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French is spoken all around the world.

French (français, fʁɑ̃sɛ) is spoken around the world by between 72 and 130 million people as a native language, and by between 190 and 600 million people as a second language, with significant populations of speakers in 54 countries. Most native speakers of the language live in France, where the language originated. The rest live in Canada, Belgium, or one of the other 54 countries in which it is spoken.

French is a descendant of the Latin language of the Roman Empire, as are languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Catalan and Romanian. Its development was also influenced by the native Celtic languages of Roman Gaul and by the Germanic language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders.

It is an official language in 31 countries, most of which form what is called in French "La Francophonie": the community of French-speaking nations. It is an official language of all United Nations agencies and a large number of international organizations.

More about... France, its history and inhabitants
Introduction to French

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
Elementary French

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 pronunciation across France. The Parisian /ʁ/ can be implied.

French nouns, definite articles, and exercises

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 rarely pronounced, although it can affect the pronunciation of the word indirectly.

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. For every single noun in French, you must learn the correct articles with the noun. The definite article "agrees" with the noun in both gender and number:

masculine feminine
singular le (/lə/) la (/la/)
plural les (/le/)

Important: In both genders, the singular form of the article is contracted to l' (lower-case L) before vowels and before a silent h: l'homme (/lɔm/; "the man") and l'automobile (/lɔ.tɔ.mɔ.bil/; "the automobile").

While uncommon, some words beginning with H do not allow this elision to occur: la hache (/la aʃ/; the axe).

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 Translation
la maison (/la mɛ.zɔ̃/) les maisons (/le mɛ.zɔ̃/) the house, the houses
le bras (/lə brɑ/) les bras (/le brɑ/) the arm, the arms
la pomme (/la pɔm/) les pommes (/le pɔm/) the apple, the apples
le garçon (/lə gar.sɔ̃/) les garçons (/le gar.sɔ̃/) the boy, the 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. Pronunciations and translations are given for reference, and are not part of the exercise. Answers will be given below.

Example noun: le magazine (/lə ma.ga.zin/; "magazine")

Example answer: masculine; les magazines

# Singular Pronunciation Translation
1 le chat /lə ʃa/ the cat
2 le doigt /lə dwa/ the finger
3 le pain /lə pɛ̃/ bread
4 la vache /la vaʃ/ the cow
5 la chaussure /la ʃo.syr/ the shoe
6 la casquette /la kas.kɛt/ the cap
7 le croissant /lə krwa.sɑ̃/ the crescent
8 la lune /la lyn/ the moon
9 le portefeuille /lə pɔr.tə.fœj/ the wallet
10 le thé /lə te/ tea
Exercise 1 answers
# Gender Plural
1 masculine les chats
2 masculine les doigts
3 masculine les pains(note)
4 feminine les vaches
5 feminine les chaussures
6 feminine les casquettes
7 masculine les croissants
8 feminine les lunes
9 masculine les portefeuilles(note)
10 masculine les thés

Note (answer 3): Pain can mean "a piece of bread" as well as just "bread": therefore, pains could mean "pieces of bread".

Note (answer 9): Although feuille ("leaf", "sheet (of paper)") is feminine, compound nouns are usually masculine: porter (to carry) + feuille (paper sheets)

Exercise 2

For this exercise, you must determine the correct article from the provided gender and noun ending. Watch out for plural nouns as they use a different article. As in the last exercise, pronunciations and translations are given for reference, and are not part of the exercise.

Note: In this exercise, masculine, and feminine are abbreviated to m., and f., respectively.

Example noun: voisin (/vwa.zɛ̃/; m. sg.; "neighbor")

Example answer: le voisin

# Noun Pronunciation Info Translation
1 armes /arm/ f. weapons
2 pied /pje/ m. foot
3 roi /rwa/ m. king
4 abeille /a.bɛj/ f. bee
5 personnes /pɛr.sɔn/ f. persons, people
6 arbre /arbr/ m. tree
7 dent /dɑ̃/ f. tooth
8 nombres /nɔ̃m.br/ m. numbers
9 sel /sɛl/ m. salt
10 femmes /fam/ f. women
Exercise 2 answers
# Correct article Complete answer
1 les les armes
2 le le pied
3 le le roi
4 l' l'abeille
5 les les personnes
6 l' l'arbre
7 la la dent
8 les les nombres(note)
9 le le sel
10 les les femmes

Note (answer 8): Another word for "number" is numéro (/ny.me.ro/; masculine). See this Wiktionary entry for usage notes.

