Speaking French is more than just learning vocabulary words from flash cards. Words are just the atoms, the building blocks of a language. They have to be put into context, strung together to form a sentence that is imparted with meaning.
And grammar rules don’t just govern how to decline a verb, or what gender a French word is. They also regulate in what order you are going to put the words in a sentence. Your French classes will teach you a lot about how to conjugate a verb, have your nouns and adjectives agree and what words and phrases will help you find the bathroom. What they might not teach you (but should) is sentence structure.
A declarative sentence is a simple sentence stating a fact:
Il fait beau. It (the weather) is nice.
Catherine est une adolescente. Catherine is a teenager.
This is the core around which more complicated sentences can be built.
When you learn a language, you start with basic sentences with the most common word order.
In French, this is SVO – Subject + Verb + Object. As for most Romance languages – and, indeed, English – the subject (who is doing the action?) generally comes at the beginning of the sentence.
There follows the direct object (what is he/she doing?), then the indirect object (for/to/with whom is he doing it?):
Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Indirect Object
Marie donne le livre à sa maîtresse. Marie gives the book to her teacher.
Jean rend le cartable à son frère. Jean gives his brother his rucksack back.
Compound verbs stay in second place:
Le roi avait pardonné le mousquetaire. The king had pardoned the musketeer.
The only time a direct object might come after an indirect object is if there is additional information attached to it, such as a relative clause:
Jean rend à son frère le cartable qu’il lui avait prêté. Jean gives his brother back the rucksack he had lent him.
But as in many other languages, French words are put into a different order if some or all of them are pronouns.
Let’s take the sentence:
Marie montre son dessin à sa maman. Marie shows her drawing to her mum.
Subject pronouns stay at the beginning of the sentence:
Elle montre son dessin à sa maman.
Object pronouns come BEFORE the verb but AFTER the subject. In what order they come depends on the pronoun:
Subject + Me, te, se, nous, vous + le, la, les + lui, leur + (adverbial pronoun “y”) + en + Verb.
Elle lui montre son dessin.
Elle le montre à sa maman.
Elle le lui montre. BUT: Elle me le montre, because “me” is ranked higher that “le”.
The indefinite plural pronoun “en” always comes just before the verb:
Elle montre ses dessins à sa maman. -> Elle les lui montre.
Elle montre des dessins à sa maman. -> Elle lui en montre.
The French negative words are: ne…pas and ne…point (the latter is archaic or regional).
“Ne” comes immediately after the subject.
“Pas” comes immediately after the verb.
Marie ne montre pas son dessin à sa maman.
Marie ne le montre pas à sa maman.
Marie ne lui montre pas son dessin.
Marie ne le lui montre pas.
French sentence structure in the negative. Photo credit: biphop on Visual hunt
The equivalent to the english “no” or “not…any” is “ne…aucun”:
Marie ne montre aucun dessin à sa mère. Marie doesn’t show her mother any drawing/Marie shows no drawings to her mother.
The adverbial phrase or complément circonstantiel can come at the beginning, the end or the middle of the sentence. They are emphasised if they are put at the beginning or the end; it is more colloquial to only put single-word adverbs in the middle.
Marie lui montrera son dessin demain.
Demain, Marie lui montrera son dessin.
Marie lui montrera demain son dessin.
Marie lui montrera son dessin à l’école.
À l’école, Marie lui montrera son dessin.
However, don’t use: Marie lui montrera à l’école son dessin.
The adverbial pronoun “y” (directional) comes after most other pronouns but before the plural pronoun “en”.
Marie va à l’école. Marie y va.
Nous irons au bois. Nous y allons.
Adjectives are generally placed right after the noun:
Le ballon rouge.
The red balloon.
UNLESS the adjective is one of the BAGS group, denoting:
Adjectives used with verbs expressing a state come after the verb:
Le ballon est rouge.
Le ballon semble petit.
Le ballon deviendra grand.
Note that adjectives should always agree with the noun they are qualifying in gender and number.
Most dependant or relative clauses come right after the main clause, at the end of the sentence.
Relative clauses are introduced by the relative pronoun “que” if the noun is an object and “qui” if the noun is human. They are usually placed at the end of the sentence and come right after the noun they are qualifying – meaning that these nouns are sometimes moved from their usual place in the sentence. An exception is if the qualifying noun is the subject, then the relative clause is moved forward. If it is very long it can be put between commas.
J’aime la chanson que tu chantes. I like the song you are singing.
La chanson que tu chantes est belle. The song you are singing is pretty.
Marie donne à Daniel le livre qu’elle a acheté. Marie gives Daniel the book she bought.
Marie, qui aime la danse, donne le livre à Daniel. Marie – who likes dancing – gives the book to Daniel.
Conjunctive phrases are clauses that are the object of a verb. The verb in question generally deals with thoughts and emotions and the expression of them. They are either infinitive clauses or are introduced with the conjunction “que”.
J’ai décidé de prendre le train. I decided to take the train.
Elle aide William à apprendre le français. She helps William learn French.
Il pense que je t’aime. He thinks I love you.
Tu dis que tu veux mon amitié. You say you want my friendship.
A conjunctive clause comes after verbs like “comprendre” – and several can follow the first, if they like. Photo credit: Vasnic64 on Visualhunt
French has several ways to build an interrogative. Here are some tips to improve your French dialogue:
Putting “est-ce-que” at the beginning of a sentence is the easiest way to formulate a question in French. You can use the usual word order following it.
Est-ce-que vous pouvez m’aider? Can you help me?
Est-ce-que vous savez où se trouvent les toilettes? Do you know where the toilets are?
Est-ce-que l’éléphant est le plus grand mammifère terrestre? Is the elephant the biggest land-bound mammal?
Est-ce-que ce siège est pris? Is this seat taken?
However, it is considered inelegant. During your French lesson, your teacher might insist you use reversal instead.
The more elegant solution is to reverse subject and predicate, putting the verb at the beginning of the sentence and hyphenating the subject-verb group:
Pouvez-vous m’aider? Can you help me?
Savez-vous où se trouve les toilettes? Do you know where the toilets are?
If the subject of the sentence is nbot the person you are adbdressing, it stays at the beginning of the sentence, and an additional subject “il” is added:
L’éléphant est-il le plus grand mammifère terrestre?
Ce siège est-il pris?
For questions that cannot be answered by yes or no, French uses question words. They come at the beginning of the sentence, and are followed by the inverted subject-verb group (also more idiomatically, they can also come at the end of a basic sentence).
Though spoken French accepts “Vous avez l’heure?”, the more correct form would be the inversion: “Avez-vous l’heure?) Photo credit: Jeanne Menjoulet on Visual Hunt
Here is a list of French words for asking questions for you to memorize:
Indirect questions are questions that are related rather than asked. They are introduced by the usual question words:
Ils se demandent quels cinémas montrent le nouveau Star Wars.
Elle demande comment il va.
The language of Voltaire uses the pair of French words “si… alors” to express a condition over two clauses, though in some French phrases, “alors” is left off. It is considered more colloquial.
Si tu veux apprendre la langue, alors il faut bien apprendre ton vocabulaire français.
If you want to learn the language, you will have to learn your French vocabulary.
“Si tu ne m’aimes pas je t’aime, et si je t’aime prends gare à toi!”
If you don’t love me, I will love you; and if I love you: take care! (from the opera “Carmen”, by Bizet)
An imperative phrase,always begins with the verb. Photo credit: biphop on Visual Hunt
Don’t forget to do the grammar exercises in your French grammar textbooks and from your online French course to help you learn all about French sentence structure, learn French expressions and how to conjugate French verbs.