French Grammar Guide

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Here are my clear explanations of French grammar terms used in French such as pronoun, person, mood, tense, voice, agreement, infinitive etc…

A language is not just made of words. If you memorized plenty of French vocabulary, that wouldn’t make you fluent in French. To speak French fluently and eloquently, you also need to know how to arrange that vocabulary so it flows nicely in your sentence. This is when French grammar comes into play.

What is grammar ?

What we call grammar in language acquisition is the set of rules which controls the language. In other words, Grammar is a language within the language: it’s a way for words to communicate between themselves, and send extra info to your brain. Pretty cool, don’t you think?

For example, in English, when you use “He” with a verb in the present, you usually add an S.
He speaks.
This is a grammar rule, more precisely a conjugation rule.
The fact of adding an S to the verb connects these the “he” and the verb together: because you added an S, your brain groups “he” and “speaks” closely together: no doubt about it, he’s the one speaking.
Grammar reinforces the message to your brain.

French grammar features many rules.
And French students spends decades learning them.

Unfortunately, many foreign students have never learned the key words French grammar uses to describe the sentence elements, such as “nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, agreements”…

These terms describe what you could understand as jobs for the words. And these jobs will determine where the word goes in the sentence, how it is spelled and pronounced.

Many students just think a word is a word. They don’t understand the various jobs. That’s why for many French as a foreign language students, French grammar is so very frustrating!

The shame of not understanding grammar terms

English grammar is rather simple compared to French grammar. Most English speakers have had some grammar school teachings at one point in their studies, but many don’t remember it.

I’ve met many extremely intelligent and cultivated English speakers who couldn’t point out a direct object in a sentence. Knowledge of formal grammar terms is just not something that is typically insisted upon in the English culture.

However French grammar is something French people spend at least ten years studying in French school.

The terrible news is that many French teachers just assume grammar is common knowledge. So they start blasting rules full of grammatical terms foreign students don’t really understand. And since the students often feel they ‘should’ know them somehow, they don’t dare interrupt the class. Then they don’t understand anything. They feel ashamed. And they associate French grammar with terrible frustration.

French grammar clearly explained

But there’s hope! Once you understand the French grammar terms used by books and French teachers, you will be able to concentrate on the rule itself and it will all make sense to you. I promise.

French grammar is a wonderful tool. It’s an extra layer of logic which binds words together and will help you – yes, I mean really help you – become more fluent and eloquent in French.

Grammar is something you can count on. You don’t need to second guess it. One you understand the rule, you apply it. And it works!

By studying French grammar, you will discover a whole new layer to the French language. Chances are that you’ll discover a lot about English as well. Grammar is deeply rooted in the French language: French grammar will affect the way a word is spelled, where you place it in the sentence, and often change the pronunciation as well. It really is fascinating!

What follows is a quick overview and recap of what these different French grammar terms mean: all these concepts are clearly and progressively explained in my audiobook French learning method À Moi Paris where I compare French to English grammar, explain everything in English, then provide plenty of examples. The whole learning method is then illustrated by a level-adapted ongoing novel, entirely recorded and translated into English. Check it out!

À Moi Paris Audiobook Method

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I know this is a lot to memorize, but believe me, knowing these terms will be a huge help to understand French (or any language) grammar.

So let’s start with a key term in French grammar and explain what an agreement is.

What is an Agreement in French Grammar?

In French grammar, some words are said to “agree” with each other.

In English, when you add an “s” to the 3rd person singular (as in “she singS“), you apply a subject-verb agreement. In other words, you make the verb and the subject agree – or match – to say “hey, this verb is working with this subject !!”

Grammar reinforces the link between these two words: it makes an extra connection in your brain.

Agreements are not very common in English. But they are very common in French grammar. You will have to change some words or parts of words (like the endings of verbs or French adjectives) to match other French words related to them.

In French, words have a language of their own. You cannot just translate. You have to make the word “alive” and match it with the rest of the sentence.

Let’s see an example of word agreements in French:

La fille blonde est assise.
The blond girl is sitting.
The noun “fille” is feminine singular. Because of this, I chose “la”, not “le”. I wrote a silent “e” at the end of the adjective “blonde”, and this “e” makes the “d” pronounced. I conjugated my verb to be to the “is” form. I also wrote an “en” at the end of “assise”, and this “e”makes the “s” pronounced.

So, there’s all types of agreements: an article agreement (la), an adjective agreement (blonde), a subject/verb agreement (est) and finally a past-participle agreement (assise). The fact that I’m talking about a feminine word ricochet throughout the French sentence! In English, the fact that my subject is feminine doesn’t change anything at all.

So grammar is a point where French and English differ quite a bit. Hence, it’s totally normal that an English speaking student learning French need some gentle guidance and time to get accustomed to this new layer of thinking they need to add to speak French!

Now let’s see different category of words in French grammar.

5 Essential French Grammar Terms

There are five essential terms which are always repeated in French grammar: verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives and adverbs.

