French grammar

French grammar

French grammar refers to the grammar of the French language, which is similar to that of the other Romance languages.

French is a moderately inflected language. Nouns and most pronouns are inflected for number (singular or plural); adjectives, for the number and gender (masculine or feminine) of their nouns; personal pronouns, for person, number, gender, and case; and verbs, for mood, tense, and the person and number of their subjects. Case is primarily marked using word order and prepositions, and certain verb features are marked using auxiliary verbs.


In French, as in English, a verb is the controlling element in most sentences, although it is more common in French than in English for a sentence to have no verb. Verbs are conjugated to reflect the following information:

* a mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, conditional1, infinitive, participle, or gerundive2);
* a tense (present, preterite3, imperfect3, future, or conditional1 though not all tenses can be combined with all moods);
* an aspect (perfect2 or not);
* a voice (active, passive2, or reflexive2).

# In some of its uses, the conditional acts as a tense of the indicative mood; in other uses, including the use from which it takes its name, it acts as a distinct mood.
# The gerundive mood, perfect aspect, and passive and reflexive voices are not synthetic; that is, they are expressed using multi-word verb forms.
# The preterite and imperfect are sometimes called, somewhat redundantly, the "preterite past" and "imperfect past". The preterite is also called the "simple past", a translation of its French name ("le passé simple").

Verbs in the finite moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, and conditional) are also conjugated to agree with their subjects in person (first, second, or third) and number (singular or plural), but as in English, the subject must be included except in the imperative mood. In other words, French is neither a null subject language nor a pro-drop language.

The language also switches between the verb "être" (to be) and the verb "avoir" (to have) when spoken in past tense. Ultimately, verbs have seven simple tenses (present indicative, imperfect indicative, simple past, future indicative, present conditional, present subjunctive and imperfect subjunctive) and seven complex tenses (the perfect forms of each simple tense). The simple past, imperfect subjunctive, and their compound tenses, however, are rarely used in modern French.

In addition, the imperative mood derives conjugation normally from the present subjunctive.


Every French noun has a grammatical gender, either masculine or feminine. The grammatical gender of a noun referring to a human or other mammal usually corresponds to the noun's natural gender (i.e., its referent's sex or gender). For such nouns, there will very often be one noun of each gender, with the choice of noun being determined by the natural gender of the person described; for example, a male singer is a "chanteur", while a female singer is a "chanteuse". In some cases, the two nouns are identical in form, with the difference only being marked in neighboring words (due to gender agreement; see below); a Catholic man is "un Catholique", while a Catholic woman is "une Catholique". Nonetheless, there are some such nouns that retain their grammatical gender regardless of natural gender; "personne" ("person") is always feminine, while (at least in "standard" French) "professeur" ("teacher") is always masculine (except in Québec where "professeure" is used for feminine) , regardless of the sex of the person being referred to.

A noun's gender is not perfectly predictable from its form, but there are some trends. As a very broad trend, nouns ending in "-e" tend to be feminine, while the rest tend to be masculine, but there are very many exceptions. More consistently, some endings, such as "-sion" and "-tion", occur almost exclusively on feminine nouns, while others, such as "-eau", occur almost exclusively on masculine ones. Nonetheless, a noun that seems masculine from its form might actually be feminine (e.g., "souris" — "mouse"), or less commonly, vice versa (e.g., "squelette" — "skeleton").

Some (rare) nouns may have both genders, and can be used either in masculine or in feminine with the same meaning, although often a gender is to be preferred to the other. Some (very rare) nouns change gender according to the way they are used: the words "amour" and "délice" ("love" and "delight, pleasure") are masculine in singular and feminine in plural; the word "orgue" ("organ") is masculine, but when used emphatically in plural to refer to a church organ it becomes feminine; the plural name "gens" ("people") changes gender in a very unusual way, depending on the adjectives that are used with it.

