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Topic:French/box-header The Introduction to French course briefly covers the following introductory topics to the French language. If you have prior knowledge of French, you can likely skip this course. However, we do encourage everyone to review the Pronunciation Unit which gives a comprehensive overview of French phonology. Mastering the sounds of the French language early on is the surest way of sounding like a native as you develop your language skills.

  • Studying French
  • Francophone World
  • Alphabet

Topic:French/box-footer

Topic:French/box-header Throughout this article, French words embedded in English text will be italicized and English transliterations will be quoted. Approximate IPA pronunciations will be placed between slashes. The reader is expected to have had a basic introduction to the French alphabet but is not expected to know the rules of liaison or the exact circumstances under which consonants are silent.

ATTENTION French "r" will be broadly transcribed as /r/ in IPA, to account for differences in the pronunciation across France. The Parisian /ʁ/ can be implied.

The French Noun and Definite Article

French nouns have gender, which means they can be either masculine or feminine, and come in two general forms: singular and plural. The plural is most often marked by the addition of an s to the end of the word: homme /ɔm/ "man" -> hommes /ɔm/ "men". However, due to the nature of French pronunciation, the s is almost always not directly pronounced, although it can affect the pronunciation of the word indirectly. However, this introduces much less ambiguity than might be expected because nouns in French are usually accompanied by another word which changes pronunciation in response to the noun's number. The most fundamental of these is the definite article, which usually accompanies a noun that would otherwise be in isolation. It is advised to learn new nouns with the definite article because of the extra information it encodes. The definite article "agrees" with the noun in both gender and number:

X masculine feminine
singular le /lə/ la /la/
plural les /le/ les /le/

'IMPORTANT In both genders the singular form of the article is contracted to l before vowels and very often before silent h: l'homme /lɔm/ "man" and l'automobile /lɔ.tɔ.mɔ.bil/ "car". Notice that the distinction between genders breaks down in the plural, meaning that plural feminine nouns and plural masculine nouns take the same form of the definite article:

Singular Plural English Translation
la maison /la mɛ.zɔ̃/ les maisons /le mɛ.zɔ̃/ house, houses
le bras /lə brɑ/ les bras /le brɑ/ arm, arms
la pomme /la pɔm/ les pommes /le pɔm/ apple, apples
le garçon /lə gar.sɔ̃/ les garçons /le gar.sɔ̃/ boy, boys

In all of the above examples, the pronunciation of the article is the only audible difference between the plural and singular forms. Also note that the singular can sometimes end with an s, as in le bras. Luckily for most of these words it is sufficient to simply memorize the singular form and remember that words already ending in s do not take another in the plural. We will go over other irregular plurals in the next section.

Exercise 1:

For the following singular nouns, determine whether they are masculine or feminine based on the article. Then, write the plural forms along with the article. Assume all plurals are regular. The first one is completed for you. Pronunciations and translations are given for reference, and are not part of the exercise. Answers will be given at the bottom of the page, so don't scroll down to far :)

Ex: le magazine /lə ma.ga.zin/ "magazine" -> masculine; les magazines

1: la chatte /la ʃat/ "female cat"

2: le doigt /lə dwa/ "finger"

3: le pain /lə pɛ̃/ "bread"

4: la vache /la vaʃ/ "cow"

5: la chaussure /la ʃo.syr/ "shoe"

6: la casquette /la kas.kɛt/ "cap"

7: le croissant /lə krwa.sɑ̃/ "crescent"

8. la lune /la lyn/ "moon"

9: le portefeuille /lə pɔr.tə.fœj/ "wallet"

10: le thé /lə te/ "tea"

Answers for Exercise 1:

1: Feminine; les chattes

2: Masculine; les doigts

3: Masculine; les pains (Pain can mean "a piece of bread" as well as just "bread", so pains means something along the lines of "pieces of bread")

4: Feminine; Les vaches

5: Feminine; Les chaussures

6: Feminine; Les casquettes

7: Masculine; Les croissants

8: Feminine; Les lunes

9: Masculine; Les portefeuilles (Although feuille "leaf"/"sheet (of paper)" is feminine, compound nouns are usually masculine. porte + feuille "carries + sheet(s of paper)")

10: Masculine; Les thés

Exercise 2:

For the following nouns, write them with their correct article. The gender is written in parentheses as an aid, "m." standing for masculine and "f." standing for feminine;, however, watch out for plural nouns, which take a different article. The first one is completed for you. As in the last exercise, pronunciations and translations are given for reference, and are not part of the exercise. For this exercise, all nouns are translated in the singular in order to reduce the triviality of the exercise. Answers are at the bottom of the page.

