The 10 most common French grammar mistakes French speakers make

Thought grammar was a mere detail in your language learning process? We’re here to deliver some bad news: you’ve got it all wrong.

And yet French grammar, as beautiful and mysterious as it may be, gives learners a run for their money in terms of pure frustration. Sadly, the French users of our online French course Frantastique are no exception to the rule.

Gymglish has carefully selected the 10 most common French grammar mistakes our French-speaking users have made over the past year. We’re not here to point fingers.*

1) The past participle the past with ‘avoir’ as the auxiliary verb

Reminder : The past participle never agrees with the subject when we use avoir as the auxiliary verb.
Elle a rencontré une célébrité. She met a celebrity.Ils ont fini la bouteille. They finished the bottle.

However, the past participle must agree with the direct object (COD) if we encounter it before the verb.

Examples:

Mes enfants, je les ai aimés plus que tout au monde. My children, I loved them more than anything else in the world. (‘them’ is a direct object pronoun)
J’ai perdu ma fille I lost my daughter. Je l’ai perdue I lost her.
Voici la célébrité qu’elle a rencontrée. Here is the celebrity that she met. (‘the celebrity’ is a direct object).

Note: When the past participle of faire is followed by a verb in the infinitive, it does NOT need to agree with the noun in gender or number.
Il a fait faire ces portraits de sa famille. Il les a fait faire. He had portraits of his family made He had them made.
Elle a fait tomber la bouteille. Elle l’a fait tomber. She dropped the bottle She dropped it.

Note: A direct object pronoun (COD) replaces a noun that refers to a person or thing (e.g. ‘it’, ‘me’ or ‘them’). It answers ‘what’ and ‘who’ questions. Note there is no agreement when the direct object follows the verb or with an indirect object (COI).
Ils ont fini la bouteille Ils l’ont finie. They finished the bottle They finished it. (L’ is a direct object).

J’ai vu six films hier. Ils étaient très bien. Les six films que j’ai vus hier étaient très bien. I saw six films yesterday. The were very good. The six films I saw yesterday were very good. (Que is a direct object)
J’ai parlé à mes frères et sœurs Je leur ai parlé. I spoke to my brothers and sisters. I spoke to them. (Leur is an indirect object, so no agreement).

Going further with the past participle the past with ‘avoir’ as the auxiliary verb here.

2) É or er ? infinitive vs past participle

The pronunciation of the verbs endings -er and -é are the same. Here we will look at when to use the infinitive (-er) and past participle (-é) forms.

We use the infinitive (-er) :
•  after a preposition: de, à, pour, par, etc.
Muriel et Marcel n’arrêtent pas de parler. Muriel and Marcel won’t stop talking.
Tu seras là pour m’aider ? Will you be there to help me?

•  after a verb (conjugated or not)
Tu viens manger à la maison ? Are you coming to eat at the house?
Il ne faut pas le laisser aller se baigner tout seul. Don’t let him go swimming alone.

•  after ne pas
Ne pas cracher. No spitting.

We use the past participle (-é, -ée, -ées, -és) :
•  after the auxiliary verbs être and avoir
Victor Hugo a été décongelé. Victor Hugo was defrosted.
Vous êtes bien arrivés ? Did you arrive safely?
Muriel a voyagé en Afrique. Muriel travelled to Africa.

•  when it’s an adjective
Je suis fatigué. I’m tired.
Ils restent étonnés. They are still surprised.

Note: don’t confuse the preposition ‘à + infinitive’ with the auxiliary ‘il a + past participle’.
Il faut mettre la pizza à décongeler. You need to defrost the pizza.
Il a décongelé la pizza. He defrosted the pizza.

Want to know more about É or er? infinitive vs past participle? Click here!

3) Future simple or conditional?

The futur simple describes an upcoming or future action.
Demain, j’irai au zoo. Tomorrow I’ll go to the zoo.Elle verra ses grands-parents pendant les vacances. She’ll see her grandparents during the holiday.

