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How to speak French

A Complete Guide to Basic French Grammar Rules

When compared to other languages, learning French grammar as a native English speaker is relatively simple. The rules are straightforward and make logical sense, but that doesn't mean becoming fluent is easy. Building accurate sentences in French that reflect your intent still requires a lot of practice and application. With that being said, French grammar rules aren't nearly as hard as learning Russian grammar or trying to navigate the Japanese alphabet. To help you get started, we've put together a comprehensive guide to French grammar and how to apply it in everyday conversations.

Grammatical Similarities Between French and English

French grammar has a lot of similarities to English grammar, making it easier for native English speakers to master the basics of the French language quickly. The two languages have the same parts of speech and similar sentence structure, but there are also several differences. Luckily, you won't have to worry about word order as much as German or Mandarin. 

Like other languages, French conjugation of verbs is much different than in English and can initially intimidate learners. French is also a gendered language, meaning nouns are masculine or feminine and require corresponding articles. More on that later!

8 Tips to Help You Learn French Grammar

Creating a solid foundation is essential to help you master French grammar rules and put them to use. To help you get started, we've put together a few of the most important building blocks French learners need to know. 

1. Master Gendered and Numbered French Nouns

French nouns can be concrete, abstract, proper, or common, just like in English. Proper nouns will need to be capitalized (e.g., Paris) and often don't have an article attached to them. However, regardless of the type of noun, each one has a gender: masculine and feminine. This gender assignment impacts the articles (definite and indefinite) and adjectives associated with the noun.

For example, the word for "table" is feminine (la table), while the word for "book" is masculine (le livre). The definite articles "le" and "la" correspond to masculine and feminine nouns, respectively, while the indefinite articles "un" and "une" follow the same gender pattern.

There are some word endings that can help you determine which gender something is, but the best way to ensure you're mastering French words is to build your vocabulary and memorize them. 

Some common masculine French nouns include: 

  • Le livre (the book)
  • Le chat (the cat)
  • Le chien (the dog)
  • Le vélo (the bicycle)
  • Le garçon (the boy)
  • Le homme (the man)
  • Le père (the father)
  • Le frère (the brother)
  • Le fils (the son)
  • Le ami (the friend)

Some common feminine French nouns include:

  • La table (the table)
  • La chaise (the chair)
  • La fille (the girl)
  • La femme (the woman)
  • La mère (the mother)
  • La sœur (the sister)
  • La voiture (the car)
  • La maison (the house)
  • La fenêtre (the window)
  • La porte (the door)

French nouns also have singular and plural forms. Pluralization often involves adding specific endings to the noun, and this change in number also affects the associated articles. For example, "le livre" (the book, singular) becomes "les livres" (the books, plural) with the plural definite article "les." Similarly, "un livre" (a book, singular) becomes "des livres" (some books, plural) with the plural indefinite article "des."

2. Understand French Adjectives and Articles Must Agree with the Noun

Adjectives, articles, and other modifiers must agree in gender and number with their accompanying nouns. So, you can see how important knowing the gender and number of nouns is when putting together French sentences. If you want to put your knowledge to the test and start having real conversations, download Tandem and match with a native French speaker.

Until then, consider this example of French noun agreement. If describing a feminine noun such as "la table" (the table), any adjectives used to describe it must also be in the feminine form, such as "la grande table" (the big table). Similarly, when referring to multiple tables (les tables), the definite article and any accompanying adjectives must be plural.

There are also some rules for French possessive adjectives and French demonstrative adjectives you should familiarize yourself with.

3. Perfect Your Sentence Structure

In French and English, the basic word order in declarative sentences follows the subject-verb-object (SVO) pattern. This means that the subject performs the action expressed by the verb, and the object receives the action. For example:

  • French: Marie lit un livre.
  • English: Marie reads a book.

However, there are some minor differences between the two. 

In French, adjectives generally follow the noun they modify, whereas adjectives typically precede the noun in English. For example:

  • French: La maison blanche. 
  • English: The white house.