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:

Singular Plural Translation
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(note)

Note: The word "hair" French has a singular and plural form: the former typically refers to a single strand, while the latter typically refers to someone's hair.

Nouns that end in "s", "x", or "z" generally do not change:

Singular Plural Translation
le bras (/lə brɑ/) les bras (/le brɑ/) arm, arms
le dos (/lə do/) les dos (/le do/) (anatomy) back, backs
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 use "-aux" in the plural.

Singular Plural Translation
l'animal (/la.ni.mal/) les animaux (/le.z‿a.ni.mo/) animal, animals
le journal (/lə ʒur.nal/) les journaux (/le ʒur.no/) journal, journals;
newspaper, newspapers
le mal (/lə mal/) les maux (/le mo/) trouble, troubles;
pain, pains
le cheval (/lə ʃə.val/) les chevaux (/le ʃə.vo/) horse, horses

Nouns that end in "-ail" sometimes take "-aux" in the plural, but may form the plural with an "-s".

Singular Plural Translation
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, portals;
gate, gates

However, some plural forms are exceptional, such as:

Singular Plural Translation
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, smocks;
overall, overalls
le clou (/lə klu/) les clous (/le klu/) (metal) nail, nails;
(garlic) clove, 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/) (US) tire, tires;
tyre, tyres
le ciel (/lə sjɛl/) les cieux (/le sjø/) sky, skies;
ceiling, ceilings
l'aïeul (/la.jœl/) les aïeux (/le.z‿a.jø/) ancestor, ancestors
l'œil (/lœj/) les yeux (/le.z‿jø/)(note) eye, eyes

Note: This word permits liaison with valid words, even though it begins with a jod ("y"; /j/).

And finally, here are some nouns with regular plurals, but irregular pronunciations:

Singular Plural Translation
le bœuf (/lə bœf/) les bœufs (/le bø/) ox, oxen;
beef; cattle
l'œuf (/lœf/) les œufs (/le.z‿ø/) egg, eggs
l'os (/lɔs/) les os (/le.z‿o/) bone, bones

Indefinite and partitive articles

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".

Masculine Feminine
Singular un (/œ̃/) une (/yn/)
Plural des (/de/)

Examples: une carotte (/yn karɔt/; "a carrot"), 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 translated as "some" in English, but is often omitted.

Masculine Feminine
Singular du (/dy/) de la (/də la/)
Plural des (/de/)

Just like the definite article, the partitive article has a different form before vowels and a silent H: de l'.

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

Personal pronouns and regular present tense conjugations

French verbs must agree with 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", and "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 few sentences. The main verb of the sentence is in bold:

Sentence Pronunciation Translation
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 du ciel /il tɔ̃b dy sjɛl/ They are falling from the sky.(note)

Note: In verbs such as "tombent", the final "-ent" is silent.

Verbs come in several different groups depending on their endings in the infinitive. The first group ends in -er(note), 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.

Note: Every single verb that ends with "-er" is in the first group, except for "aller", which is an irregular third group verb.

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.

Present conjugation of "-er"

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

Present conjugation of "-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-" interfix of the plural endings or the "-i-" of the singular endings, but are typically conjugated normally. These include dormir (/dɔr.mir/; "to sleep"; 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").

Also, watch out for verbs ending in "-oir" or "-enir", which generally do not conjugate like regular "-ir" verbs.

Infinitives in -re

Singular Plural
1st -s (/∅/) -ons (/ɔ̃/)
2nd -s (/∅/) -ez (/e/)
3rd - -ent (/∅/)

Apart from ending in "-ir" instead of "-re", many of the slightly-irregular "-ir" verbs mentioned earlier (such as dormir, partir, etc.) fit perfectly into this class.

Exercise 3

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

Example verb: choisir (/ʃwa.zir/; "to choose") to agree with "tu".

