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French was used as a common language by educated people in Europe from the 17th to the middle of the 20th century. During this period, the predominance of France and the Enlightenment made the French language into the language of arts and diplomacy – it was even adopted by some European courts!
Let us go further back in time. Have you ever wondered why there are so many similar words in English and French? Well, in the 11th century, England was invaded by Normans. The Normans were descendants of Vikings but they spoke Old French as they lived in northern France. England was ruled by a French-speaking monarchy for several centuries and this greatly changed the English language. Many of its original Germanic words were lost and replaced with French and Latin ones.
In the present time, and let me tell you last thing about the current situation of French language. In fact, it is worth mentioning that French is spoken by more than 200 million people worldwide, including native speakers (mainly in Europe and Quebec) and second language speakers (most of whom in Africa but also in America, Asia and Oceania).
French consonants are not really difficult for English-speaking persons. Here are some important differences that you must know:
ch = is always pronounced as (sh) in English:
Chine / China (pronounced the same as 'sheen' in English)
ge, gi, j = are pronounced as the (s) in pleasure:
Belgique / Belgium
Japon / Japan
gn = represents a sound that does not exist in English but that is similar to that of (ny) in 'canyon' (like the Spanish (ñ)):
Espagne / Spain
h = is never pronounced in French:
Hollande / the Netherlands
que, qui = are usually pronounced as in 'Kevin' and 'kilometer', without pronouncing (u):
Turquie / Turkey
r = has always this particular uvular sound that we all know. A little practice may be necessary!
Russie / Russia
th = is always pronounced as in Thames:
Athènes / Athens
It is also important to know that final consonants are usually not pronounced in French. In États Unis, for example, you must not pronounce (ts) in États nor (s) in Unis.
As to vowels, it is a little more complicated. Important things to know:
a = has always a similar sound to that of (a) in father:
Canada / Canada
e = is not usually pronounced at the end of the word. In other positions, it may or may not be pronounced. When it is pronounced, its sound is similar to that of (e) in (the) as in 'the sea':
Allemagne / Germany
é, è, ê = have different pronunciations (closed and open). For the moment, let us say that their pronunciation is similar to that of (e) in 'set':
États-Unis / USA
Grèce / Greece
I = has always a similar sound to that of (ea) in 'mean' (but generally shorter):
Australie / Australia
o, ô = have two pronunciations (closed and open). For the moment, let us say that it has always a similar sound to that of (ou) in 'resource' (without the ® and generally shorter):
Bolivie / Bolivia
u = has always the same pronunciation but this sound does not exist in English. It is similar to the German (ü):
Uruguay / Uruguay
Combinations of vowels are very common in French. Here are some usual combinations you must know:
ai = pronounced as è (see above):
Le Caire / Cairo
au = pronounced as (o) (see above):
Maurice / Mauritius
eu and œ = have a sound that does not exist in English. It is similar to the German (ö) and can be closed or open:
Équateur / Equator
oi = is pronounced as a diphthong (similar to the beginning of the diphthong in 'choir' or 'enquire'):
Côte d'Ivoire / Ivory Coast
ou = has always a similar sound to that of (oo) in 'boot' (but generally shorter):
Nouvelle-Zélande / New Zealand
French language has nasal vowels and these vowels are pronounced by letting the air pass through the mouth as well as the nose. You will recognize them because they are always written followed by (n) or (m) (but you must not pronounce (n) or (m)!).
an, am, en, em = have exactly the same pronunciation, similar to that of (o) in 'stop' (in British English) with the air passing through nose and mouth:
Antilles / the West Indies
Argentine / Argentina
in, im, un, um = have exactly the same pronunciation (although some speakers in some countries make a difference). It is like the sound of (è) (open e) with the air passing through mouth and nose:
Finlande / Finland
on, om = are pronounced as a nasal (o) (see above):
Hongrie / Hungary
All nouns in French are either masculine or feminine. Observe that every noun is accompanied by an article:
1. (un) if the word is masculine: un homme / a man
2. (une) if the word is feminine: une femme / a woman
To connect two words in a single phrase we use et / and. For instance, un homme et une femme / a man and a woman.