Ex: voisin /vwa.zɛ̃/ (m.) "neighbor" -> le voisin

1: armes /arm/ (f.) "weapon"

2: pied /pje/ (m.) "foot"

3: roi /rwa/ (m.) "king"

4: abeille /a.bɛj/ (f.) "bee"

5: personnes /pɛr.sɔn/ (f.) "person"

6: arbre /arbr/ (m.) "tree"

7: dent /dɑ̃/ (f.) "tooth"

8: nombres /nɔ̃m.br/ (m.) "number"

9: sel /sɛl/ (m.) "salt"

10: femmes /fam/ (f.) "woman"

Answers for Exercise 2:

1: Les armes

2: Le pied

3: Le roi

4: L'abeille

5: Les personnes

6: L'arbre

7: La dent

8: Les nombres (Another word for "number" is numéro /ny.me.ro/ (m.). It was borrowed from Italian)

9: Le sel

10: Les femmes

Irregular Plurals

There are many nouns in French that form plurals unpredictably. While some are truly irregular, there are several rules that slightly-less-than-regular French nouns follow.

Nouns that end in eau, eu, ou, or au generally add -x to form the plural:

le chapeau /lə ʃa.po/ -> les chapeaux /le ʃa.po/ "hat; hats"

le chou /lə ʃu/ -> les choux /le ʃu/ "cabbage; cabbages"

l'eau /lo/ -> les eaux /le.z‿o/ "water; waters"

le cheveu /lə ʃə.vø/ -> les cheveux /le ʃə.vø/ "hair; hairs" (in French the plural is often used where the singular is in English: couper les cheveux "cut one's hair")


Nouns that end in s, x, or z are generally identical in the plural:

le bras /lə brɑ/ -> les bras /le brɑ/ "arm; arms"

le dos /lə do/-> les dos /le do/ "back; backs (body)"

le nez /lə ne/ -> les nez /le ne/ "nose; noses"

la souris /la su.ri/ -> les souris /le su.ri/ "mouse; mice"


Nouns that end in al generally take -aux in the plural, which replaces the former ending of al.

l'animal /la.ni.mal/ -> les animaux /le.z‿a.ni.mo/ "animal; animals"

le journal /lə ʒur.nal/ -> les journaux /le ʒur.no/ "newspaper, journal; newspapers, journals"

le mal /lə mal/ -> les maux /le mo/ "trouble, pain; troubles, pains"

le cheval /lə ʃə.val/ -> les chevaux /le ʃə.vo/ "horse; horses"


Nouns that end in ail sometimes take -aux in the plural and sometimes form the plural regularly.

le travail /lə tra.vaj/ -> les travaux /le tra.vo/ "work, job; jobs"

le détail /lə de.taj/ -> les détails /le de.taj/ "detail; details"

le portail /lə pɔr.taj/ -> les portails /le pɔr.taj/ "portal, gate; portals, gates"


Here are some exceptions to the rules above:

le chacal /lə ʃa.kal/ -> les chacals /le ʃa.kal/ "jackal; jackals"

le festival /lə fɛs.ti.val/ -> les festivals /le fɛs.ti.val/ "festival; festivals"

le sarau /lə sa.ro/ -> les saraus /le sa.ro/ "smock, overall; smocks, overalls"

le clou /lə klu/ -> les clous /le klu/ "nail (of metal), clove (of garlic); nails, cloves"

le trou /lə tru/ -> les trous /le tru/ "hole; holes"

le bleu /lə blø/ -> les bleus /le blø/ "blue; blues"

le pneu /lə pnø/ -> les pneus /le pnø/ "tire; tires"


There are also three more irregular nouns:

l'œil /lœj/ -> les yeux /le.z‿jø/ "eye; eyes" *Note the unexpected liaison in les yeux

le ciel /lə sjɛl/ -> les cieux /le sjø/ "sky; skies"

l'aïeul /la.jœl/ -> les aïeux /le.z‿a.jø/ "ancestor; ancestors"


Three nouns have regularly written plurals that are pronounced irregularly:

le bœuf /lə bœf/ -> les bœufs /le bø/ "beef, ox, cattle; oxen, cattle"

l'œuf /lœf/ -> les œufs /le.z‿ø/ "egg; eggs"

l'os /lɔs/ -> les os /le.z‿o/ "bone; bones"

The Indefinite Article and the Partitive Article

The French indefinite article is analogous to the English indefinite article "a/an". One important difference is that while in English the indefinite article does not occur before plurals, the French indefinite article has a plural form. The plural form can often be translated as "some".

X Masculine Feminine
Singular un /œ̃/ une /yn/
Plural des /de/ des /de/

Ex: Une carotte /yn karɔt/ "an appple", des amis /de.z‿a.mi/ "(some) friends", Un livre /œ̃ livr/ "a book", Un ours /œ̃.n‿urs/ "a bear"

The French partitive article is used to denote some amount of an uncountable noun. It is usually omitted when translating to English or is translated as "some".

