author profile
Lauren Harsh

Fundamentals of French Grammar

Vocabulary is only one part of how to learn French. You could memorize a whole English-to-French dictionary, but it would be useless if you didn’t learn how to put the words together in a way that makes sense.

That’s where grammar comes in. Once you can recognize the patterns, it will be easier to learn French fast.

French grammar rules are decided by forty experts in language, literature, and politics who form an institution called L’académie Française. That means every rule exists for a reason, but sometimes that reason is “the academy was trolling.”

Note, this is a French grammar study guide intended for beginners. It is meant to supplement, not replace, French tutoring or lessons.

Nouns

The main difference between nouns in English and French is grammatical gender. Every noun, even if it’s an inanimate object, is either masculine or feminine. Unfortunately for beginners, there isn’t a 100% reliable way to tell which one a noun is. Usually feminine nouns end in the letter E, but masculine words like le groupe, le voiture, and le squelette also exist. Squelette is the only masculine word that ends in “-ette.”

Plurals

Most nouns become plural by simply adding an -s to the end. For example, “chat” (cat) becomes “chats”, “bicyclette” (bicycle) becomes “bicyclettes”, and “fleur” (flower) becomes “fleurs”. However, it’s important to know that the -s is not pronounced unless the next word in the sentence starts with a vowel.

However, nouns that end in -eau need an -x to be plural. “Bateau” (boat) becomes “bateaux”, “oiseau” (bird) becomes “oiseaux”, and “manteau” (coat) becomes “manteaux”.

Singular nouns that end in -al end in -aux when plural. For example, “journal” (newspaper) becomes “journaux” and “animal” (animal) becomes “animaux”.

Nouns that end in -s, -z, or -x usually stay the same when plural, so you need to pay attention to the article to tell whether they’re singular or plural. For example, le virus is singular and les virus is plural.

Pronouns

  • Je: I

  • Tu: you, singular and informal

  • Il: he

  • Elle: she

  • On: one, people in general

  • Vous: you, plural and/or formal

  • Nous: we

  • Ils: they, masculine

  • Elles: they, feminine

As you can see, French has two different ways to say “you.” They are not interchangeable. “Tu” is singular and informal, which means that you only use it for individuals whom you know. “Vous” has two purposes: to refer to more than one person, and to show deference in formal situations.

Here’s a note about “on”: French speakers use it a lot more often than US English speakers use its equivalent “one.” It is for talking about people in general. Americans often use “you” in these cases, but it would not be correct to do so in French.

You probably also noticed that there is not an equivalent of “it” and the two kinds of “they” are more like “hes” or “shes.” Feminine objects are “elle” and masculine objects are “il.” The official rule for usage of “ils” or “elles” is that even if one man or masculine object is part of the group you are referring to, it is proper to use “ils.” “Elles” is reserved for all-feminine groups.

Non-binary francophones use a variety of gender neutral pronouns including iel, ol, al, ul, and yul to refer to themselves. It is unlikely that L’académie Française will codify any of them. However, this is still useful information as the non-binary community is gaining recognition in many parts of the world.

Articles

French uses articles much more than English does. Every noun needs to have an article before it. There is a lot of using “the” when you wouldn’t in English.

  • Le: the, masculine

  • La: the, feminine

  • Les: the, plural

  • L’: the, before a word that starts with a vowel

  • Un: one/a, masculine

  • Une: one/a, feminine

  • De: Partitive

Adjectives

Adjectives are typically placed after the noun in French. This is the opposite of the norm in English. However, there are significant exceptions. A helpful way to remember which ones come before the noun is the BANGS list.

  • B - beauty
  • A - age
  • N - newness
  • G - gender
  • S - size

For example, color is not on the BANGS list, so “the blue car” would translate to “la voiture bleue” but size is, so “the big car” would translate to “la grande voiture.

Our friend grammatical gender makes an appearance here too. All adjectives have masculine and feminine forms. You’re probably sensing a theme by now, that the entire sentence has to be matchy-matchy. Usually the feminine form ends with the letter E when the masculine form does not. Let’s look at our boat example again. “Le grand bateau” is written like that because “bateau” is a masculine word. “The big shirt” translates to “La grande chemise” because “chemise” is feminine.