Note that not only nouns referring to persons are masculine or feminine; things also have a gender in French!
un vélo / a bike
une table / a table
Like other languages using gender (Spanish, German, Arabic, etc.), gender is arbitrary, meaning that it is the result of the evolution of words. Some words evolved to be masculine, other words to be feminine. In some languages, some words are neuter. Perhaps, knowing that many French words ending in an (e) are feminine could help you. But be aware that this is not a general rule. Homme ends in an (e) and it is a masculine word!
Like in English, French usually use (s) to indicate the plural number. The following are the most common ways of making plural nouns:
1. add s: la main - les mains / hand
2. add x: le genou - les genoux / knee
3. nothing if there is already s, x or z:
le bras - les bras / arm
la croix - les croix / cross
le nez - les nez / nose
L'image montre deux mains sur une tête / The picture shows two hands on a head.
And remember, unlike English, final consonants are usually not pronounced in French. Therefore, plural nouns have almost always the same pronunciation as corresponding singular nouns.
Irregular plural: un œil – des yeux / eye
L'œil d'un oiseau
The eye of a bird.
Deux yeux d'une femme
Two eyes of a woman.
Verbs describe actions or states. A very common verb is être / be:
je suis / I am
tu es / you are
il/elle est / (he/she is)
nous sommes / we are
vous êtes / you are
ils sont / they are
Observe that, unlike English verbs, French verbs may have a different form for each person. However, être is a very irregular verb. In fact, many other verbs follow a regular conjugation.
French verbs are usually divided into three groups:
1st group (regular): verbs ending in –er such as marcher / walk
2nd group (regular): verbs ending in –ir such as finir / finish
3rd group (irregular): verbs ending in –ir, –oir, –re such as courir / run, s'assesoir / sit, mettre / put
Verb tenses will be discussed in details in Chapter 6.
Unlike English, French usually puts adjectives after the noun.
C'est une personne intéressante
This is an interesting person.
However, short adjectives (one or two syllables) are usually put before the noun:
Qu'est-ce qu'il porte ?
What is he wearing?
Il porte un long pantalon
He is wearing long pants.
Notice that the word long comes before the noun because it has only one syllable.
In French not only nouns have a gender, but also adjectives have to agree with nouns' gender.
Qu'est-ce que tu portes?
What are you wearing?
Je porte une robe bleue
I'm wearing a blue dress.
Je porte un chapeau blanc
I'm wearing a white hat.
Notice that robe is a feminine word. In consequence, we have to use the feminine form of bleu, which is formed by adding (e). Thus we have the word bleue. On the other hand, chapeau is a masculine word. So, blanc can be used without changes.
Feminine adjectives are usually formed by adding (e). But there are some other possibilities. Here are the most important of them:
1. add (e): petit - petite / little
2. eux becomes euse: heureux - heureuse / happy
3. (f) becomes ve : neuf - neuve / new
4. er becomes ère: cher - chère / expensive
English, present actions may be expressed in different ways in French. When referring to habits or general facts, both French and English use present simple:
Le soir, le soleil se couche
In the evening, the sun goes down.
On the other hand, actions that are happening at the moment of speaking are usually expressed using present simple in French and present continuous in English:
J'apprends le français / I am learning French.
In French Future tense is called futur proche (similar to I am going to do). We need an auxiliary verb for futur proche, which is the same as in English:
Example: aller / go.
je vais / I go
tu vas / you go
il/elle va / (he/she goes)
nous allons / we go
vous allez / you go
ils/elles vont / they go
Observe how it is used (aller + infinitive):
Le chat va boire / The cat is going to drink.
Le cheval va sauter / The horse is going to jump.
Past tense is called passé composé (with a similar construction to I have done). As for passé composé, we need an auxiliary verb and a past participle. The auxiliary is avoir / have. The participle of verbs from the first group (ending in –er) is formed by adding (é) to the stem. For example, let us take the verb sauter / to jump. We remove the ending to obtain the stem saut-. Then, we add the past participle ending é. We have sauté.
Le cheval a sauté / The horse jumped.