As with English, nouns are inflected for number; the plural noun is usually formed from the singular by adding the suffix "-s", or sometimes "-x". However, since final consonants are generally not pronounced in French, adding "-s" or "-x" does not generally affect pronunciation, so the singular and plural forms of most nouns are generally pronounced the same. Further, nouns that end in "-s" (e.g., "Français" — "Frenchman"), "-x" or "-z" in their singular forms generally do not change forms even in writing. However, some nouns are pronounced differently in their plural forms: for example, "œil" ("eye") becomes "yeux", "cheval" ("horse") becomes "chevaux", and "os" ("bone" or "bones") is pronounced differently when it is plural (IPA| [o] ) from when it is singular (IPA| [ɔs] ); and even with nouns for which this is not the case, a distinction will still usually be made in speech, as there will usually be a neighboring article or determiner whose pronunciation does change with the noun's number (due to number agreement; see below). As with English, most uncountable nouns are grammatically treated as singular, though some are plural, such as "les mathématiques" ("mathematics"), and some nouns that are uncountable in English are countable in French, such as "une information" ("a piece of information").

Nouns in French are not inflected for any other grammatical categories. (However, personal pronouns are inflected case and person; see below.)

Articles and determiners

Articles and determiners agree in gender and number with the noun they determine; and, unlike with nouns, this inflection is made in speech as well as in writing. Perhaps for this reason, they are required in French much more often than in English: this enables nouns' genders and numbers to be reflected in speech.

French has three articles: definite, indefinite, and partitive. The difference between the definite and indefinite articles is similar to that in English (definite: "the"; indefinite: "a", "an"), except that the indefinite article has a plural form ("~some"). The partitive article is similar to the indefinite article, but is used for uncountable nouns.


An adjective agrees in gender and number with the noun it modifies. The adjective's masculine singular form is its default form; this is the form listed in dictionaries, and is typically the form used when the adjective is used as a noun. Most adjectives' feminine singular forms are formed from their masculine singular forms by adding "-e", though some common endings have different patterns; adjectives ending in "-eux", for example, typically have feminine singular forms ending in "-euse". Similarly, most adjectives' masculine and feminine plural forms are formed from their corresponding singular forms by adding "-s", though sometimes "-x" is added instead, and nothing is added if the corresponding singular form already ends in "-s", "-x", or "-z".

Most adjectives, when used attributively, appear after their nouns: "le vin rouge" ("the red wine"). A number of adjectives, however (often, but not always, having to do with beauty, age, goodness, or size, a tendency summarized by the acronym "BAGS"), come before their nouns: "une belle femme" ("a beautiful woman"). With a few adjectives of the latter type, there are two masculine singular forms: one used before consonants (the default form), and one used before vowels. For example, the adjective "beau" ("beautiful") changes form from "un beau garçon" ("a handsome boy") to "un bel homme" ("a handsome man"). Some adjectives change position depending on their meaning, sometimes preceding their nouns and sometimes following them; for example, "ancien" means "former" when it precedes its noun, but "ancient" when it follows it.

Many compound words contain an adjective, such as "belle-mère" ("mother-in-law"; distinct from "belle mère", "beautiful mother"). Some of them use an archaic form of the feminine adjective that lacks the final "-e", such as "grand-route" ("main country road"; distinct from "grande route", "long way") and "grand-mère" ("grandmother"; distinct from "grande mère", "tall mother").


As in English, adverbs in French are used to modify adjectives, other adverbs and verbs or clauses. Most adverbs are derived from an adjective by modifying its ending and adding the suffix "-ment" (analogous to the English suffix "-ly"), though some adverbs are derived irregularly, and many do not derive from adjectives at all.

Adverbs are invariable; that is, unlike nouns, verbs, and adjectives, they are not inflected in any way.


In French, pronouns can be inflected to indicate their role in a clause (subject, direct object, etc.), as well as the person, gender, and number of their referent. Not all of these inflections may be present at once; for example, the relative pronoun "que" ("that", "which", "whom") may have any referent, while the possessive pronoun "le mien" ("mine") may have any role in a clause.

As noted above, French — like English — is a non-pro-drop ("pronoun-dropping") language; therefore, pronouns feature prominently in the language. Impersonal verbs (e.g., "pleuvoir" — "to rain") use the impersonal pronoun "il" (analogous to English "it").

The French object pronouns are all clitics, and some appear so consistently — especially in everyday speech — that some have commented that French could almost be considered to demonstrate polypersonal agreement.


French usually expresses negation in two parts, with the particle "ne" attached to the verb, and one or more negative words that modify the verb or one of its arguments. For example, simple verbal negation is expressed by "ne" before the finite verb (and any object pronouns) and the adverb "pas" after the finite verb:
*« Je les ai pris » ("I took them") → « Je ne les ai pas pris » ("I didn't take them") Other negative words are used in combination with "ne" to express more complex types of negation.

