Learning the basics of French/Simple grammar rules
French has some simple grammatical rules that one must learn if one is to be successful in the language. If you already know where you want to be, use the Table of Contents below. Otherwise, please review the lesson in the order in which it is presented.
Firstly, we will establish an example vocabulary to use.
(Please ignore any translations or notes in parentheses that you do not understand.
They will be explained later)
livre (book - m)
trousse (pencil case - f)
fille (girl - f)
If you have read the Learning the Basics of French / Au restaurant lesson, you will be familiar with the following two verbs.
manger (to eat)
jouer (to play)
This course also introduces a new verb:
utiliser (to use)
Articles: (see below)
des (indefinite-v + p)
The article, for readers who do not know, is something that is 'given' to a noun to give a basic description of what it is. In English we have two articles: the, and a (or an if succeeded by a vowel sound). The is the definite article, so called because when we use it we are referring to a specific noun. A is indefinite - when we use it, we are reffering to any one of that noun, whether in the whole world or in a particular group. For instance -
"I have the book". (In this sentence the definite article is used and so we know that it is a particular book)
"I have a book". (Here the exact relevance of the book is not known; it could be any book)
In French article is very different to English - it depends on two things: Gender and Number. Gender is whether a noun is masculine or feminine (for more information on this, see "Gender" below). Number is whether it is singular or plural - in other words whether there is one or many.
Here are the three definite articles in French -
le - this is masculine and singular.
la - this is feminine and singular.
les - this is the plural definite article. In plural gender is ignored, so there is only one form.
(A fourth form is also used: l'. It is the vowel-dependent form. This is for when the next letter in the sentence is a vowel, to allow the sentence to be said smoothly. Again, ignore gender when using this, because though all words have gender you cannot see it as the article has been removed of its -e or -a that one uses to determine gender).
And here are the three indefinite articles -
un - this is masculine and singular.
une - this is feminine and singular.
des - this word is in fact a contraction of "de les", or "of the(pl)". However it is often used in the context of some or when talking about an indefinite amount of something and is therefore treated as an article. On top of this des is again the vowel-dependent form.
- J'ai le livre et la trousse.
- I have the book and the pencil case.
- J'ai les livres et les trousses.
- I have the books and the pencil cases.
- J'ai un livre et une trousse.
- I have a book and a pencil case.
- J'ai des livres et des trousses.
- I have books and pencil cases (or, I have some books and some pencil cases).
- J'ai l'arbre.
- I have the tree.
Note: The tags after words (m,f,p and v) correspond to masculine, feminine, plural and vowel-dependent as one might asssume.
Like all Romance languages French is a language with gender. This means that the nouns are treated either as male or female - a potentially difficult idea to comprehend for an English speaker, as English lost its gender system several hundreds of years ago. As discussed above understanding gender and number are vital to using the correct article with nouns. The correct term for male words is masculine and female words are feminine.
A point of difficulty for many English speakers is the fact that it is nearly impossible to guess the gender of the word from the social connotations of the word. Words that might be seen as strongly male in their nature are by no means neccessarily masculine and vice versa.
It is, however, often possible to guess the gender from the ending of the word itself (the suffix). Words ending with -ette, -enne, -euse and -eure are nearly always feminine.
Read the following definite nouns. Think whether they have been properly articulated (given the right article).
- le bateau- (masculine)
le vélo- (masculine)
- les animaux- (plural)
Now do the same with these indefinite ones.
un livre (masculine)
- des arbre (vowel-dependent, masculine)
- une trousse (feminine)
Ensure you are comfortable with the following points before moving on.
1. Gender is whether a word is masculine or feminine.
2. Number is whether a word is singular or plural.
3. The article is the thing that is given to a noun to better describe it, and can be definite (the) or indefinite (a/an).
4. There are four definite articles - le,la,les and l' - and they are masculine, feminine, plural and vowel-dependent respectively.
5. There are three indefinite articles - un,une, and des - which are masculine, feminine and plural/vowel-dependent respectively.
6. Whenever the succeeding letter is a vowel, we must use the vowel-dependent form which generally contracts vowels off the article. This is so that the sentence reads smoothly.
Also make sure that you understand all the vocabulary in the "Example Vocabulary" section above.
Note that words ending in -eau in the singular always pluralise into -eaux.