As discussed passé composé is formed with an auxiliary verb and a past participle. Well, not all verbs use the same auxiliary. There is a small list of verbs that must be used with être / be.
aller / go
venir / come
partir / leave
arriver / arrive
sortir / go out
entrer / go in
monter / go up
descendre / go down
naître / be born
mourir / die
rester / stay
passer / pass
tomber / fall
In addition to a different auxiliary, these verbs also need that past participles agree in number and gender with the subject.
je suis allé / je suis allée (I went – masculine/feminine)
In many languages, prepositions are used to express the relation between two words or phrases. For example, we can indicate the position of something in relation to other things using dans / in, sur / on, and sous / under.
Un bébé dans une voiture / a baby in a car
Be aware, however, that a given English preposition does not always correspond to the same French preposition. For instance, the English preposition (in) is not always translated as (dans).
Compare the following examples:
a boy in a train station / un garçon dans une gare
a boy in Paris / un garçon à Paris
a boy in France / un garçon en France
Dans, à and en indicate all the location of something or someone. In general, you will always use (à) when referring to a city. (En) is used with some countries such as en Espagne / in Spain or en Allemagne / in Germany while other countries use other prepositions such as aux États-Unis / in the USA or au Japon / in Japan.
Let us take a look at personal pronouns with the verb avoir / have:
j'ai / I have
tu as / you have
il/elle a / (he/she has)
nous avons / we have
vous avez / you have
ils/elles ont / they have
Take note that the polite way of addressing people is using the pronoun vous. That is, vous means plural but also singular in a formal situation.
Vous avez une voiture
You have a car.
In the sentence above you are either addressing a single person in a polite way or addressing two or more persons.
If you want to address a single person in a familiar way, say:
Tu as une voiture
You have a car.
Observe the following examples:
Je lis le livre / I'm reading the book.
Je le lis / I'm reading it
Je lis la nouvelle / I'm reading the short story.
Je la lis / I'm reading it.
Je lis les lettres / I'm reading the letters.
Je les lis / I'm reading them.
In each sentence, the direct object is replaced with a pronoun. Unlike English, this pronoun comes before the verb and, only in the singular, agrees in gender with the object it refers to.
Indirect Object Pronouns
Je parle à ma femme / I'm talking to my wife.
Je lui parle / I'm talking to her.
Take note that indirect Objects are always accompanied by the preposition (à) while direct objects have no preposition. Do note also that indirect object pronouns are the same whether they refer to a masculine or a feminine word.
In French, negation is usually expressed in two parts. That is, French encircles the verb with two different particles. The first one is always (ne) and the second one may vary but is normally (pas) – other forms correspond to more specific negations such as never, not anymore, and so on. General negation is therefore formed like this: ne + verb + pas.
L'homme ne parle pas au telephone
The man is not talking on the phone.
When negation focuses on the absence of people we use personne / nobody.
Il n'y a personne dans l'atelier
There is no one in the workshop.
Remember that French uses double negation extensively. So, ne + verb + personne or personne ne + verb are quite natural. The former is used when personne is the object of the sentence and the latter when personne is the subject of the sentence.
In French, there are three different ways to make questions according to context. That is to say, the manner in which you pose your question depends on whether you are in a formal or an informal situation.
Not too formal but not too casual
To make a question, we only have to put est-ce que at the beginning of the sentence (or est-ce qu' if the following word begins with a vowel). Notice that the only function of this particle is to indicate that you are making a question.
Est-ce que le bébé est assis sur le canapé?
Is the baby sitting on the sofa?
Informal way of making a Question
Informal way of making question is going to be simple, all we have to do is put a question mark and pronounce the sentence with a different intonation. When you pronounce an affirmative sentence, your pitch usually goes down at the end of the sentence. To make a question, just make your pitch go up at the end of the sentence!
Les légumes sont dans la cuisine?
Are the vegetables in the kitchen?
This is probably the easiest way to pose a question in French. The manner in which you should ask a question depends on the situation. Questions with intonation are very natural in everyday, informal speech but, in general, are not always appropriated in more formal contexts.
Formal way of making Question
In order to pose a formal question in French, you only have to use subject-verb inversion, exactly as you do in English.
Portes-tu une chemise rouge?
Are you wearing a red shirt?
1. First, notice the hyphen, it is necessary!
2. Second, observe that the sentence contains a personal pronoun – tu / you. It is important to take note of this because inversion is slightly different in sentences with nouns.
Example with a noun as a subject:
Le garçon met-il un T-shirt?
