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.
How are sentences put together in French? Does one use the dative, nominative, accusative and interrogative cases the same way as in English?
Setting aside that pesky grammatical gender agreement required to speak French properly, where and how do adjectives and adverbial phrases fit in a properly constructed sentence?
As an overview of these topics, Superprof presents this chart, one that you might consider printing and clipping and carrying with you to your French lessons or your French tutoring sessions.
|Type of Sentence||Form||Sample||Translation|
|Simple Declarative||S+V+O||Maitresse aime ses éleves.||Teacher loves her students.|
|Negation||S+'ne'+V+'pas'+O||Je ne veux pas aller au cinéma.||I don't want to go to the cinema.|
|Interrogative sentences||1. Preface sentence with 'est-ce-que'|
2. Reverse: V+S+O (formal)
|Est-ce-que tu as fait tes devoirs?|
Pourrez-vous me dire ou est la bibliothèque?
|Have you done your homework?|
Could you tell me where the library is?
|Imperative sentence||V+O||Ouvre(z) la porte!||Open the door!|
|Simple declarative with adjective||S+V+Adj|
(adj must 'agree' with subject!)
|La fille est belle.|
Le chien est beau.
|The girl is pretty. |
The dog is pretty.
|Adverbial pronoun||S+'y'+V||On y va!||Let's go!|
|Relative clauses||'que' for objects|
'qui' for people
|Le livre que tu m'as donné...|
L'homme qui chante...
|The book you gave me...|
The man who is singing...
Now, let's examine each of these constructions in depth...
The Simple Declarative Sentence
Were it not for lessons in grammar, would anyone be aware they were making declarative sentences or using the accusative case?
We learn our native language by hearing it spoken and imitating what we hear. At no time during that stage of learning does a grammar lesson take place, although a caregiver might correct an improper verb, pronoun or sentence construction.
A toddler might exclaim "Her take my toy!", unaware that s/he is conveying meaning in a grammatically incorrect fashion.
Perhaps, before settling the squabble, the doting caregiver would correct: "She took my toy" and have the child repeat the corrected sentence.
By the time a child goes to school - when all of those onerous lessons in grammar start, such rules will have already been internalised. That is to say: most school-aged children know how to speak their native language using proper grammar but have no idea of the significance and importance of grammar.
Nor could they, if put on the spot, describe a grammatical construction.
Maybe that is why students in general are so bewildered by their grammar lessons: they already know all that stuff; why put it under a microscope and dissect it all?
Native speakers of French experience the same conundrum: if they are already speaking correctly, why do they have to analyse their speech?
Grammar rules are the blueprints upon which language is built; its role obvious only upon learning a second language.
Going back to the earlier analogy, that words are a language's building blocks, we can put grammar in that context by assigning it the role of mortar holding the blocks together.
Just as mortar may combine different ingredients, so, from one language to the next, grammar may involve different constructions to make sentences.
The most common type of sentence in English and in French is the declarative sentence; a simple expression stating a fact:
- Il fait beau. It (the weather) is nice.
- Catherine est une adolescente. Catherine is a teenager.
- J'ai faim! I am hungry!
- Ma mère est danseuse. My mother is a dancer.
- Il écoute la musique. He listens to music.
As in English, the declarative form in French is the core around which more complicated sentences can be built.
Basic French sentences with nouns
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 verb, and then the direct object (what is he/she doing?). The sentences above are all examples of the SVO construct.
We now expand on that basic sentence structure by adding an 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.
- Suzanne apporte les pommes à la cuisine. Suzanne brings the apples to the kitchen.
- Lucie retourne les livres à la bibliotheque. Lucy returns the books to the library.
- Remi mange son dîner à table. Remi eats dinner at the table.
In each of these examples, the subject is doing something with the direct object for, to or with the indirect object.
Until now, we've only shown sample sentences using action verbs: somebody or something doing something. What about sentences that use a compound verb?
In French as in English, compound verbs consist of an auxiliary verb and a participle verb form, either in past or present tense.
In English these 'helper' verbs are to be, to have and to do. In French, only the first two, être and avoir, are used in compound structures with being être used less frequently.
Nevertheless, the structure remains the same: the verb that indicates what is happening stays in second place:
- Le roi avait pardonné le mousquetaire. The king had pardoned the musketeer.
- J'ai fini la vaisselle. I have finished the dishes.
- Les parents ont gaté ces enfants! The parents have spoiled these children!
- Le maitre avait donné des devoirs. The teacher had given homework.
- Mon copain est arrivé hier soir. My mate arrived yesterday evening.
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.
- Ma soeur montre à ma mére les dessins que j'avais peint. My sister shows my mother the drawings I painted.
