once you feel a little secure in speaking French, you might want to start reading in French.
But if you are not ready to throw yourself into French children’s books or French newspapers, there are books with French short stories, usually including some grammar and vocabulary to help you along. The stories by Frédéric Bilbard (Learn French With Stories and French: Short Stories for Intermediate Level) also include audio files spoken by a native speaker.
Where To Find Exercises for a French Grammar Check
Many books have french grammar exercises at the end of each chapter to help you consolidate what you have learned. The “Façon de Parler” series (see above) also have extra exercise books.
If you are willing to work your way through grammar lessons in French, the BLED grammar books explain very specific points of grammar and follow them up with exercises.
And then there is the whole wide world of language websites and smartphone apps.
The French website “Bescherelle” has many exercises and games to help you learn French. There are even online dictations to help you with your spelling and vocabulary.
You can also try the websites of Conjuguemos or the Alliance Française or even this site by the BBC. Though it’s no longer updated, it has a wonderful array of tutorials, quizzes and exercises covering a wide base of subjects from rugby to crossword puzzles; there is even a section geared toward Welsh speakers.
Finally, you can download language apps such as Rosetta Stone or FluentU. Both use an immersion teaching concept.
Taking French Lessons: French Classes or Private Tutors?
You spend your days learning French grammar, bending over your textbooks, writing out your flash cards, listening to the French news and taking vocabulary quizzes on your smartphone - but you have a feeling you are going nowhere?
Some people can learn a language on their own, but others need the motivation and, more importantly perhaps, the feedback of working with a teacher.
If you have French courses near you, you might want to look into them. They are usually affordable, and you might feel better surrounded by people with the same problems and frustrations (and that one person to whom it comes easily that you have in every classroom anywhere.) You will meet other francophiles, can get together to study vocabulary or do your grammar exercises.
However, the teacher sets the pace in these group classes. They will generally focus on grammar and vocabulary; if you want to focus more on spoken French you will be better off with a private tutor.
A private tutor (such as those here at Superprof) will have a better idea of your strengths and weaknesses and how to work them so you are motivated by your successes and improve rapidly.
A private French teacher can also adapt to your schedule, so that even if you have to miss a day, you won’t have to wait a whole week to delve into the French language again.