Any language can seem intimidating and confusing when you first start learning it, and French is no exception. While beautiful, the French language is also complex, and often gets a bad reputation for having tons of irregular verbs and difficult grammar quirks. However, French is also an incredibly useful and popular language to learn.
So, if you want to really learn French grammar and how to speak French, never fear! Anything can be achieved with a little hard work, but we’ve also got lots of tips and tricks to help make the process easier. Understanding some of the basic rules and patterns in the French language will help you learn grammar naturally, and you’ll be a pro in no time!
So, let’s take a look at some of the rules to remember when learning French grammar. Read on!
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French Sentence Structure
The very first step to speaking French is knowing how to construct a sentence. If you can’t form a sentence, how would you say anything? Don’t stress too much — you don’t always have to be perfect to get your meaning across — but definitely try your best!
Rule 1: SVO Sentence Structure
English speakers rejoice: French grammar uses subject-verb-object sentence structure, just like your native language. Take this sentence as an example:
Nous aimons nos voisins
We like our neighbors
The words in this sentence directly match their English counterparts, with the same word order. The pronoun Nous (“We”) is the subject, aimons (“like”) is the verb, and nos voisins (“our neighbors”) is the object. Straightforward enough, right?
Rule 2: Adjective Placement
However, there are some exceptions to word order being the same as in English. In French grammar, descriptive adjectives often follow their nouns rather than being placed before them, like the English language does. For example,
Le chat bleu
The blue cat
In English, “blue” comes before “cat.” However, the literal translation of the French phrase would be “the cat blue,” instead.
The Main French Grammatical Cases
French largely follows the same grammatical cases as English, so it is a great language for English speakers to learn! We’ll go over the main three, though there are some others you’ll come across later in your studies.
Rule 3: Nominative Case
The nominative case, or subjective case, is used for the subject of the sentence — the noun or pronoun performing the action of the verb. No matter where it is in the sentence, using the nominative case lets you know where the subject is.
The French nominative personal pronouns are:
|Il, Elle||He, She|
These are probably the forms you’re most familiar with already, as they’re what we use in the most simple subject-verb-object sentences.
Rule 4: Genitive Case
The genitive case, or possessive case, shows ownership in a sentence and indicates that something belongs to something (or someone) else. In English, we can form this case with nouns by adding a ‘s, but in French, we use what are called possessive adjectives.
Like other French adjectives, these must agree in gender and number with the they describe.
|Masculine Singular||Feminine Singular||Plural||English translation|
|Son||Sa||Ses||His, her, its|
Rule 5: Accusative Case
The accusative case applies to the direct object in a sentence — that is, the noun or pronoun receiving the action of the verb.
When bringing up something that has already been mentioned before, we can replace the noun with a direct object pronoun:
|Le, La||Him, Her|
Note how the first- and second-person plural pronouns are the same as in the nominative case. This means you’ll have to look for additional context clues in the sentence to determine which way they’re being used, but usually, it will be pretty simple.
Use Appropriate Formality
In French, using the proper level of formality is very important when addressing someone. You will use different personal pronouns depending on whether you want to be formal or informal.
Rule 6: Tu vs. Vous
Since formality specifically matters when talking directly to someone, the only time you have to worry about formal versus informal pronouns is in the second person. There is the singular informal tu and the singular formal vous.
When speaking in the plural, you will use vous for both the informal and formal.
Gender and Number in French Grammar
French is one of those languages where nouns are gendered. So, in addition to learning the singular and plural forms, you’ll have to learn to differentiate between masculine and feminine.
These two aspects of a noun will affect the adjective, article, and pronoun forms you use in the rest of the sentence — they even occasionally change a noun meaning. So, while relatively simple, gender and number agreement is one of the most important steps of learning to write French sentences.
Rule 7: Gender and Number with Articles
There are two forms of articles in French: definite and indefinite. Luckily, both are very easy to learn.
Definite articles are similar to “the” in English — you use them when speaking about a specific, known object. In French, these articles are le, la, and les. Le is the singular masculine form, la is the singular feminine form, and les is the plural form. Note how there is only one plural form used for both genders.
Indefinite articles, like “a/an” in English grammar, are used to speak about an abstract object or category of thing. These French articles are un, une, and des. Like above, these are listed in the order masculine singular, feminine singular, and plural neutral form.
