5 French grammar rules that will give you nightmares

We’ve established that English grammar is no walk in the park, but French grammar gives English speakers a run for their money in terms of pure frustration. Ooh la la is an understatement.

While it is possible to learn French grammar by browsing your English to French bilingual dictionary, understanding (and memorizing) French grammar rules is the cornerstone to mastering the subtleties of the language.

Gymglish has carefully selected five grammar rules, using sterilized rubber gloves, to prevent infections:

1) Color adjectives

Color adjectives agree with the nouns they follow.

Example: Un oiseau bleu > Des oiseaux bleus (A blue bird > Blue birds)

Color adjectives derived from nouns such as animals, flowers, and fruits, are usually invariable. Examples: orange (orange), marron(brown/chestnut), cerise (cherry), crème (cream), pastel (pastel), turquoise (turquoise), bronze (bronze), etc.

Example: Des pantalons marron (not marrons) > Brown trousers

Color adjectives that are modified by another adjective or noun are invariable. Examples: bleu marine (navy blue), vert clair (light green), jaune pâle (pale/light yellow), etc.

Example: Des chemises vert clair (not vertes claires) > Light green shirts

Note:

•  Rose (pink), mauve (mauve, lilac) and pourpre (purple) are exceptions. Although they are derived from nouns (mauve is a type of flower and pourpre is a snail), they take an -s in the plural form.

Example: Des pulls roses > Pink sweaters

•  Two-color adjectives are joined by a hyphen.

Example: Des yeux bleu-vert // Des yeux gris-bleu > Blue-green eyes // Grey-blue eyes

2) La, l’a ou là

The terms la, là, l’a and l’as are all pronounced in the same way but have different meanings. 

•  La (“the”) is a definite article used with singular feminine nouns ARTICLES DEFINIS. In order to identify it, we should remember that it can be replaced by une (“one”, “a” or “an”) or cette (“this” or “that”).

Example: La limace est un animal sympathique > The slug is a likeable animal. (We can also say une limace or cette limace)

•  is an adverb used to define a place (usually it means “there”) or a moment in time (generally it means “then”). It is distinguished by the accent grave (à) on the “a”. We can also use it in the following “that” or “those” expressions: celui-là (that one), celle-là (that one), ces personnes-là (those people), ces gens-là (those people), ces maisons-là (those houses), etc.

Example: – Tu es où ? – Je suis là ! > Where are you? – I’m here! ( means “around here”)

  L’as and l’a are both contractions of the direct object pronouns le and la coupled with two present tense forms of the verb avoir (tu as and il/elle a). In order to identify these forms, just remember that they can be replaced by a form of avoir in another tense.

Example: Mon argent, tu l’as ? > My money, do you have it? (We might also say: Mon argent, tu l’auras ?)

•  La is also a direct object pronoun used to replace singular feminine nouns PRONOMS COD. In this form it translates to “it” or “her”, so in order to identify it better we just replace it with the original noun form.

Example: Muriel, plus je la connais, plus je la trouve bizarre. > Muriel, the more I know her, the more I find her strange. (We might also say: Plus je connais Muriel, plus je trouve Muriel bizarre).

3) Numbers

Writing numbers is another complexity of the French language.

Compound numbers under 100 (from dix-sept 17 to quatre-vingt-dix-neuf 99) are linked with a hyphen (-).

Example: quarante-trois (43)

                soixante-douze (72)

                vingt-huit (28)

For 21, 31, 41, 51, 61 and 71 we add et and no hyphen. This rule doesn’t apply for the numbers 81 and 91.

Example: vingt et un (21)

                trente et un (31)

                quarante et un (41)

                cinquante et un (51)

                soixante et un (61)

               soixante et onze (71)

We don’t add a hyphen or et around larger numbers like cent (100), mille (1000) and un million (1,000,000). 

Example: cent trois (103)

                deux cent un (201)

                mille cinq cent douze (1512)

                trois cent quatre-vingt-douze (392)

However, you’ll be happy to know that since the 1990 French spelling reform, you can add a hyphen around any number, large or small.

4) Plural compound nouns

In general, nouns that form part of plural compound nouns are written in the plural.

Example: des chirurgiens-dentistes (surgeon-dentists) // des coffres-forts (safes) 

However, there are exceptions to this rule.

Nouns that function as complements are not written in the plural. These noun complements further define the main noun they are used with.

Example: une année-lumière (a light year) > des années-lumière (light years) (lumière functions as a complement of année)

                une pause-café (a coffee break) > des pauses-café (coffee breaks )(café functions as a complement of pause)

When the compound noun is made up of verb + noun:

•  If the noun is countable, it is written in the plural. 

Example: un couvre-lit (a bedspread) > des couvre-lits (bedspreads)

•  If the noun is abstract or there is only one of it, it is written in the singular.

Example: un porte-malheur (a thing that brings bad luck) >  des porte-malheur things that bring bad luck

                un gratte-ciel (a skyscraper) > des gratte-ciel (skyscrapers) because there is only one sky.

Pro-tip:

•  New spelling rules now allow all nouns to be written with an -s. Hence, it is acceptable to write des pauses-cafés, des abat-jours, des porte-malheurs, des gratte-ciels, etc. However, these rules are not applied very often, and these spellings (with an -s) are relatively rare.

•  While the plural form grand-mères (grandmothers) is traditionally written without an -s on grand, the form grands-mères is now also accepted.

5) Adverbs ending in -ment

Another pitfall for advanced French speakers has to do with adverbs, especially those ending in -ment. These are usually formed using the adjective as a base: 

•  the feminine adjective + -ment (when the adjective ends in e or a consonant).

Examples: adjective = général (general) > feminine adjective + -ment = générale + ment > adverb of manner = généralement (generally)

                Elle est rapide > She’s quick. 

                Elle mange rapidement > She eats quickly.

•  the masculine adjective + -ment (when the adjective ends in i, u or é).

Example: vrai = true

                vraiment = truly, really

•  adjectives ending in –ent and –ant become emment and amment.

Example: violent (violent) = violemment (violently)

Note: -emment and -amment are pronounced in the same way: 

Example: patiemment > patiently

There are exceptions to the rule, as ever! Here are the most common ones:

Example: gentil = kind, nice > gentiment = gently, kindly

                   bref = briefly > brièvement = briefly

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 See our full list of French grammar rules.

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