Writing French sentences correctly can be a daunting task for the beginning learner. However, learning the four types of sentences in French will have you well on your way to making your own sentences.
French Sentences' Word Order
Word order is a basic grammatical element; in French, it is generally the case that a sentence's order is subject, verb, object (just like in English). That means that for the most basic of sentences, you can follow English grammar rules. For example, in order to say 'I am eating an apple', you'd have to translate 'I' (je), 'eat' (manger), and apple (pomme). However, this produces a bit of Tarzan-language: 'je manger pomme', when it should be 'je mange une pomme', because in French, just like in English, one must qualify a noun with an article (the or a/an), and the verb must be conjugated. While the basic word order may be the same as English, it'll take a few months of lessons before your French sentences start sounding French-like.
Another important aspect of word order in French sentences is that adjectives often come after the noun that they modify, instead of preceding it as it does in English. This is made particularly tricky by the fact that there is a small (but very common) group of French adjectives that come before the noun, making learning where to put the adjective a difficult task.
One last aspect of word order in French sentences is that French speakers, especially when speaking in informal situations, use alternative word orders that put different information at the beginning of the sentence than would normally go there. A few examples:
- Sont où, les toilettes? (Où sont les toilettes?)
- Sont jolies, tes photos! (Tes photos sont jolies).
- C'est grave, cet accident (Cet accident est grave).
This technique is used to pull attention to the most important information in a sentence, and it is not recommended to try to work with this type of sentence structure until you have mastered the grammatical style of French sentences. For beginners, it is easiest to stick to the canonical French grammar for sentences, which means subject, verb, object (except in the case of imperatives, where the verb comes first, or in the case of a question, in which the subject and object are inverted, or a question word precedes the verb).
French Sentence Types
Unlike simple statements, imperative phrases (commands) and questions have a different word order. Normal sentences are called 'indicative' sentences, because they simply indicate a state of affairs. The other three types are imperative, interrogative, and exclamations.
Indicative sentences indicate what is happening, what happened, or what is going to happen. Information is transmitted from one speaker to another:
Je m'appelle Anne (My name is Anne).
J'ai 20 ans (I'm 20 years old).
J'habite en France (I live in France).
All of these sentences simply transmit information that the person listening to the speaker is assumed to not have known.
Exclamations follow the same sentence structure as indicative sentences, but have an exclamation mark at the end; any indicative phrase can become an exclamation if the context is right.
Je m'appelle Anne! (My name is Anne!) might be used to remind someone who constantly calls you Sarah that your name is actually Anne.
J'ai 20 ans! (I'm 20!) might be used to correct a speaker who thought you were 16 or 17.
Exclamations often follow the subject, verb, object word order, but sometimes the object (or attribute) moves to the front of the sentence, as mentioned above.
Interrogatives is another way of saying 'questions'. In French, there are three ways to make questions: keep the word order the same, but raise your voice at the end, invert the subject and verb, or add a question word or phrase before the verb:
- Ils sont venus? (Did they come?)
- Sont-ils venus? (Did they come?)
- Est-ce qu'ils sont venus? (Did they come?)
As you can see, the subject, verb, object word order is only used in the first and third type of question formation.
Giving a command is called an 'imperative phrase'. These phrases have a different structure in French as they are the only phrase where the subject is not put into the phrase; you must look at the verb conjugation to figure out who the subject is.
Fais tes devoirs (Do your homework).
N'oubliez pas vos affaires (Don't forget your luggage/baggage).
Because imperatives can be a confusing type of sentence to form, it is advisable for beginners to stick to indicative phrases initially, and move on to interrogatives soon thereafter.
While memorizing a slew of French sentences may seem like too much work for the small number of occasions when you might actually get to use one of them, it is a good idea to memorize a few key sentences. While most sentences have to be formed on the spot, according to the current context, being able to ask where the metro is or wishing someone a nice afternoon are just a few examples of memorized phrases that it's nice to have on the tip of your tongue.
To assemble your own critical list, try some of the phrases listed on these pages: