Learning the basics of French/Simple Grammar Rules
When starting to learn a new language, it is important to have a sound grasp of certain elementary grammatical terms. The intention of this page is not to blind students with science, but to give a good grounding of useful linguistic terms, with examples in English, and the target language, French(Francais).
You will find the following terms useful when starting your study of french:
The French Noun
A noun, in its simplest form, is a naming word. There are three nouns in the preceding sentence: "noun", "form", and "word". Nouns can be things we can see (book, chair, desk, Jonathan), or cannot see (misery, humidity, joy). Those nouns we cannot see are called abstract nouns. 'Queen Elizabeth II" is also a noun. Nouns which name people, places, landmarks, geographical entities etc., are called proper nouns, and are usually capitalised in English. L'homme (the man), la femme (the wife/woman) and les voitures (the cars) are all examples of french nouns. It should be noted that, like many languages, the French noun has gender and number. The french noun can be one of two genders, masculine or feminine. It is important for the learner to note that these are purely arbitrary grammatical terms; a feminine french noun does not necessarily have any perceived 'feminine' features. Likewise, a masculine noun does not have to refer to something 'manly'. French, like English, generally pluralizes its nouns via the addition of the letter 's':
- un homme (one man)
- deux hommes (two men)
- une femme (one woman), une personne (a person, of either gender)
- six femmes (six women), six personnes (six people)
The French article
The gender of the French noun can usually be perceived by identifying the indefinite or definite article that precedes it. The definite articles, le, la and les, indicate a specific object, similar to "the". In addition, the articles le and la are contracted when preceding a noun starting with a silent h or vowel. The indefinite articles, un, une and des refer to an object, but none specifically.
A feminine french noun will follow: la (the) or une (a).
- La femme est jolie (The lady is pretty).
A masculine french noun will follow: le (the) or un (a).
- Le chat est mechant (The cat is mischevious).
Plural french nouns will usually follow either: les (the) or des (some).
- Les femmes sont tristes (The ladies are sad).
- Des fermiers m'ont vu (Some farmers saw me).
This is a useful grammatical pointer to indicate number and gender, but the serious student of french should note that effort must be put in to learn the gender of the new nouns that are encountered. As such, nouns should be learned alongside their article whenever possible.
The French Verb
A verb, in simple terms, names an action. In the previous sentence, 'names' is the verb. A verb can be either a physical action (I walk, he runs, she jumps, they play), or emotional/non-visible (he suspects, they are hoping, we are believing).
A verb usually demands a subject. A subject is the individual 'performing' the verb. This must be a noun or pronoun:
The dog walks (subject 'the dog', verb 'walks'). French: le chien marche. Silence speaks volumes (subject 'silence', verb 'speaks'). French: le silence dit beaucoup. Matthew and I argue a lot (subjects 'Matthew' and 'I', verb 'argue'). French: Matthieu et moi nous disputons beaucoup.
A verb sometimes demands an object. It is helpful to think of the grammatical object as the entity being 'verbed'.
I will eat the chocolate (subject 'I', verb 'will eat', object 'the chocolate'). French: je mangerai le chocolat. The queen took tea (subject 'queen', verb 'took', object 'tea'). French: La reine a pris du thé. We don't want to eat meat (subject 'we', verb 'want', object 'meat'). French: nous ne voulons pas manger de la viande.
The issues of transitivity and direct and indirect objects with the verb will be dealt with at a later point.
The french verb is a complex and frightening entity to new students of french. Nevertheless, there are several simple pointers which can be learned to 'smooth the way' to full comprehension.
(a) The majority of verbs in french follow a regular, set pattern.
(b) The majority of verbs in french belong to one of three 'families'. The title of the verb (english equivalent 'to play', 'to hope', 'to desire') is called the infinitive, and in French is just one word. Parler (to speak), finir (to finish), vendre (to sell). -ER, -IR, -RE are the three families, and these are called the first, second, and third declensions.
(c) Learn one regular french verb in the present tense, and you've got them all.
jouER (to play):
- je joue, tu joues, il/elle/on joue, nous jouons, vous jouez, ils/elles jouent.
- Verbs that 'work like this' include parler (to speak), marcher (to walk), aimer (to like, to love) and tens of thousands more.
finIR (to finish):
- je finis, tu finis, il/elle/on finit, nous finissons, vous finissez, ils/elles finissent.
- Verbs that 'work like this' include munir (to provide), salir (to make dirty), and pourrir (to rot).
vendRE (to sell):
- je vends, tu vends, il/elle/on vend, nous vendons, vous vendez, ils/elles vendent.
- Verbs that 'work like this' include rendre (to give back, return). The third declension is by far the least populous in French.
At this basic level it is important to grasp the concept of tense. A verb can be in many combinations of mood and tense, but the three basic tenses for the beginner level French student are:
- THE PRESENT INDICATIVE: I walk, I am walking, I do walk.