Is the boy putting on a T-shirt?
When the subject is a noun, the noun must stay at the beginning of the question! Inversion is made by adding the corresponding pronoun after the verb – and putting a hyphen in between! It may sound redundant to have both the noun and the pronoun, but it is necessary.
Do not forget that inversion questions are mostly used in formal contexts and may be considered as weird in casual speech.
Qu'y a-t-il sur l'image? / What is in the picture? (formal speech)
When we make the inversion, we must keep 'y a' together and put (il) after the verb. What may look weird is that I added not only a hyphen in between but also a letter. This is necessary when both the verb ends and the pronoun begin with a vowel. We add -t- in order to separate these two vowels.
As in English, où / where is used to ask about someone's or something's location. When posing an est-ce que question, we always put the question word before the particle.
Où est-ce que l'homme est? / Where is the man?
The previous example is correct in French. However, it may sound a little unnatural. In fact, French-speaking people usually change the word order in this type of question.
Où est-ce qu'il est, l'homme? / Where is the man?
Notice that l'homme has been moved towards the end of the sentence and separated by a comma. Its place is now occupied by (il).
How to use this question word using the three different ways of asking a question:
Il est où, l'homme ? / Où il est, l'homme ? / Where is the man? (informal speech)
Où est-ce qu'il est, l'homme ? / Where is the man? (informal and formal speech)
Où est l'homme ? / Where is the man? (formal speech)
In questions with intonation, question words – except for que – can be either at the beginning or the end of the sentence.
In French question word what is quell. Take note that que also means what. The difference there is that quel is always followed by a noun while que cannot be followed by a noun:
Quel livre est-ce que tu préfères ? / What book do you prefer?
Qu'est-ce que tu fais? / What are you doing?
The question word pourquoi / why is used in a similar way to que / what. And as in English, parce que is used to answer pourquoi / why question.
Pourquoi le garçon est mouillé ? / Why is the boy wet? (in informal speech)
Pourquoi est-ce que le garçon est mouillé ? / Why is the boy wet? (in informal and formal speech)
Pourquoi le garçon est-il mouillé ? / Why is the boy wet? (in formal speech)
The question word qui / who, is used the same way as où / where. When we are enquiring about someone's identity, we can pose the following question:
Tu es qui ? or Qui tu es? / Who are you? (informal context)
'Qui est-ce que tu es? / Who are you? (informal and formal context)
Qui es-tu? / Who are you? (formal context)
The question word that is very useful for greeting and introduction: comment / how.
Bonjour. Comment vas-tu? / Hello. How are you?
Notice the question comment vas-tu ?. It would also be possible to say:
Tu vas comment ? (informal situations)
Comment est-ce que tu vas? (informal and formal situations)
When we compare two things in French, we use different words to express the type of comparison.
Have a look at these examples:
La fille est plus petite que le garçon / The girl is shorter than the boy.
La fille est aussi petite que le garçon / The girl is as short as the boy.
La fille est moins petite que le garçon / The girl is less short than the boy.
Superiority: A est + plus + adjective + que B
Equality: A est + aussi + adjective + que B
Inferiority: A est + moins + adjective + que B
Superlative comparison is the highest or the lowest degree of a quality.
L'éléphant est le plus grand animal sur l'image
The elephant is the biggest animal in the picture.
Le serpent est le moins grand animal sur l'image
The snake is the least big animal in the picture.
Superiority: A est le/la + plus + adjective
Inferiority: A est le/la + moins + adjective
0 – zero
1 – un
2 – deux
3 – trois
4 – quatre
5 – cinq
6 – six
Le garçon a une balle / The boy has one ball.
Le garçon a trois balles / The boy has three balls.
Le garçon n'a pas de balle / The boy has no balls.
1. plural nouns are formed by adding (s).
2. when referring to a negative quantity, general negation becomes ne + verb + pas de + noun'.
7 – sept
8 – huit
9 – neuf
10 – dix
11 – onze
12 – douze
13 – treize
14 – quatorze
15 – quinze
16 – seize
17 – dix-sept
18 – dix-huit
19 – dix-neuf
French numbers follow a very systematic pattern from 17 on. So it should not be difficult to understand the system.
20 – vingt
21 – vingt et un
22 – vingt-deux and so on…