There are also differences in creating negative sentences. In French, the word "ne" precedes the conjugated verb, and "pas" (or other negative words) follows it to form a negative sentence. In English, "not" is usually placed after the verb. For example:

  • French: Je ne parle pas français. 
  • English: I do not speak French.

4. But Embrace the Flexibility

While French typically follows a subject-verb-object word order, it's not as strict as English. It's quite common to rearrange elements of French grammar for stylistic or rhetorical purposes. This allows you to create unique responses and expressions for specific contexts or when you want to emphasize something.

Additionally, French employs a variety of sentence connectors, such as conjunctions and adverbs, which can alter the order of clauses or phrases within a sentence. Some examples of how you can change a sentence are as follows:

Original: Il travaille souvent tard. (He often works late.)

  • Altered: Souvent, il travaille tard. (Often, he works late.) 
  • Altered:  Il travaille tard souvent. (He works late often.)

Original: J'aime beaucoup ce livre. (I really like this book.)

  • Altered: Ce livre, j'aime beaucoup. (This book, I really like.)

Original: Tu vas où ce soir ? (Where are you going tonight?)

  • Altered: Où vas-tu ce soir ? (Where are you going tonight?)
  • Altered: Ce soir, tu vas où ? (Tonight, where are you going?)

5. Discover the Different Types of French Verbs and How They're Used

There are a few different types of French verbs that you'll need to learn, including regular verbs, irregular verbs, modal verbs, reflexive verbs, impersonal verbs, and auxiliary verbs. 

Regular verbs in French follow predictable conjugation patterns based on their infinitive endings (-er, -ir, -re). These verbs maintain the same root throughout conjugation, changing endings according to tense, mood, and subject. Regular verbs are generally easier to learn because they adhere to consistent rules. For example:

  • Elle parle français tous les jours. — She speaks French every day.

Irregular verbs in French do not follow the standard conjugation patterns of regular verbs. Instead, they have unique conjugations that must be memorized individually. Mastery of irregular verbs is essential for fluency in French. For example:

  • Nous sommes allés au cinéma hier soir. — We went to the cinema last night.

Modal verbs express possibility, necessity, obligation, or permission. In French, common modal verbs include "pouvoir" (to be able to), "vouloir" (to want to), and "devoir" (to have to/must). Modal verbs are often followed by another verb in the infinitive form to express the action or condition. For example:

  • Je peux venir te chercher à dix heures. — I can come pick you up at ten o'clock.

Reflexive French verbs indicate that the subject of the sentence performs an action on itself. These verbs are accompanied by reflexive pronouns that agree with the subject. Some examples include "se laver" (to wash oneself), "se lever" (to get up), and "se sentir" (to feel). An example in a sentence is:

  • Il se prépare pour son entretien d'embauche. — He is getting ready for his job interview.

 Impersonal verbs are used in the third-person singular form and do not refer to a specific subject. They often express natural phenomena, feelings, or general truths. Common impersonal verbs include "il pleut" (it is raining), "il faut" (it is necessary), and "il est important que" (it is important that). An example used in a sentence is:

  • Il faut étudier pour réussir à l'examen. — One must study to pass the exam.

Auxiliary verbs form compound tenses such as the passé composé and the plus-que-parfait. The two main auxiliary verbs in French are "avoir" (to have) and "être" (to be). They are combined with the past participle of the main verb to indicate actions or states that have occurred in the past. An example using "avoir" is as follows:

  • Ils ont mangé au restaurant hier soir. — They ate at the restaurant last night.

6. Learn Proper Verb Conjugation

French verbs can either be regular (following a specific conjugation pattern) or irregular (following more unique conjugations). The regular verbs in French grammar belong to three main groups: -er verbs, -ir verbs, and -re verbs. Aside from a few exceptions to the rule, all French verb conjugation with these endings will be as follows.