J’aime un chocolat
I like chocolate
J’ai des crayons
I have pencils
Rule 8: Gender and Number with Nouns
If you don’t know a noun’s article, you’ll have to use clues from the noun itself to figure out what gender it is and whether or not it’s plural. Luckily, with a few exceptions, you can rely on the ending of the word to decode this.
Like in English, most French nouns become plural by adding an -s to the end.
However, most words ending in -u and some words ending in -al form their plural with -x or -aux.
Finally, words that end in -s or -x in their singular form generally have the same form in the plural. Only the article will change.
Simple enough! Now, how about gender? This part is a little more complicated, but in time, it will become mostly intuitive.
The easiest way to remember the difference between feminine and masculine words is that feminine words mostly end in a vowel or -on. However, there are some exceptions:
- eau, -eu
- ème, -ège
All of the endings listed above are masculine, despite the fact that they end in vowels. And, if a word ends in anything other than a vowel or -on, it is probably masculine. There are a few exceptions to this as well, but for now, knowing the basic difference is enough.
Finally, nouns referring to living beings can actually be either masculine or feminine. As a default, the masculine form will be used when speaking in general terms. However, if you’re speaking of a specific object whose gender is known, you will use that form.
Rule 9: Gender and Number with Adjectives
Gender and number agreement with French adjectives follows only a few simple rules:
- To agree with a feminine singular noun, add -e;
- To agree with a plural masculine noun, add -s;
- And, to agree with a plural feminine noun, add -es.
However, there are quite a few irregular adjectives and exceptions to these guidelines, which you’ll have to memorize.
French Verbs And French Verb Conjugations
As you may have noticed by now, French verbs change form depending on how we’re using them and what subject is performing them. Let’s learn more about why these changes are made and what patterns determine how they are changed.
Rule 10: What is the Infinitive of a Verb?
Before you can conjugate a verb, you need to know its base form — that is, the infinitive form. Take this French sentence:
Je vais étudier
I am going to study
Vais is the acting verb in this sentence, so what about étudier? This second verb remains in its infinitive form, “to study.” It represents an action, yes, but it is not active in the sentence.
In French, knowing the infinitive of a verb is very important, because the infinitive gives us clues to the conjugation rules we will use.
Rule 11: Conjugating Regular Verbs
Verbs are typically grouped into three categories depending on the ending of their infinitive form. Let’s take a look at the French conjugation rules for the simple present tense.
Verbs ending in -er have the following verb conjugation pattern:
- (Je) -e
- (Tu) -es
- (Il, Elle) -e
- (Nous) -ons
- (Vous) -ez
- (Ils, Elles) -ent
Verbs ending in -ir have the following conjugations:
- (Je) -is
- (Tu) -is
- (Il, Elle) -it
- (Nous) -issons
- (Vous) -issez
- (Ils, Elles) -issent
Finally, verbs ending in -re are conjugated in this way:
- (Je) -s
- (Tu) -s
- (Il, Elle) -d
- (Nous) -ons
- (Vous) -ez
- (Ils, Elles) -ent
Rule 12: Conjugating Irregular Verbs
Now, this is where French grammar rules get a little tricky. The French language has over 300 “irregular” verbs, meaning that these verbs don’t follow the conjugation pattern described above.
However, while the prospect of memorizing them all sounds overwhelming, there are really only a few commonly used ones that you need to know to start. The rest, you’ll learn naturally over time. And, most of them actually fall into smaller groups that share conjugation patterns, so it’s not as hard as you might think!
The five most common irregular verbs are:
Its present tense conjugations are je suis, tu es, il/elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, and ils/elles sont.
Its present tense conjugations are j’ai, tu as, il/elle a, nous avons, vous avez, and ils/elles ont.
to be able to
It is conjugated in the present tense as je peux, tu peux, il/elle peut, nous pouvons, vous pouvez, and ils/elles peuvent.
It is conjugated in the present tense as je vais, tu vas, il/elle va, nous allons, vous allez, and ils/elles vont.
Its conjugations in the present tense are je fais, tu fais, il/elle fait, nous faisons, vous faites, and ils/elles font.
The Bottom Line
French has its tricky parts, but it’s a very rewarding language to learn and an excellent choice for native English speakers, given the similarities the two languages share in their grammatical rules. So, keep this guide handy as you start your journey to learning to speak French well, and you’ll be a pro in no time!
Want to get comfortable with the basics of French vocabulary and grammar rules even quicker? Learn with stories on Langster! Reading real French stories will help you understand new vocabulary in context, and every story includes grammar explanations and flash cards so you can keep practicing your target words even after you finish reading.