- Mon collegue dit à nôtre patron que je suis fainéante! My colleague tells our boss that I am lazy!
- Benoit lit à sa copine des pôemes qu'il trouve romantique. Benoit reads to his girlfriend poems he finds romantic.
- Gabriel donne à sa soeur les bonbons qu'il avait promi. Gabriel gave to his sister the sweets he had promised.
Naturally, you could structure the sentence in such a way that the direct object comes before the indirect:
Gabriel a donné les bonbons qu'il avait promi a sa soeur. Gabriel gave the sweets he had promised to his sister.
However, that makes the sentence meaning ambiguous: He promised the candies to his sister, but who exactly did he give them to?
French being an exceedingly precise language, it is always best to follow the proper sentence structure in order to convey your intended meaning.
It might take a bit of practice, but your language skills will be all the richer for it!
Word order with pronouns
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. She shows her drawing to her mum.
Sometimes, in French, it is much more convenient to describe an object in a sentence by using a pronoun.
Consider the sentence above: She shows her drawing to her mum. How can that sentence be made less cumbersome?
Elle lui montre son dessin. - 'lui' takes the place of 'maman' even though, generally, 'lui' represents a male.
Elle le montre à sa maman. - 'le' takes the place of the picture. In this sentence, the gender matches; dessin is masculine.
Elle le lui montre. - here, you have a combination of the two representations above, with 'le' meaning 'dessin' and 'lui' in for 'maman'.
Let us now suppose you are that dear mum, telling a jealous mother about how your daughter creates artwork for you. You would say:
Son dessin? Elle me le montre! Her drawing? She shows it to me!
Because of its first person singular designation, “me” ranks higher than “le” - a mere article. Therefore, you would place 'me' before 'le' in such sentences.
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 nous les montre. She shows them to us. Note that 'montre' agrees with 'elle' - third person singular.
You might also phrase it as a question:
Elle vous les montre? Does she show them to you? Either way, the order listed above remains.
'En' is an indefinite plural pronoun that, in this sentence's case, represents the drawings. 'en' is always placed just before the verb:
Elle montre des dessins à sa maman. -> Elle lui en montre. She shows some drawings to her mum. > She shows her them.
Learn more about French grammar rules.
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 does not show her drawing to her mum.
- Marie ne le montre pas à sa maman. Marie doesn't show it to her mum.
- Marie ne lui montre pas son dessin. Marie doesn't show her her drawing.
- Marie ne le lui montre pas. Marie doesn't show her it.
Negation is pretty straightforward in French, however you should be aware of using 'any' properly.
The equivalent of the English “no” or “not…any” is “ne…aucun”:
Marie ne montre aucun dessin à sa mère. Marie doesn’t show any drawing to her mother.
Or: Marie shows no drawings to her mother.
Adding Adjectives, Adverbial Phrases
Adverbs and adverbial phrases
The adverbial phrase or complément circonstanciel 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.
Such phrases may denote a time:
- Marie lui montrera son dessin demain. Marie will show him/her her drawing tomorrow.
- Demain, Marie lui montrera son dessin. Tomorrow, Marie will show him/her her drawing.
- Marie lui montrera demain son dessin. Marie will show him/her tomorrow her drawing
Or a place:
- Marie lui montrera son dessin à l’école. Marie will show her drawing at school.
- À l’école, Marie lui montrera son dessin. At school, Marie will show her drawing.
However, if you are using a complément circonstanciel construction to denote a place where an activity has happened, you cannot put that location in the middle of the sentence:
Marie lui montrera à l’école son dessin. Marie will show him/her at school her drawing.
You'll note that, as we do not know who the 'lui' in question is, it might represent a male or a female - hence both pronouns.
The adverbial pronoun “y” (directional) comes after most other pronouns but before the plural pronoun “en”. It is generally used to denote a progressive action, or one that is about to take place. However, 'y' can only be used if the listener knows what the speaker is talking about:
Marie va à l’école. Marie goes to school. If the listener knows where Marie is headed, the speaker could say: Marie y va - Marie is going.
Nous irons au bois. We go to the forest. Contrast that with the much simpler: Nous y allons. We're going - the usage is contingent on it being known where we are going!
Caution! You should never say:
Marie y va à l'école or Nous y allons au bois - it suggests the listener both knows and doesn't know the destination.
Find French lessons that may interest you here.
Adjectives and their placement in the sentence.
Unlike in English, Adjectives are generally placed right after the noun:
Whereas an English speaker would say: 'the red balloon', in French, the proper order is: 'le ballon rouge'. Here are some more examples:
- The hungry lion = le lion affamé.