If you want to understand your French grammar class, you need to understand what these terms mean.

What is a Verb?

A verb indicates an action.

It can be:

  1. physical (to walk, to run, to go),
  2. mental (to think, to laugh),
  3. or a condition (to be, to have).

A verb is “conjugated” to match (we also say to agree with) its subject: he does, she has, the dogs were

Would you like to know how to conjugate a French verb? Here is an article about the French verb être with audio. I also invite you to browse the French verb category of this blog, where you will find many free French verb lessons.

What is a Noun?

A noun is the name of a person, an animal, a thing, a place, an idea…

Nouns can be common nouns: man, dog, cup, home, love

Or they can be proper nouns: Mary, Paris, France

What is a Pronoun?

A pronoun replaces one or several nouns.

When you speak of John, instead of repeating his name over and over, you use the pronoun “he”.

“Him”, “his” are other kinds of pronouns, although they also refer to Paul.

You will choose the correct pronoun according to its role in the sentence. Each word in a sentence has a job. Grammar will explain to you the different kinds of jobs, and how a word is to behave.

For example:

  1. “he” is used to replace a noun subject of the verb,
  2. “him” for an object pronoun,
  3. and “his” for a possessive pronoun.

French pronouns tend to be complicated for English students, because students often don’t really “understand” pronouns in English: they don’t know the different jobs pronouns can do! I’ve written a free blog lesson about French pronouns which I invite you to read for more info.

French pronouns are explained in depth and progressively, with many examples in my French audiobook learning method À Moi Paris level 3.

What is an adjective?

An adjective describes a noun or a pronoun in different ways:

  1. A descriptive adjective indicates a quality: tall, blond, intelligent.
  2. A possessive adjective shows possession: my book, their dogs.
  3. A demonstrative adjective points out a noun: this book, that dog.
  4. An interrogative adjective asks a question about a noun: what book, which dog?

French adjectives follow very different rules than their English counterparts.
Most descriptive adjectives go after the noun in French, when they go before the noun in English.

Une fille blonde.
A blond girl.

French adjectives will agree in what we call gender and number with the noun they modify, and this will affect both their writing and their pronunciation. This too will take some training and getting used to :-)

What is an adverb?

An adverb describes a verb, an adjective or another adverb (well, very, soon).

Many adverbs end in “ly” in English (happily) and in “ment” in French (heureusement).

French adverbs are invariable, which means they (almost) never agree with another word. But there are rules for where to place them in the sentence…

Il parle bien français. (Bien is the adverb)
He speaks French well.

The Key To French Grammar 🔐

As you now understand, the very first thing is to understand the French grammar terms.: what is a noun? A pronoun? An adverb?

Then, you need to learn how to recognise them in a sentence, and sometimes figure out their specific job (is it a descriptive adjective? A demonstrative, possessive, interrogative adjective?

Then, and only then, you can concentrate on learning the rules which control them.

Now that you know these essential grammar terms, let me explain more grammatical words you will certainly come across during your French language studies.

5 French Grammar Terms Useful For Verbs

Let’s start with French grammar terms closely related to verbs.

What is a Subject?

In grammar, we call ‘subject’ the person or thing that does the action of the verb.

There is an easy way to find the subject of a sentence.

  1. First, find the verb.
  2. Then ask: “who + verb” or “what + verb”.
  3. The answer to that question will be your subject.

A subject is a noun or a pronoun (here is my free lesson about French subject pronouns). A subject can be a person, a thing, a place, an idea…

Examples:

  1. I paint.
    Who paints?
    I paint.
    “I” is the subject.
  2. Camille is teaching French.
    Who is teaching?
    Camille is teaching.
    “Camille” is the subject.
  3. What is happening to Camille?
    What’s happening?
    What is happening.
    “What” is the subject (This one was trickier, wasn’t it? I told you: grammar is like a game!!)
  4. Was freedom won easily?
    What was won?
    Freedom was won.
    “Freedom” is the subject.

What is a Person?

In grammar, the term ‘person’ refers to the different pronouns used to conjugate a verb. I, you, he, she, it, we, they.

They are divided between singular and plural (for this concept, read my French blog article on gender and number).

  1. I is the first person singular
  2. You is the second person singular
  3. He and she are the third person singular
  4. We is the first person plural
  5. You is the second person plural (when it’s more than one person)
  6. They is the third person plural

What is a Verb Conjugation?

The conjugation is the way a subject changes a verb so they match.

In English, the conjugation of verbs is quite simple. The verbs don’t change much (I, you, we, they speak – he, she, it speakS) except for the verb to be (I am, you are, he is).

It is not so in French, where the verb form changes with almost each different person.
Je parle, tu parles, il/elle/on parle, nous parlons, vous parlez, ils/elles parlent.

The way French verbs are written and their pronunciations are also very different, this is why it’s important to study your French verb conjugations with audio.

French Verb Audio Drills

Train your verb memory with short 6-minute drills in 25 different forms and tenses

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What is the Infinitive of a Verb?

The infinitive is the form of the verb before it is being conjugated. It’s the basic verb name: “to speak”.

In English, the infinitive is usually preceded by “to”: “to study”, but not always (example: “can”.)

In French, there is no “to” before the verb. The infinitive form is shown by the last two or three letters, usually “er”, “ir” or “re” that will also determine the conjugation pattern of the verb if the verb is regular.

What is a Regular Verb and an Irregular French Verb?

Some French verbs are called “regular” because they follow a predictable conjugation pattern (such as adding an “s” to the 3rd person singular in English). Here is my lesson about how to conjugate French regular ER verbs in the present tense.

Some French verbs are called “irregular” because their conjugation pattern is not predictable (like the verb “to be” in English).

Let’s move on to more advanced French grammar terms you will run into when studying how to conjugate a French verb.

French Grammar Terms – Intermediate French Conjugation

What is an Auxiliary Verb in French?

An auxiliary verb is a verb used to conjugate another verb. For example: I have washed the dishes.

Used this way, the auxiliary verb (have) loses its own meaning (to have = possession), it’s just a way to change the time frame of the action of the main verb (in my example “to wash”).

The auxiliary verbs in French are “avoir” (to have) and “être” (to be).

You absolutely need to know their conjugations and pronunciations inside out, not only because you’ll use them all the time as “to have” and “to be”, but also because since they are auxiliary verbs, you’ll use them all the time to conjugate other verbs to build various French tenses.

Examples of French tenses using auxiliary verbs:

  1. J’ai chanté – le passé composé using the auxiliary verb avoir
  2. Je suis allée – le passé composé using the auxiliary verb être
  3. J’avais chanté – le plus-que-parfait
  4. J’aurai chanté – le futur antérieur
  5. Tu serais allée – le passé du conditionnel

The various past and future tenses of the Indicative mood are explained in depth in my French audiobook learning method – Upper Intermediate level.

À Moi Paris Audiobook Method

A new approach to learning both traditional and modern French logically structured for English speakers.

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What is a Tense?

A tense indicates when the action of the verb is taking place: now, in the past or in the future.

  1. A simple tense consists of only one verb form (ie: ‘I speak’).
  2. A compound tense consists of one or more auxiliary verb + a main verb (ie: ‘I am speaking’, “I have been thinking’).

You need to memorize that in French grammar, the adjective “simple” doesn’t mean “easy” but means “NOT compound” – using only one verb, not an auxiliary + a verb.

What is a Mood?

The mood indicates the position of the subject towards the verb.

Is the subject…

  1. making a statement (indicative mood = l’indicatif, the most common mood)
  2. giving a command or order (imperative mood = l’impératif)
  3. describing a condition or the possibility of something (conditional mood = le conditionnel)
  4. expressing doubt, unlikelihood or subjectivity (French subjunctive mood = le subjonctif, a mood very rare in English but quite common in French)

The mood will affect the conjugation of the verb.

Note that there are also impersonal moods in French, which are invariable, meaning they always use the same form, the verb doesn’t change according to who is speaking.

  1. Adjectival form of the verb (the participle = le participe)
  2. Nominal form = the name of the verb (the infinitive = l’infinitif)

What is a Voice?

The voice (la voix in French) indicates the relationship between the subject and the verb.

There are three voices in French:

  1. The subject performs the action of the verb (the active voice, la voix active).
    This is the most common voice.
    Je lave le chien = I am washing the dog.
  2. The subject performs the action on itself (the pronominal voice, la voix pronominale/reflexive).
    This voice is very common in French, not so much in English.
    Je me lave = I am washing (myself).
    In English, it’s unlikely you’d say that. You’d probably say “I am taking a shower/ a bath”…
  3. The action is being performed onto the subject – by a third party (the passive voice = la voix passive).
    Le chien est lavé par le toiletteur = The dog is being washed by the dog groomer.

What are Affirmative and Negative Sentences?

A negative sentence is a sentence whose verb is negated with the word “not” and an affirmative sentence is… the contrary :-)

In French, the regular way to negate a verb is to use “ne + verb + pas”.

However there are other negative words such as rien, jamais, personne… More about the French negative.

What are Declarative and Interrogative Sentences?

  • A declarative sentence makes a statement. It is the most common way of speaking.
  • An interrogative sentence asks a question.

How to ask questions in French and the many French interrogative expressions, as well as interrogative adjectives have been studied in my French Audiobook À Moi Paris Level 3 as well as in Secrets of French Conversation.

I understand this list may be a bit overwhelming. There is limits to what I can explain in one lesson: in my downloadable audiobook method, I introduce all these concepts gradually and logically, I take my time to explain them thoroughly with plenty of examples in English and in French, and then every point of the method is illustrated within an ongoing bilingual novel: you learn the theory, and you learn through practice.

I post new articles every week, so make sure you subscribe to the French Today newsletter – or follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 23+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Most of my audiobooks are recorded at several speeds to help you conquer the modern French language. Good luck with your studies and remember, repetition is the key!

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