X Masculine Feminine
Singular du /dy/ de la /də la/
Plural des /de/ des /de/

Just like the definite article, the partitive article has a different form before vowels and most "h"s: de l'.

Ex: Du café /dy ka.fe/ "(some) coffee", de la bière /də la bjɛr/ "(some) beer", de l'argent /də lar.ʒɑ̃/ "(some) money"

The French Verb in Present Tense and the Pronouns

French verbs are conjugated to match their subject. The subject is the noun that performs the action of the verb. The French pronouns correspond roughly to the English pronouns "I", "you", "he", "she", "we", "they" but there is also a formal "you" that is used when speaking directly to someone respectfully. The French formal "you" is also used as a plural "you", regardless of formality. Verbs take different forms depending on which pronoun, if any, is their subject. Here are the French pronouns:

singular plural
masculine feminine masculine feminine
1st person je /ʒə/ "I" nous /nu/ "we"
2nd person tu /ty/ "you" vous /vu/ "you (formal)"
3rd person il /il/ "he/it" elle /ɛl/ "she" ils /il/ "they" elles /ɛl/ "they"
  • Notice that the third person pronouns are not distinguishable for number (singular or plural) in speech; in other words, il and ils are pronounced the same, and so are elle and elles.

Let's look at these in a few sentences. The main verb of the sentence is in bold:

Je connais cet homme. /ʒə kɔ.nɛ sɛ.t‿ɔm/ "I know that man."

Tu sais ce qu'il a. /ty sɛ s‿kil a/ "You know what he has."

Elle parle trop vite. /ɛl parl tro vit/ "She speaks too quickly."

Nous achetons du café. /nu.z‿aʃ.tɔ̃ dy kafe/ "We're buying some coffee."

Vous courez chaque jour. /vu ku.re ʃak ʒur/ "You run every day."

Ils tombent de le ciel. /il tɔ̃b də lə sjɛl/ "They are falling from the sky." *Note the pronunciation of tombent. In verbs, final -ent is silent.

Verbs come in several different groups depending on their endings in the infinitive. The first group ends in -er, the second ends in -ir, and the third ends in -re. The third group is really a catch-all group for verbs that do not fit into either of the other groups. In each case, when a verb is in the present tense the infinitive ending is removed to leave the verb stem, and then an ending based on the number and person of the verb's subject is added to the stem. For example, when conjugating the verb souffler /sufle/ "to blow (out)" for the subject Jean /ʒɑ̃/ "John" the infinitive ending (-er) is first removed, leaving souffl-. Then, the -er verbs' ending for 3rd person singular (because Jean is 3rd person singular) is added to the stem to make souffle. Following are the endings that most verbs take in the present tense based on their infinitive ending.

Infinitives in -er

Singular Plural
1st -e /∅/ -ont /ɔ̃/
2nd -es /∅/ -ez /e/
3rd -e /∅/ -ent /∅/

Infinitives in -ir

Singular Plural
1st -is /i/ -issons /isɔ̃/
2nd -is /i/ -issez /ise/
3rd -it /i/ -issent /is/
  • Many -ir verbs do not take the -iss- parts of the plural endings or the -i- of the singuar endings but are otherwise conjugated fairly normally. These include dormir /dɔr.mir/ "to sleep" (which loses the m in the singular), partir /par.tir/ "to leave" (which loses the t of the stem in the singular), and sortir /sɔr.tir/ "to take out, to go out" (which also loses the t of the stem in the singular).

Also, watch out for verbs ending in -oir, which generally do not conjugate like other -ir verbs.

Infinitives in -re

Singular Plural
1st -s /∅/ -ons /ɔ̃/
2nd -s /∅/ -ez /e/
3rd -t* /∅/ -ent /∅/
  • the -t of the third-person singular is dropped immediately after "d" or "t".
  • apart from ending in -ir instead of -re, many of the slightly-irregular -ir verbs mentioned earlier (dormir, partir, etc.) fit perfectly into this class.
Exercise 1:

Conjugate the following verbs in the present tense for the given person and number. The pronunciations and meanings are given for reference, they are not part of the exercise:

Ex: choisir /ʃwa.zir/ "to choose" 1st p, sing. -> choisis

1: parler /par.le/ "to speak" 2nd p, plur.

2: entrer /ɑ̃.tre/ "to enter" 3rd p, sing.

3: manger /mɑ̃.ʒe/ "to eat" 2nd p, sing.

4: finir /fi.nir/ "to finish" 1st p, plur.

5: pourrir /pu.rir/ "to rot" 2nd p, sing.