For -er verbs like "parler" (to speak):

  • Je parle (I speak)
  • Tu parles (You speak)
  • Il/elle/on parle (He/she/one speaks)
  • Nous parlons (We speak)
  • Vous parlez (You speak)
  • Ils/elles parlent (They speak)

For -ir verbs like "finir" (to finish):

  • Je finis (I finish)
  • Tu finis (You finish)
  • Il/elle/on finit (He/she/one finishes)
  • Nous finissons (We finish)
  • Vous finissez (You finish)
  • Ils/elles finissent (They finish)

For -re verbs like "vendre" (to sell):

  • Je vends (I sell)
  • Tu vends (You sell)
  • Il/elle/on vend (He/she/one sells)
  • Nous vendons (We sell)
  • Vous vendez (You sell)
  • Ils/elles vendent (They sell)

7. Memorize Common Irregular Verbs in French

Irregular verbs in French grammar don't really follow any specific rules, so you'll need to memorize them. Some of the most common ones include:

French verb conjugation for "être" (to be):

  • Je suis (I am)
  • Tu es (You are)
  • Il/elle/on est (He/she/one is)
  • Nous sommes (We are)
  • Vous êtes (You are)
  • Ils/elles sont (They are)

French verb conjugation for "avoir" (to have): 

  • J'ai (I have)
  • Tu as (You have)
  • Il/elle/on a (He/she/one has)
  • Nous avons (We have)
  • Vous avez (You have)
  • Ils/elles ont (They have)

French verb conjugation for "aller" (to go): 

  • Je vais (I go)
  • Tu vas (You go)
  • Il/elle/on va (He/she/one goes)
  • Nous allons (We go)
  • Vous allez (You go)
  • Ils/elles vont (They go)

French verb conjugation for "faire" (to do/make):

  • Je fais (I do/make)
  • Tu fais (You do/make)
  • Il/elle/on fait (He/she/one does/makes)
  • Nous faisons (We do/make)
  • Vous faites (You do/make)
  • Ils/elles font (They do/make)

8. Familiarize Yourself with the Different Tenses

There are a ton of different tenses that can be used in French, but let's start with the three most common in basic French grammar: present tense, past tense, and future tense. 

The present tense describes actions that are currently happening, habitual actions, general truths, or future actions scheduled to occur. It's the most commonly used tense in French. For example:

  • Je mange une pomme. — I am eating an apple.
  • Il écoute de la musique. — He listens to music.
  • Elle regarde la télévision. — She watches television.
  • Nous étudions à l'université. — We study at the university.
  • Vous travaillez dans un bureau. — You work in an office.
  • Ils mangent au restaurant. — They eat at the restaurant.

The past tense describes actions that have already happened. The passé composé is essentially the same as the simple past tense in English. It's used to describe completed actions in the past. See how the examples above change in this tense:

  • J'ai mangé une pomme. — I ate an apple.
  • Il a écouté de la musique. — He listened to music.
  • Elle a regardé la télévision. — She watched television.
  • Nous avons étudié à l'université. — We studied at the university.
  • Vous avez travaillé dans un bureau. — You worked in an office.
  • Ils ont mangé au restaurant. — They ate at the restaurant.

The future tense describes actions that will occur in the future. It is formed by adding specific endings to the infinitive of the verb. See how the sentences and verb conjugation change in the future tense for the examples above: 

  • Je mangerai une pomme demain. — I will eat an apple tomorrow.
  • Il écoutera de la musique. — He will listen to music.
  • Elle regardera la télévision. — She will watch television.
  • Nous étudierons à l'université. — We will study at the university.
  • Vous travaillerez dans un bureau. — You will work in an office.
  • Ils mangeront au restaurant. — They will eat at the restaurant.

Tips to Help You Practice French Grammar Rules

One of the best ways to learn grammar in any language is to practice speaking it! French phrases can be easily read in your head, but trying to put together sentences with correct pronunciation is a whole different story. Luckily, with Tandem, you don’t have to be in France to start communicating. 

Tandem is a personalized language learning experience that allows you to match with native French speakers and continue perfecting your use of basic French grammar in real-life situations, regardless of where you are. Engaging in relevant conversation helps you build your vocabulary, practice French grammar, and more. Tandem works to help our members foster a deeper understanding of language while improving fluency and building long-lasting friendships. All you need to do is sign up, match with a native speaker of your target language, and start communicating. So, what are you waiting for? Sign up for Tandem and start perfecting your French today.

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