The conditionnel présent describes a hypothetical action, wish, or condition.
Si tu allais à l’école, tu serais moins bête. If you would go to school / If you went to school, you’d be less foolish.
Je mangerais bien une autre part de gâteau. I could eat another piece of cake / I would easily eat another piece of cake.

Note: The verb endings in the futur simple (-ai, -as, -a, -ons, -ez, -ont) and conditionnel présent (ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient) are similar, but not identical.

Futur, parlerConditionnel, parler
Je parleraiJe parlerais
Tu parlerasTu parlerais
Il parleraIl parlerait
Nous parleronsNous parlerions
Vous parlerezVous parleriez
Ils parlerontIls parleraient

More on future simple or conditional here.

4) “Tu” Imperative

In the present version of the imperative, ER verbs (those verbs that end in ‘-er’) conjugated in the tu form never take an ‘-s’ at the end. This also includes the verb aller.
Tu manges (You eat, you are eating) Mange ! (Eat up!)
Tu écoutes (You listen, you are listening) Écoute ! (Listen!)
Tu vas chez le docteur (You are going to the doctor’s) Va chez le docteur ! (Go to the doctor’s!).

The verbs ouvrir (to open), offrir (to offer), souffrir (to suffer), couvrir (to cover) and cueillir (to gather) also follow this rule (no ‘-s’ at the end of the tu form):
Tu ouvres (You open, you are opening) Ouvre ! (Open up!)
Tu cueilles (You gather, you are gathering) Cueille ! (Gather!)
Tu offres (You offer, you are offering) Offre le cadeau! (Offer the present!).

For all other verbs, we keep the ‘-s’ at the end of the tu form.
Tu fais (You do, you are doing) Fais-le ! (Do it!)
Tu prends (You take, you are taking) Prends ! (Take!)
Tu vois (You see, you are seeing) Vois ! (See!)

More information on the “Tu” Imperative here.

5) “Je” In the present tense

In the present tense, ER verbs (those verbs that end in ‘-er’) conjugated with je always end in an ‘-e’, never an ‘-s’.
Je mange (I eat, I’m eating), je chante (I sing, I’m singing), je fume (I smoke, I’m smoking).

Exception alert! : Aller is an ER verb, but it’s irregular so it doesn’t count: je vais (I go, I’m going).

Want to know more about “Je” In the present tense Click here!

6) Pronominal verbs

Pronominal verbs are formed with the reflexive pronoun se.
Se lever, se laver, se tromper, etc.

The se pronoun changes according to the subject and is placed before the verb.

je me lave (les cheveux)vous vous lavez
nous nous lavonsil / elle / on se lave
tu te lavesils / elles se lavent

Note :
•  Pronominal verbs are often used for daily activities, and describe actions ‘done’ to the self:
Charles se lève à 7 heures, il se douche et se brosse les dents. 
Charles gets up at 7am, he showers and brushes his teeth.

•  In the negative form, the reflexive pronoun stays in front of the verb.
Je ne me lave pas souvent. I don’t wash often.
Tu ne te trompes jamais. You are never wrong. 

More information on the Pronominal verbs here.

7) Numbers – spelling

The spelling of larger numbers in French can be complicated. Here are some basic rules.

•  For numbers ending in ‘one’, et is used:
vingt et un twenty one
cinquante et un fifty one

•  Except for these 2 numbers:
quatre-vingt-un eighty one
quatre-vingt-onze ninety one

•  Cent and vingt take an ‘s’ if there are more than one. If they are followed by more digits then no ‘s’ is needed:
deux cents two hundred
huit cent quatre eight hundred and four
quatre cent quatre-vingts four hundred and eighty
quatre cent quatre-vingt-quatre four hundred and eighty four

•  Mille doesn’t take an ‘s’ in the plural:
quatre mille four thousand

•  Million and milliard are nouns, so take an ‘s’ in the plural:
vingt millions twenty million

Note: It is now possible to use a hypen between all numbers.

Going further with Numbers – spelling here

8) Ces, ses, c’est or sait ?

