If you compare using language to operating an automobile, logically, driving the car would equate to conversation, and grammar, the foundation of language, would approximate the engine.
That simile begs the question: do you have to know all about the workings of the engine in order to operate your motor vehicle?
Of course, you don't! You only need to know driving rules and apply them.
However, as a responsible car owner, you should know a little bit about checking fluids, getting the oil changed and never feeding diesel to a gasoline engine.
How does this common sense advice correlate to French grammar as you learn to speak French?
Quite effectively, in fact!
It is true that you do not need to know your car's stroke to bore ratio, but you do need to know that you should not make your engine work too hard.
In grammar terms, now: you don't need to know every single grammar rule, but you do need to know what not to do when speaking French.
In fact, we daresay you will pick up most grammar rules in the course of your language learning, while taking French courses, without any particular emphasis for focus on them.
Therefore, we shine our spotlight on common grammar gaffes that your French teacher will surely instruct on during grammar lessons.
Rules of Gender Agreement
In learning French, probably during your first French lesson, you have most likely heard about grammatical gender: each noun is ascribed to either the masculine or the feminine gender, and it is usually signaled by its article:
La voiture versus le camion, for example.
No doubt you have an entire notebook filled with gender-assigned French vocabulary to memorise, but it might be easier to learn the rules.
As there is no gender assignment in English, you can imagine how stymieing this particular facet of the French language can be for beginners of french lessons online or face-toface.
Please don't panic when we say that, not only must the articles and pronouns accord with the noun's gender, but so too must the verb endings, and any adjectives!
We're not going to get that far into the subject, and certainly not every verb tense. We only want to introduce exceptions to the rule that indicate noun ending changes in the face of gender.
The Rule: for most adjectives ending in -eur or -eux, you must change that ending to -euse if the noun it must agree with is feminine.
Heureux = heureuse; Affreux = affreuse; Peureux = peureuse
The Exception: adjectives that end in -teur.
The T before -eur causes the feminine form to become -rice
Acteur = actrice; conservateur = conservatrice
Oddly enough, the word interpreteur does not have a female form! So, if your job consists of real time translation of dialogue and you are female, this is one profession that accords you a male job title!
Let us now suppose you are describing two objects, one masculine and one feminine, that are both white.
The Rule: gender confusion is to be avoided at all cost.
You would say:
- Une chemise blanche – a white shirt
- Un chandail blanc – a white jumper
What if you wanted to talk about both garments in the same sentence?
The Exception: it is perfectly acceptable to combine opposite gender objects in the same sentence, provided you remember that the masculine gender prevails:
Des chemises et chandails blancs.
Please note that the article has been changed to plural to suit the fact that there is more than one object being described, and the ending of blanc has been treated to an additional S, to reflect the plural.
As noted in the sample sentence above, certain colours have both a masculine and feminine form. Others do not require an extra E at the end so that they will agree with their noun.
The colours that change are: blanc/blanche, noir/noire, vert/verte, bleu/bleue
The colours that do not change are: rouge, jaune, marron, orange
To understand that concept, it might help for you to think of the colour spectrum when trying to figure out if a hue should or shouldn't have a feminine form: those on the red end don't, those on the blue end do!
Final Note on Grammatical Gender
Surely, in your French language course, you've had it hammered home, most likely with a vengeance, that every single noun in the language is assigned to a gender, even uncountable nouns such as soap (masculine) and air (feminine).
The same would hold true were you to study Spanish, or learn Italian!
Concepts are generally free from this burden of designation... generally!
La jalousie – English speakers would never say the jealousy... well, maybe as a slang phrase.
L'amour: yes we can feel the love – again, popular vernacular that is not considered proper English.
La fainéantise – have you ever been stricken by the laziness?
We didn't think so.
The Mute versus Aspired H
The letter H is rather exacting in French expressions, the general rule being that it is silent.
The trouble comes in when using contractions: sometimes H acts like a vowel and is so treated, and sometimes not.
Consider these French nouns that all start with what is called the mute H:
- homme – l'homme – les hommes
- hôtel – l'hôtel – les hôtels
- hiver – l'hiver – les hivers
- humeur – l'humeur – les humeurs
- huile – l'huile – les huiles
- hygiène – l'hygiène
Not only does the definite article contract as though the H were not present at all, but they connect as though the H were a vowel: lay zhum (les hommes), for example.
Now, let us look at a word or two that start with H, in which that letter is treated as a consonant:
le hamburger – I just had to throw that one in there!
The article for each of these words is treated as separate; no liaison possible because the words in question start with a consonant.
Keep in mind that, in all cases, the H is not spoken in proper French pronunciation! This distinction is made solely in spoken French for the purposes of contracting articles and linking with their object pronouns.
You can view an entire list of H words and their proper distinctions here.
Having a Cow...
When I was younger, not quite so familiar with French speaking, or rules like the mute versus aspired H, I always wondered what a beu was and why it was perpetually angry.
Only later did I learn that my mother, a native speaker of French, was talking about minced beef, using that mute H: boeuf haché came out as beu faché!
Let this anecdote serve as a lesson to you, beginner or intermediate learner of French: learn to distinguish French speech patterns, so that you can tell a noun and its adjective apart!
The OE Vowel Combination
You'll note in the above sentence that the French word meaning beef has an extra, unspoken vowel: the O.
That was not a typo, I assure you!
As you study French, you will discover 7 common words in the francophone language that are spelled with this linguistic ligature, as such things are called.
However, when those French words are pronounced, they sound just like words written without those bound vowels!
The vowel sound in words such as heure and peur are equivalent to the one in soeur and coeur.
It is tempting to think of any word with the oe vowel combination as one that would make the eu sound, but in the case of moelleux, that rule does not apply.
Moelleux is an exception to the next rule:
For other vocab containing oe, such as poêle and poésie, you'll note the accent placed on the E, which indicates it is a syllable onto itself.
Fortunately, we Brits are somewhat attuned to the oe combination because some of our words still have it. Feel sorry for the American students of French, whose use of such ligature is completely alien!
To Learn French Grammar
Unlike in English where, for every rule there is at least one exception, French grammar is fairly straightforward.
To be sure, French has its irregular verbs – être and avoir being two important ones, but the list of irregular verbs in French is substantially shorter than the one in English.
Verb conjugation, on the other hand, tends to be a bit more intricate because of its expanded list of pronouns that includes male and female, and a formal you.
Furthermore, the verbs in French, are subject to nearly double the number of tenses that English verbs are, although some would argue that the French verbs have more moods, rather than more tenses.
Subjunctive, interrogative, indicative and imperative are all considered finites in French. Conditional is sometimes considered finite, as well.
The three non-finites are infinitive, past participle and present participle, in case you were wondering.
While studying your French course, and even if you learn French online, you will surely not encounter too many grammar rule exceptions.
That is because there aren't that many!
Our recommendation of the best way to learn French would be:
Learn expressions, words and phrases without too much focus on what you shouldn't do or say when you speak French.
2. Make ample use of your dictionary; not just for translations, but because it will indicate the all-important gender transitions for any pronoun or article you might use.
3. Build your language skills and listening comprehension; use new language any time you can.
4. Listen to French audio and talk with native French speakers every chance you get.
5. Practice French phrases as you commute or shop; in fact you should use your second language as much as possible as you go through your day!
Immersion into French culture wouldn't hurt, either. Are there any French language and culture outlets near you, where you could drop in and say bonjour?