6: toucher /tu.ʃe/ "to touch" 3rd p, plur.

7: payer /pɛ.je/ "to pay" 1st p, sing.

8: agir /a.ʒir/ "to act, to behave" 3rd p, sing.

9: arriver /a.ri.ve/ "to arrive" 1st p, plur.

10: marcher /mar.ʃe/ "to walk" 2nd p, plur.

Answers for Exercise 1:

1: parlez /par.le/

2: entre /ɑ̃tr/

3: manges /mɑ̃ʒ/

4: finissons /fi.ni.sɔ̃/

5: pourris /pu.ri/

6: touchent /tuʃ/

7: paye /pɛj/

8: agit /a.ʒi/

9: arrivons /a.ri.vɔ̃/

10: marchez /mar.ʃe/

Exercise 2:

Write the corresponding subject pronouns for each of the following conjugated verbs. Note that all verbs are translated as the bare infinitive to reduce the triviality of the exercise.

Ex: mangeons /mɑ̃.ʒɔ̃/ "eat" -> nous

1: part /par/ "leave"

2: finissez /fi.ni.se/ "finish"

3: sautes /sot/ "jump"

4: jouent /ʒu/ "play"

5: tuons /tyɔ̃/ "kill"

6: tenez /tene/ "hold"

7: tirent /tir/ "throw"

8: rabonnit /ra.bo.ni/ "get better"

9: jaunissent /jo.nis/ "become yellow" (jaune "yellow" + -ir)

10: ment /mɑ̃/ "(tell a) lie"

Answers for Exercise 2:

1: il/elle /il/ or /ɛl/

2: vous /vu/

3: tu /ty/

4: ils/elles /il/ or /ɛl/

5: nous /nu/

6: vous /vu/

7: ils/elles /il/ or /ɛl/

8: il/elle /il/ or /ɛl/

9: ils/elles /il/ or /ɛl/

10: il/elle /il/ or /ɛl/

Object Pronouns and Forming a Sentence

In French, pronouns take different forms depending on the role they play in relation to the verb; in other words: whether they are the subject or an object. The object of a sentence is the noun that is acted upon. In simple English sentences, the object follows the verb. In the following examples, the object is bold:

Anthony eats a pastry. Anton manges une pâtisserie. /ɑ̃tɔ̃ mɑ̃ʒ yn pɑ.ti.sri/
They like blue. Ils aiment le bleu. /il.z‿ɛm lə blø/
She put a candle on the table. Elle a mis une bougie sur la table. /ɛl ɑ mi yn bu.ʒi syr la tabl/

In French, forming a sentence with an object may be a little more strange for speakers of English, but will be familiar to speakers of most other Romance languages such as Spanish or Italian. When the object is a noun like le micro-ondes /lə mi.kro.ɔ̃d/ "the microwave" or le tour Eiffel /lə tu.r‿ɛ.fɛl/ "The Eiffel Tower" the object goes after the verb, but when the object is a pronoun like me /mə/ "me" (the object form of je /ʒə/ "I") or nous /nu/ "us" (identical in spelling and pronunciation to the subject form nous "we") it goes between the subject and the verb. Following is a chart with the object forms of the subject pronouns:

subject object
je /ʒə/ "I" me /mə/ "me"
tu /ty/ "you" te /tə/ "you"
il /il/ "he" le /lə/ "him"
elle /ɛl/ "she" la /la/ "her"
nous /nu/ "we" nous /nu/ "us"
vous /vu/ "you (pl./for.)" vous /vu/ "you (pl./for.)"
ils /il/ "they (masc.)" les /le/ "them"
elles /ɛl/ "they (fem.)" les /le/ "them"
  • me, te, le, and la are elided before vowels to m, t, l, and l respectively, similarly to je.
  • Notice that the object third-person gender distinction breaks down in the plural but not in the singular, i.e. les can be feminine or masculine whereas le is masculine and la is feminine.
  • Notice also that the object form and subject form is identical in the first- and second-person plural.

Examples:

Je t'aime. /ʒə t‿ɛm/ "I love you."
Ils nous suivent. /il nu sɥiv/ "They are following us."
Tu les appelles. /ty le.z‿a.pɛl/ "You called them."

Reflexive Pronouns

When the subject and the object are the same person in English a different form is used, for example, "I hit myself" instead of "I hit me". As in English, in French the object pronoun changes form when it refers to the same person or thing as the subject. The reflexive forms are identical to the usual object pronouns in the first and second pronouns in both numbers, but in the third person all genders and numbers take the form se /sə/ "himself/herself/themselves". Note that this reflexive form is used even if the subject is not a pronoun and is instead a noun such as Jean /ʒɑ̃/ or le serpent /lə sɛr.pɑ̃/ "the snake". Topic:French/box-footer

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