The terms ces, ses, c’est and sait are homonyms: they are pronounced in the same way, but are spelled differently and don’t share the same meaning.

•  C’est (‘it’s’ or ‘that’s’) is the contraction of cela and est (the present tense form of être). We use it all the time, mostly with nouns, pronouns and adjectives to present, indicate or show something.
C’est une belle voiture ! That’s a great-looking car!
– Qui a fait ça ? – C’est moi ! -Who did that? -It was me! (Note that c’est is quite idiomatic, we couldn’t say ‘it’s me’ in English here).

•  Ces is a plural demonstrative adjective meaning ‘these’ (or ‘those’). We use it with plural nouns. 
Ces chaussures sont trop petites. These shoes are too small.
Tu me passes ces papiers-là ? Can you hand me those papers?

  Ses is a plural possessive adjective, meaning ‘his’ or ‘hers’. We also use it with plural nouns. 
Victor a invité ses amis ce soir. Victor has invited his friends this evening.

•  Sais and sait are the je, tu and il, elle, on forms of the verb savoir in the present tense. 
Je sais parler français. I know how to speak French.
Gérard Therrien ne sait pas ce qui se passe sur Terre. Gérard Therrien doesn’t know what is happening on Earth.

•  S’est is the contraction of the reflexive pronoun se and est (from être). We use it with the il, elle, on form of pronominal verbs conjugated in the passé composé tense.
On s’est bien marré non ? We had a great laugh, didn’t we?
Muriel s’est fait mal au pied. Muriel hurt her foot.

Want to know more about Ces, ses, c’est or sait Click here!

9) The plural of compound nouns

In compound nouns, verbs, adverbs and pronouns are invariable (we don’t use their plural form).
Un laissez-passer a pass des laissez-passer passes (verb + verb: no agreement)
Un va-et-vient a back-and-forth (movement) des va-et-vient back-and-forth (movements)
Un qu’en-dira-t-on a piece of gossip des qu’en-dira-t-on pieces of gossip (pronouns + verb: no agreement).

Nouns and adjectives, however, do change in the plural.
Un auteur-compositeur an author-composer des auteurs-compositeurs author-composers (noun + noun)
Un cerf-volant a kite des cerfs-volants kites (noun + adjective)
Un court-métrage a short film des courts-métrages short films (adjective + noun).

When a compound noun is made up of verb + noun, the noun can be in the singular or the plural. Both spellings are accepted.
Un porte-serviette a towel rail des porte-serviette or des porte-serviettes towel rails (depending on whether they hold one or several towels)
Un abat-jour a lamp-shade des abat-jour lamp-shades (standard spelling), des abat-jours (alternative spelling).

Exceptions:
•  The term demi (half) is also invariable when used in composite nouns (a word created using multiple words).
Une demi-journée a half-day des demi-journées half-days

•  If the first word in the compound noun ends in -o (for example, anglo-, electro-, etc.) it is invariable.
Un Anglo-Saxon des Anglo-Saxons

Going further with the plural of compound nouns here.

10) C’est moi qui…

The expression c’est (moi) qui underlines the views of the speaker or emphasizes the subject of the sentence. The expression is formed as follows:

ExpressionPronomExemples
C’est moi qui=jeC’est moi qui ai gagné !
It’s me who won!
C’est toi qui=tuC’est toi qui es là ?
Is that you?
C’est lui/elle qui=il/elleC’est lui qui travaille pour l’AIGF.
He’s the one who works for the AIGF.
C’est nous qui=nousC’est nous qui sommes arrivés les premiers.
We are the ones who arrived first.
C’est vous qui=vousC’est vous qui avez 8 chiens et 12 chats ?
Is it you who has 8 dogs and 12 cats?
Ce sont eux/elles qui=ils/ellesCe sont elles qui sont les plus sympas.
They are the ones who are the nicest.

Going further with c’est moi qui… here.

Has this list fulfilled its job of confusing and delighting you at the same time? Improve your French further and try Frantastique Orthographe, our online French lessons today!

*Anonymous data collected from our users regarding our English course Gymglish since 2004.


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