Basic French Grammar: 12 Tips to Get You Started

Learning a new language isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it has to be hard either.

The best way to begin is by learning the essentials to create a strong foundation, piece by piece, so you can build up to complete fluency. Gymglish has compiled a list of the most fundamental basic French grammar rules, along with some useful tips, to give you the building blocks you never knew you needed!

French Sentence Structure (or Syntax)

When speaking or writing, it’s important to know how to arrange the words using the right order. Luckily, French sentence structure is relatively simple and the general word order is subject-verb-object

  • Je mange du chocolat. (I eat chocolate.)
  • Il fait ses devoirs. (He does his homework.)

Tip: Unlike other romance languages where the verb pronunciation changes with each subject, the subject pronoun must always be stated in French and cannot be dropped like in Italian or Spanish. 

Negation

If you want to make a sentence negative in French, all you need to do is sandwich the words ne and pas around the verb. The structure of a basic negative sentence is subject + ne + verb + pas

  • Je ne fume pas. (I don’t smoke.)
  • Elle ne va pas à la salle. (She doesn’t go to the gym .)

Tip: Don’t forget to make the contraction with “ne” if the French verb begins with a vowel.

  • Tu n’aimes pas le café. (You don’t like coffee.)  
  • Je n’ai pas de voiture. (I don’t have a car.)

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Nouns

Just like in English, most French sentences contain at least one noun or pronoun, but there are some major deviations from English that are explained below.

All French nouns have a gender and are either masculine (le) or feminine (la).

  • la voiture (the car) feminine / le camion (the truck) masculine

Tip: Every French noun is either masculine or feminine. If you have a doubt about a noun’s gender, there’s no better way to check than in the dictionary (m. for masculine and f. for feminine).

French nouns can be singular or plural.

 mot/mots (word/words) or chat/chats (cat/cats)

Tip: The plural of most singular nouns can be made by simply adding an -s, however, there are some exceptions. For nouns that end in -au, an -x is added instead of an -s (bateau/bateaux). And for nouns that end in -al, an -aux must be added after the -al is dropped (journal/journaux).

There are some common and proper French nouns that don’t change in the plural.

  • un.e Français.e (singular) / des Français.e.s (plural)
  • la maison  (singular) / les maisons  (plural)

Tip: Nouns that end in -s, -z or -x don’t change in their plural form. Also, proper family names don’t change when plural. For example, if you want to talk about the Bernard family in the plural, you say les Bernard.

Articles 

An article is a word that comes before a noun to show whether it is definite (specific) or indefinite (general). In French, nouns always have an article and can’t be used without one.

Articles can be definite (specific) or indefinite (general).

  • le livre (the book) definite
  • un livre (a book) indefinite
  • la rue (the street) definite
  • une rue (a street) indefinite

Tip: A definite article refers to a specific noun and is either le (masculine) or la (feminine) depending on the gender of the noun. An indefinite article refers to a general noun and is either un (masculine) or une (feminine) depending on the gender of the noun.

Nouns and their articles must agree with the gender.

  • livre (masculine): le livre or un livre 
  • rue (feminine): la rue or une rue

Tip: French nouns always require an article, whether definite or indefinite. Le and un are the articles used for masculine nouns and la and une are the articles used for feminine nouns.

Articles must also agree with nouns in number.

  • le livre (singular definite masculine) / les livres (plural definite masculine)
  • un livre (singular indefinite masculine) / des livres (plural indefinite masculine)
  • la rue (singular definite feminine) / les rues (plural definite feminine)
  • une rue (singular indefinite feminine) / des rues (plural indefinite feminine)

Tip: Singular nouns have singular articles and plural nouns have plural articles. The plural articles for both masculine and feminine nouns are les and des.

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Verbs

Verbs are words that describe actions and tell you what the subject is doing. 

French verbs are divided into three groups based on their ending: -er, -er and -re.

  • parler, aimer, nager (-er)
  • finir, agir, grandir (-er)  
  • attendre, prendre, mettre (-re)

Tip: Although most common French verbs follow the conjugation rules for the three main groups, watch out for irregular verbs that change groups and follow different rules, such as courir, mourir and verbs that end in –oir.

French has three main verb tenses: present, past and future. There are eight verb forms divided between these tenses.

Present tense

présent (present)

Past tense

imparfait (imperfect)

passé antérieur (past anterior)

passé composé (compound past)

passé simple (simple past)

plus-que-parfait (past perfect)

Future tense

futur (future)

futur antérieur (future perfect)

The verbs être and avoir are used as auxiliary verbs along with the past participle to form compound tenses such as the passé composé and plus-que-parfait.

Elle a fini la bouteille. She finished the bottle. (passé composé)

Elles étaient venues. They had come. (plus-que-parfait)

Tip: The past participle can also be used as an adjective to modify a noun. Like articles, this tense must agree with the noun in gender and number (singular or plural).

Pronouns

Pronouns are words used to stand in for a noun and refer to someone or something that has been mentioned before.

French pronouns fall into two categories: personal and impersonal. Personal subject pronouns are an essential component of most French sentences.

Personal subject pronouns

je (I)

tu (you informal/singular)

il (he), elle (she)

nous (we)

vous (you formal/plural)

 ils (they masculine), elles (they feminine)

Tip: There are many other personal and impersonal pronouns that replace people, places, things and even entire phrases.

Adjectives

Adjectives are words that describe other words, usually nouns, to make them more specific and interesting. 

Much like articles, adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in both gender and number. 

  • un petit jardin (a small garden) 
  • une belle fleur (a pretty flower) 
  • trois grandes maisons (three large houses)

Tip: Most adjectives can be made plural by simply adding an -s to their singular form. There are some irregular plural adjectives, however, that follow the same rules as the irregular plural nouns listed above.

So there you have it – a cheat sheet to the basics of French grammar. Don’t worry if you fall victim to common grammar mistakes on occasion or feel some frustration – that’s just par when learning French. Believe it or not, even native speakers make mistakes from time to time!

Basic French Vocabulary

Once you have a handle on the basics of French grammar basics, it’s time to learn some vocabulary…or better yet, entire basic French phrases! Grammar and vocabulary go hand-in-hand and it’s impossible to learn a language if you are missing one or the other. Plusdid you know? A lot of English words come from French!

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