1. Write "I have a bicycle".
2. Write "the book".
3. Write "some boats".
4. Write "the tree"
5. Write "a girl".
6. Write "the pencil case".
7. Write "the animals".
Check your answers below:
1. J'ai un vélo
2. le livre
3. des bateaux
5. une fille
6. la trousse
7. les animaux
Liaison is the collective name given to two actions: slurring and contraction.
In French the constants at the end of words are usually silent, for example:
- Les filles utilisent le livre.
- The girls use the book.
Here the "s" in les is silent. This is how it is usually pronounced.
It is a very typical characteristic of Romance languages to be as flowing and readable as possible, and in French slurring is used wherever there is a silent constant and a vowel next to each other in the sentence, for example:
- Les yeux sont verts.
- The eyes are green.
(Note that here it is the "s" of les and the "y" of yeux that are clashing).
Try saying "leh YEUH soñ VAIRH". Does it flow? You will find it doesn't.
When it is a vowel and a constanant that are clashing, slurring is used to stop the clash and regain the flow of the sentence. The constanant is made no longer silent, so the above sentence is pronounced "lez YEUH soñ VAIRH" and not "leh YEUH soñ VAIRH", with the first two words flowing into each other with a "slur", hence the name.
Slurring (unlike contraction) is solely found in French.
Contraction is used when it is two vowels that are clashing. It simply involves removing the first vowel in the clash, for example:
- Le arbre est vert.
- The tree is green.
Again, try saying this to yourself.
Here we contract the article because of the succeeding vowel, as shown in the "Article" section, to produce the vowel-dependent article:
- L'arbre est vert.
Usually contraction due to vowel clashing only occurs between the article and the noun.
Adjectives describe a noun. Examples of adjectives include colours (eg. white) and other physical descriptors (eg. tall), states of being and feelings (eg. happy) among many others.
Adjectives in French are inverted, i.e. the noun always comes before the adjective. This can be another trouble spot for learners as in English we have the noun after the adjective ("the orange boat" - orange is the adjective, boat is the noun).
There are a few exceptions to this rule, however. They are:
- Petit small
- Grand big
- Gros fat
- Jeune young
- Bon good
- Douce gentle
- Beau/Belle beautiful (m/f respectively)
- Excellent/excellente excellent (m/f respectively)
Altering an adjective due to a particular factor (such as gender or number) is called declension. In French, adjectives are altered around both gender and number. Let's take the adjective green or vert. It changes in the feminine:
- C'est un vélo vert.
- It's a green bicycle.
- C'est une trousse verte.
- Its a green pencil case.
When it comes to pluralising adjectives things are more complex than with the article - there is only one, neuter plural article in each definition, but adjectives have two different plural forms, masculine plural and feminine plural:
- J'ai deux vélos verts.
- I have two green bicycles.
- J'ai deux trousses vertes.
- I have two green pencil cases.
How an adjective changes depends, as you may have guessed, upon the noun in question.
As with nouns, you will have to learn the varying inflections (regulated differences) that are used to distinguish between masculine, feminine, masculine plural and feminine plural. However, in the majority of cases it is safe to say that adjectives ending in -CONSTANANTe will probably be feminine, and adjectives ending in -s will always be plural. Note that some adjectives won't change at all.
The following is an example of a declension table - for vert,rouge and blanc (green, red and white respectively).
Ensure you are comfortable with the following points before moving on.
1. Sentences with a silent constanant and a vowel which clash together need to be slurred to allow the sentence to flow.
2. Sentences with two vowels which clash together need to be contracted to allow the sentence to flow.
3. Adjectives describe a noun.
4. All adjectives go after the noun except the following: petit, grand, gros, jeune, bon, douce, beau and excellent.
5. Adjectives need to be inflected differently according to the noun they are describing: they can be masculine (eg. vert), feminine (eg. verte), masculine plural (eg.verts) or feminine plural (eg. vertes).
You may have to guess some of the inflections - remember the characteristics of each declension.
1. Write "the green tree".
2. Write "the big girl".
3. Write "a small tree".
4. Write "a small white book".
5. Write "a very young girl" (Vocabulary provision: très = very).
6. Write "it is very fat and red".
7. Write "I have a white bicycle".
Check your answers below:
1. L'arbre vert.
2. La grande fille.
3. Un petit arbre.
4. Un petit livre blanc.
5. Une très jeune fille.
6. C'est très gros et rouge.
7. J'ai un vélo blanc.