Example answer: (Tu) choisis

# Infinitive Pronunciation Translation Agrees with
1 parler /par.le/ to speak vous
2 entrer /ɑ̃.tre/ to enter il or elle
3 manger /mɑ̃.ʒe/ to eat tu
4 finir /fi.nir/ to finish nous
5 pourrir /pu.rir/ to rot tu
6 toucher tu.ʃe/ to touch ils or elles
7 payer pɛ.je/ to pay il or elle
8 agir /a.ʒir/ to act, to behave il or elle
9 arriver /a.ri.ve/ to arrive nous
10 marcher /mar.ʃe/ to walk vous
Exercise 3 answers
# Inflected form Pronunciation Pronoun (reminder)
1 parlez /par.le/ vous
2 entre /ɑ̃tr/ il or elle
3 manges /mɑ̃ʒ/ tu
4 finissons /fi.ni.sɔ̃/ nous
5 pourris /pu.ri/ tu
6 touchent /tuʃ/ ils or elles
7 paye /pɛj/ il or elle
8 agit /a.ʒi/ il or elle
9 arrivons /a.ri.vɔ̃/ nous
10 marchez /mar.ʃe/ vous
Exercise 4

Write the corresponding subject pronouns for each of the following conjugated verbs. Note that all verbs are translated into English as the infinitive for fidelity.

Example verb: mangeons (/mɑ̃.ʒɔ̃/; "eat")

Example answer: nous

# Conjugated verb Pronunciation English infinitive
1 part /par/ to leave
2 finissez /fi.ni.se/ to finish
3 sautes /sot/ to jump
4 jouent /ʒu/ to play
5 tuons /tyɔ̃/ to kill
6 tenez /tene/ to hold
7 tirent /tir/ to throw
8 rabonnit /ra.bo.ni/ to improve
9 jaunissent /jo.nis/ "become yellow"
10 ment /mɑ̃/ to (tell a) lie
Exercise 4 answers
# Compatible pronoun Pronunciation(s)
1 il or elle /il/ or /ɛl/
2 vous /vu/
3 tu /ty/
4 ils/elles /il/ or /ɛl/
5 nous /nu/
6 vous /vu/
7 ils or elles /il/ or /ɛl/
8 il or elle /il/ or /ɛl/
9 ils or elles /il/ or /ɛl/
10 il or elle /il/ or /ɛl/

Object pronouns and simple sentences

In French, pronouns take different forms depending on the role they play in relation to the verb, like in English. 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(s) is/are bold:

Anthony eats a pastry. Anton mange 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 la Tour Eiffel (/lə tu.r‿ɛ.fɛl/; "the Eiffel Tower"), the object always 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"), it goes between the subject and the verb. The following is a chart with the object forms of the subject pronouns:

Subject Direct Object Translation
je (/ʒə/) me (/mə/) "me" I, me
tu (/ty/) te (/tə/) you
il (/il/) le (/lə/) it (m.); he, him
elle (/ɛl/) la (/la/) it (f.); she, her
nous (/nu/) nous (/nu/) we, us
vous (/vu/) vous (/vu/) you (plural and/or formal)
ils (/il/) les (/le/) they, them (m.)
elles (/ɛl/) les (/le/) they, them (.)
  • Before vowels, me, te, le, and la are elided 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. Also, notice that nous and vous have the same object form.

Here are some examples, with the object in bold:

Phrase Pronunciation Translation
Je t'aime /ʒə t‿ɛm/ I love you
Ils nous suivent /il nu sɥiv/ They follow us
Tu les appelles /ty le.z‿a.pɛl/ You are calling them

Reflexive pronouns

In English, when the subject and object are the same, we use a reflexive form, which ends in "-self"; such as "myself", and "herself".

Some verbs in French must have a reflexive pronoun, such as "souvenir".

Here are some final examples:

Sentence Pronunciation Translation
Je me souviens de ma mère /ʒə m(ə) su.vjɛ̃ də ma mɛr/ I remember my mother
Tu peux te voir ? /ty pø tə vwa/ Can you see yourself?
Se tuera-t-il ? sə ty.ra til Will he kill himself?
  • Don't worry if you don't understand reflexive verbs or inversions, as these are explained later in the course.
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July 3rd, 2012

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