*negative adverbs:"ne … plus" — "not anymore, no longer":"ne … jamais" — "never":"ne … nulle part" — "nowhere":"ne … guère" — "not much, hardly" (literary):"ne … point / aucunement / nullement" — "not, not at all" (literary)
*negative pronouns:"ne … rien" — "nothing":"ne … personne" — "nobody"
*others:(determiner) "ne … aucun" — "no/not any" (also "nul", literary):(restrictive particle) "ne … que" — "only"

*« Je ne sais pas. » — "I don't know."
*« Il ne fume plus. » — "He doesn't smoke anymore."
*« Nous n'avons vu personne. » — "We didn't see anybody."
*« Rien n'est certain. » — "Nothing is certain."
*« Je n'ai aucune idée. » — "I have no idea."
*« Vous ne mangez que des légumes ? » — "You eat only vegetables?"

The negative adverbs (and "rien") follow finite verbs but precede infinitives (along with "ne"):
*« Il prétend ne pas/ne jamais/ne rien fumer » — "He claims not to smoke/to never smoke/to smoke nothing."

Several negative words (other than "pas") can appear in the same sentence, but the sentence is still usually interpreted as a simple negation. When another negative word occurs with "pas", a double negation interpretation arises.
*« Elle n'a plus jamais rien dit à personne. » — "She never said anything else to anybody."
*« Elle n'a pas vu personne. — "She did not see nobody (i.e., she saw somebody)."

In colloquial French it is common to drop the "ne" in fast speech, although this can create some ambiguity with the "ne … plus" construction, as "plus" can mean either "more" or "not anymore." Generally when "plus" is used to mean "more", the final "s" is pronounced, while it is never pronounced when used to mean "not any more". So the informal sentence "Il y en a plus" can be pronounced with the final "s" to mean "There is more", or without to mean "There is none left".

In certain, mostly literary constructions, "ne" can express negation by itself (without "pas" or another negative word). This is possible with certain verbs (e.g. "pouvoir", "savoir", "oser").
* (standard, "ne" + "pas") « Je n'ai pas pu venir. » — "I was not able to come."
* (casual, "pas" only) « J'ai pas pu venir.
* (literary, "ne" only) « Je n'ai pu venir.

Expletive "ne"

In certain cases, the word "ne" can be used without signifying negation; the "ne" in such instances is known as expletive "ne" (French: "ne explétif):

:« J'ai peur que cela ne se reproduise. » — "I am afraid that it might happen again.":« Il est arrivé avant que nous n'ayons commencé. » — "He arrived before we started.":« Ils sont plus nombreux que tu ne le crois. » — "There are more of them than you think."

Expletive "ne" is found in finite subordinate clauses (never before an infinitive). It is characteristic of literary rather than colloquial style. [cite web | url = | title = Ne explétif - French Expletive Ne | publisher = | first = Laura K | last = Lawless | accessdate = 2007-02-25 ]

The following contexts allow expletive "ne":
*the complement clause of verbs expressing fear or avoidance: "craindre" (to fear), "avoir peur" (to be afraid), "empêcher" (to prevent), "éviter" (to avoid)
*the complement clause of verbs expressing doubt or denial: "douter" (to doubt), "nier" (to deny)
*adverbial clauses introduced by the following expressions: "avant que" (before), "à moins que" (unless), "de peur/crainte que" (for fear that)
*comparative constructions expressing inequality: "autre" (other), "meilleur" (better), "plus fort" (stronger), "moins intelligent" (less intelligent), etc.

Word order

The components of a clause are typically arranged in the following order (though not all components are always present):

* Adverb(s)
* Subject
* "ne" (usually a marker for negation, though it has some other uses)
* First- and second-person object pronoun, or the third-person reflexive pronoun (any of "me", "te", "nous", "vous", "se")
* Third-person human direct-object pronoun (any of "le", "la", "les")
* Third-person human indirect-object pronoun (either "lui" or "leur")
* The pronoun "y"
* The pronoun "en"
* Finite verb (may be an auxiliary)
* Adverb(s)
* The pronoun "rien"
* Main verb (if the finite verb were an auxiliary)
* Adverb(s) and object(s)

ee also

*Le bon usage, a respected reference by Maurice Grevisse, and later editions by André Goosse


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