- THE PERFECT INDICATIVE: I walked, I did walk, but NOT I was walking.
- THE FUTURE INDICATIVE: I shall walk, I shall be walking.
- In English, we have the possibility of saying both 'I walk' and 'I am walking', and there are different shadings of meaning depending on which form we choose. This is not possible in French, and 'je marche' covers all these shades of meaning. Thus, 'je marche à l'école' means I walk to school (regularly), I am walking to school (right now) and I do walk to school (how dare you suggest otherwise!)
there are three groups for french verbs :
- first group (er)
first group verbs finish their infinitive by : -er (except aller (to go) which is an irregular verb)
example : jouer (to play), manger (to eat),chanter (to sing), danser (to dance).
they all have the same behavior, if we consider that for every french grammar rule there are some exceptions, like appeler or acheter who have some accents or doubling consonants
- second group (ir)
second group verbs finish their infinitive by : -ir , and take a "iss" at the first plural form
example : finir (to finish) -> nous finissons choisir (to choose) -> nous choisissons grandir (to grow up/tall) -> nous grandissons
they also have the same behavior, so when you know one you know them all. take care because some verbs end by -ir but don't belong to the second group (such as partir (to leave) -> nous partons, venir (to come) -> nous venons, and many others)
- third group (the rest)
third group is for all the remaining verbs. you can find some regularities in some verbs (some verbs ending by -dre or -oir), but there are no simple rules. It's basically the irregular verbs group
The French Adjective
An adjective tells us about the condition of a noun. Is the noun large? Happy? Ugly? Worrying? All adjectives.
A fast car (noun: car, adjective: fast). French: une voiture rapide An extremely boring but useful book (noun: book, adjectives: boring, useful). French: un livre très ennuyeux mais utile. Two unhappy, green, and hungry elephants looked for a purple dog (nouns: elephants, dog. adjectives: unhappy, green, purple) French: deux éléphants verts, malheureux et affamés ont cherché un chien pourpre.
Again, learn a basic rule and you will generally be able to apply it to the majority of french adjectives. The french adjective is commanded by gender and number. The endings of the adjective change (decline) to reflect and agree with the number, case (about which more later) and gender of the accompanying noun.
- un homme méchant (a naughty man) masculine singular
- une femme méchante (a naughty woman) feminine singular
- des hommes méchants (some naughty men) masculine plural
- des femmes méchantes (some naughty women) feminine plural
Please note the changes in the spelling of the adjective méchant. These endings can be applied to the majority of French adjectives. There are also hundreds of irregular adjectives, and issues surrounding nuances of meaning and word order, but these are issues better tackled at a more advanced level, and are not pertinent to these basic grammatical guidelines.
Now that you have a basic comprehension of three key parts of speech (the noun, verb, and adjective), you can begin to deconstruct the French sentence.
Identify the three parts of speech from this extract of Mon bel oranger (de Vasconcelos)
Glória avait raison. C'était la plus belle chose du monde. Quel dommage que je ne puisse pas lui raconter que j'avais vu la poésie vivre. Ce n'était pas une fleur mais des petites feuilles qui tombaient des arbres et s'en allaient vers la mer
Gloria was right. It was the most beautiful thing in the world. What a pity I couldn't tell her I'd seen poetry come to life. This was no flower, just small leaves falling from the trees and making their way to sea.
- Nouns: la chose, le monde, le dommage, la poesie, une fleur, des feuilles, des arbres, la mer
- Verbs: avait, etait, puisse, raconter, avais vu, vivre, etait, tombaient, s'en allaient
- Adjectives: belle, petites.
Don't be concerned with unfamiliar verb forms, moods or tenses. The goal here was simply to identify grammatical features.
If you can deconstruct a sentence, can you construct one? Use the vocabulary provided below and attempt a translation into french. Remember to alter your verb and adjective endings to appropriately reflect the grammatical 'status' of the accompanying noun in gender and number.
The boy walks with the dog. The dog is small, and the boy is happy. The sky is blue, and the birds are singing.
- boy = le garçon
- dog = le chien
- to walk = marcher (a regular, -ER type verb)
- with = avec
- is = est
- small = petit (a regular adjective)
- and = et
- happy = heureux (irregular, but but given in mascular, singular form)
- sky = le ciel
- blue = bleu (a regular adjective)
- birds = les oiseaux
- to sing = chanter (a regular, -ER type verb)
- You should have come up with something similar to Le garçon marche avec le chien. Le chien est petit, et le garçon est heureux. Le ciel est bleu, et les oiseaux chantent.
Try repeating the exercise several times. Make the boy sing, make the dog blue, and make the birds happy. Or maybe the happy birds are walking? Perhaps the dog and the birds are walking together? Or maybe there's more than one dog. In doing this, you are beginning to make the french language work for you, and you are ready to move on to more complex topics.