- The sleepy child = l'enfant somnolent(e).
- The playful cat = le chat (la chatte) ludique.
- A good book = un bon livre.
Do you know of the BAGS group? It denotes constructions wherein the adjective comes before the noun:
- Beauty: Un joli ballon. A pretty balloon. More: Une jolie femme (a pretty woman), une belle chanson (a pretty song)
- Age: Un vieux ballon. An old balloon. More: Un viel homme (an old man), une vieille bicyclette (an old bicycle)
- Goodness: Un méchant ballon. A mean balloon. More: un bon vin (a good wine), une bonne amie (a good friend).
- Size: Un grand ballon. A big balloon. More: Un petit ballon (a small balloon), une petite fille (a small girl).
Adjectives used with verbs expressing a state come after the verb:
- Le ballon est vert. The balloon is green.
- Le ballon semble petit. The balloon seems small.
- Le ballon deviendra grand. The balloon will become big.
Note that adjectives should always agree with the noun they are qualifying in gender and number.
- La chatte deviendra grande. The (female) cat will become big.
- La fille semble petite. The girl seems small.
- La voiture est verte. The car is green.
Dependent and relative clauses
Most dependent 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.
These clauses 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.
The French Interrogative Sentence
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?
It is considered inelegant to preface your questions in this manner. During your French lessons, your teacher might insist you use reversal instead.
Reversing subject and predicate
The more elegant phrasing 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 not the person you are addressing, it stays at the beginning of the sentence, and an additional subject “il” is added:
L’éléphant est-il le plus grand mammifère terrestre? Is the elephant the largest land mammal?
Ce siège est-il pris? Is this seat taken?
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).
Here is a list of French words for asking questions:
- Qui: who. Qui es-tu? Who are you?
- Que: what. Que fais-tu? What are you doing?
- Quoi: in rare cases, replaces “que”: Quoi faire?
- Où: where. Où vas-tu? Where are you going?
- Comment: how. Comment vas-tu? How are you?
- Pourquoi: why. Pourquoi manges-tu ces frites? Why are you eating those chips?
- Combien: how much. Combien coûte cette baguette? How much does this baguette cost?
- Quel/quelle/quels/quelles: which. Should agree with the noun it is qualifying: Quels cinémas jouent-ils le nouveau Star Wars? (Which cinema is showing the new Star Wars?) “Quel” can be combined with adverbial prepositions: Dans quel château Edmond Dantès était-il emprisonné? (In what castle was Edmond Dantès imprisoned?) Après quelle date peut-on manger des huîtres? (After what date can you eat oysters?)
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. They are asking themselves which cinemas are showing the new Star Wars film.
Elle demande comment il va. She asks how he's doing.
My Superprof tutor taught me the correct word order during our French lessons online!
The French Conditional Sentence
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, so 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 love you; and if I love you: take care! (from the opera “Carmen”, by Bizet)
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.
Confessions of a Language Learner: Learning with a Tutor
Let us again reflect on how we learned our native tongue: by speaking it. That being the case, wouldn't it make sense that language classes would focus on spoken language rather than language mechanics?
All while acknowledging that grammar is indeed essential to language, must we inevitably conclude that lessons in grammar are a vital component of language lessons?
It seems to be a universal practice that language classes will devote a substantial portion of their time to teaching grammar, placing less emphasis on speaking and listening skills.
I can say that with some veracity. Having been a language learner for all of my life - aren't we all? - and currently embroiled in picking up a new tongue, I feel frustration at grammatical exercises in the classroom that do seemingly little to improve my speaking ability.
I could rail about it, complain to my teacher or school leader... or I could do something about it.
Grateful as I am of my teacher's efforts at imparting declensions, cases and other grammatical particulars - and having no desire to detract her, I have engaged a tutor for the express purpose of practicing my speaking skills.
This gives me the best of both worlds.
I have a teacher, in a formal setting, imparting all of the nuts and bolts that makes this language I'm learning so very challenging.
I also have a conversation partner who is a native speaker of this language, whose focus is exclusively on my pronunciation and my ability to understand what he says.
Whereas in class, I get very little talking time; with my online tutor, I get to talk as much as I want - indeed, I am encouraged to talk ever more!
If you are reading this, then you too must be a language learner. As such, you might consider the solution I hit upon to acquire the most language capability in the fastest manner possible.
A language tutor will tailor his/her lessons to your needs and abilities, all while driving you to improve steadily. Also, s/he will give you a substantial boost in confidence - something that sometimes gets left out for all of the busy-ness in class.
Why not contact a Superprof French tutor to help you, the way my tutor helps me?