Fundamental French Grammar

Rachel Hanson
Keys to Grammar

While a complete fundamental French grammar can fill several volumes, a short list of foolproof French grammar tips can get you acquainted with the basics of grammar in no time at all.

Fundamental French Grammar

French is different from English in many ways, but it also holds come similarities to English.

  • Subject: In French, as in English, one must specify the subject of a sentence (say 'I' in English or 'je' in French), whereas in languages like Spanish, expressing the subject is optional.
  • Word Order: French is also similar to English in word order: the basic word order is subject-verb-object.

Similarities make mastering French easier; however, there are plenty of grammatical aspects that you will have to learn along the way.

Tenses

The most common tenses in French are the present, the imperfect, passé composé, the future, and the conditional.

Present Tense (Simple Present)

In the present tense, verbs that would commonly be put into the 'ing' form in English are expressed in 'simple present' in French. In English, saying 'I go' signifies a habitual action, one wouldn't use it to express going somewhere at this moment. In French, the equivalent of 'I go', 'je vais', is used for precisely this meaning. You could say 'je vais au supermarche' and mean that you are leaving to go there right now.

Imperfect

In the past, the imperfect is used to express descriptions or habitual actions in the past, whereas the passé composé is used to express events in the past. For example, you might hear: 'Il pleuvait lorsque je suis parti', meaning 'It was raining when I left'. In French, the first verb is in the imperfect and the second one is in the passé composé.

Future and Conditional

The future and conditional are used to express things that will or could happen: j'irai (future) expresses something that you will do, whereas the conditional j'irais expresses something you will do if a certain situation or condition applied.

French Word Order

French word order is quite similar to English except for the order of adjectives and nouns. In order to put together easy sentences, you can simply follow the basic subject-verb-object word order. For example, if you want to say 'I'm eating an apple', you would say 'je mange une pomme'.

Adjectives are more difficult in French because the general rule for adjectives is that they come after a noun instead of before it: une maison blanche. However, there are certain adjectives that come before the noun -- specifically, those pertaining to size, age, and looks: une jeune femme, un petit cadeau.

Verbs

French verbs can be quite difficult for native English speakers because there are many more forms than in English. French verb conjugation takes a long time to master, so keep plenty of French verb tables handy so that you can look up the forms.

There are three regular verb endings: 'ER', 'IR' and 'RE'. Even once you've memorized the endings for each form, you have to also know what the root of each verb is, as well as memorizing the irregular verb forms. Start with these basic endings, and keep the charts handy for the irregular verbs:

ER: REGARDER

  • je regarde
  • tu regardes
  • il/elle/on regarde
  • nous regardons
  • vous regardez
  • ils/elles regardent

IR: FINIR

  • je finis
  • tu finis
  • il/elle/on finit
  • nous finissons
  • vous finissez
  • ils/elles finissent

RE: VENDRE

  • je vends
  • tu vends
  • il/elle/on vend
  • nous vendons
  • vous vendez
  • ils/elles vendent

Gender

In French, gender is a very important aspect of grammar. Every noun has a gender, either masculine or feminine. While people are easy to remember because they have a gender themselves, remembering the gender of inanimate objects can be very difficult for students learning French. Gender is something that simply has to be learned, one has to memorize that a table is feminine: 'la' or 'une' table, and a restaurant is masculine: 'le' or 'un' restaurant. While there are some general patterns in gender assignment, in most cases you simply have to remember which nouns are masculine and which ones are feminine.

Agreement

Agreement stems from gender. An adjective must agree in gender (and number) with the noun it modifies. So if you are talking about three brown tables, you would have to make the adjective agree with both plural and feminine nouns: trois tables brunes.

Just like in English, subjects of sentences also have to agree with their verb, and in special instances the verb has to agree with an object. Agreement is one of the finer points of French grammar, so if you're just starting out with French, this will be a feature of the language to save for a bit later.


As you acquire more and more elaborate fundamental French grammar, this element, alongside all the others above, will begin to fall into place.

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Fundamental French Grammar