On a similar note, if the noun is plural, the adjective has to be plural too. Matchy-matchy! So if you were talking about multiple blue cars, you would say “les voitures bleues” or multiple big boats would be “les grands bateaux

Adverbs

Adverbs are placed after the verb that they describe. French even has a direct equivalent to English’s -ly suffix. It’s -ment. For example, “clearly” becomes “clairement”, “peacefully” becomes “tranquillement.” The longest word in the French dictionary is an adverb “anticonstitutionnellement.” I have yet to use that one in a sentence.

Superlatives: Good, Better, Best

Superlatives are a relatively simple part of speech to understand, though they do work differently in French than in English. There is no equivalent of -er or -est. With the exception of better and best, always say “more” or “the most.”

Here are some examples of the French “good, better, best” pattern:

  • Bon = good as an adjective

  • Bien = good as an adverb

  • Mieux = better as an adverb

  • Meilleur(e) = better as an adjective

  • Le/la Mieux = the best as a noun

  • Le/La Meilleur(e) = the best as an adjective

  • Plus = more

  • Le/la plus = the most

  • Grand(e) = big

  • Plus grand(e) = bigger

  • Le/la plus grand(e) = the biggest

  • Froid(e) = cold

  • Plus froid(e) = colder

  • Le/la plus froid(e) = the coldest

Verbs- Present tense

There are three categories of regular verbs: ones the end in “er” ones the end in “re” and ones that end in “ir”. Unlike in English, French and other languages that derive from Latin do not have a distinction between, say “to go” and “going.” That’s why English-speaking grammar snobs don’t like splitting infinitives, à la “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” because they want English to be more like Latin and therefore, fancier.

Regular -er Verbs

Example infinitive: Parler or “to speak”

  • Je parle = I speak

  • Tu parles = you speak

  • Il parle = he speaks

  • Elle parle = she speaks

  • On parle = people speak

  • Nous parlons = we speak

  • Vous parlez = you speak

  • Ils parlent = they speak

  • Elles parlent = they speak

Regular -ir Verbs

Example infinitive: Finir or “to finish”

  • Je fini = I finish

  • Tu finis = you finish

  • Il finit = he finishes

  • Elle finit = she finishes

  • On finit = one finishes

  • Nous finissons = we finish

  • Vous finissez = you finish

  • Ils finissent = they finish

  • Elles finissent = they finish

Regular -re Verbs

Example infinitive: Lire or “to read”

  • Je lis = I read

  • Tu lis = you read

  • Il lit = he reads

  • Elle lit = she reads

  • On lit = one reads

  • Nous lisons = we read

  • Vous lisez = you read

  • Ils lisent = they read

  • Elles lisent = they read

The most used irregular verbs are “to be” and “to have.”

Être (to be)

  • Je suis = I am

  • Tu es = you are

  • Il est = he is

  • Elle est = she is

  • On est = one is

  • Nous sommes = we are

  • Vous êtes = you are

  • Ils sont = they are

  • Elles sont = they are

Avoir (to have)

  • J’ai = I have

  • Tu as = you have

  • Il a = he has

  • Elle a = she has

  • On a = one has

  • Nous avons = we have

  • Vous avez = you have

  • Ils ont = they have

  • Elles ont = they have

Of course, there are many more French tenses such as passé composé, imparfait, futur simple, futur antérieur, conditionnel, plus-que-parfait, and the dreaded subjonctif, but let’s save them for later. French present tense is a great place to start learning about conjugation.

Further Learning:

There is no clear best way to learn French. The best strategy for you will depend on your goals, experience, preferred learning methods, and other factors. Wyzant makes booking a French tutor for any age group or goal both easy and affordable. If you’re planning a trip to France, learn some vocabulary and etiquette tips with 46 Basic French words and phrases for travel. You could also check out Alliance Française and research local options for practicing French conversation.