French grammar

From Academic Kids

French grammar is the study of grammar in the French language.



Verbs are classified by the endings on their infinitives: an "-er verb," for example, is a verb ending in -er. The great majority of verbs are -er verbs, but there are many -ir verbs, and a few -re verbs. Historically, these groups descend from Latin's -are, -ire, and -ere verbs, respectively.

In most -ir verbs, the suffix -ir becomes the infix -iss- in parts of the conjugation; this infix descends from Latin's inchoative infix -isc-, which is also the root of Italian's -isc- and Romanian's -esc-. From the French infix -iss-, English derives several inchoative verbs ending in -ish, such as finish (from finir), polish (from polir), and nourish (from nourrir).

Most verbs are conjugated by adding various endings to the verb stem, where the stem is obtained by removing the ending from the infinitive; however, -er, -ir, and -re verbs are all conjugated differently from one another, and there are many irregular verbs. The choice of ending to add depends on the subject's person (first, second, or third person) and number (singular or plural), as well as on the verb's own mood, tense, and aspect. However, many endings will be the same for multiple verb forms, or will be homophones (spelled differently, but pronounced the same), such that subject pronouns are obligatory in modern French: without the pronouns, "je chante" ("I sing") and "il chante" ("he sings") would be indistinguishable, and in speech, both would be indistinguishable from "tu chantes" ("you sing").


As with English verbs, French verbs are conjugated in three moods: an indicative (l'indicatif), an imperative (l'impératif), and a subjunctive (le subjonctif). While the rules that determine the correct mood are quite complex, they are simplified and summarized in the following table:

  • used in most independent clauses
  • used in affirmative and negative statements and questions
  • used in dependent clauses that are certainly true
  • used when no other mood applies
  • "Où êtes-vous ?" ("Where are you?")
  • "Je suis ici." ("I am here.")
  • used in commands and requests
  • only possible with first-person plural and second-person singular and plural subject
  • the subject is implied
  • almost exactly as in English
  • "Fais tes devoirs !" ("Do your homework!")
  • used in many dependent clauses
  • used to express a doubtful, desired, or requested event
  • used to express an event to which the reaction is of most significance
  • used to express a third-person imperative
  • used much more than in English
  • "Il se peut qu'il vienne demain." ("It may be that he'll come tomorrow.")
  • "J'ai demandé qu'il parte." ("I asked that he leave.")
  • "Je suis heureux qu'il soit venu." ("I'm glad that he came.")
  • "Vive le roi !" ("Long live the king!")

Note that many linguists admit of a fourth mood, the conditional (le conditional), which is used in almost exactly the same circumstances as the conditional in English: in French, "Je le ferais si j'avais assez de temps," while in English, "I would do it if I had enough time." Other linguists consider the conditional to be a specific tense within the indicative mood. The two camps do not disagree in the rules for when and how to use the conditional.

Tenses and aspects

Tenses and aspects of the indicative mood

The indicative mood has five "simple" (synthetic) tenses: the present (le présent), the simple past (le passé simple), the imperfect (l'imparfait), the future (le futur), and the conditional (le conditionnel). Note that, as discussed above, the conditional can be considered a separate mood completely, rather than a tense of the indicative. The use of the various tenses is described in the following table:

  • used to describe ongoing events in the present
  • sometimes used to describe upcoming events
  • used in a protasis (if-clause) when the apodosis (then-clause) is in the future tense or imperative mode
  • often used in describing historical events
  • much like in English, except that there is no continuous aspect marker
  • "Le mardi, je joue au tennis." ("On Tuesdays, I play tennis.")
  • "En ce moment, je joue au tennis." ("At the moment, I'm playing tennis.")
  • "Demain, je joue au tennis avec Marc." ("Tomorrow, I'm playing tennis with Marc.")
  • "Si je joue au tennis avec vous mardi, jouerez-vous aux échecs avec moi mercredi ?" ("If I play tennis with you on Tuesday, will you play chess with me on Wednesday?")
simple past
  • used to describe past events in a perfective or aorist aspect; that is, with a sense of completion, with a definite beginning and end
  • nowadays replaced with the compound past (present perfect), except in literature or very formal speech
  • "Et la lumière fut." ("And there was light.")
  • "Il naquit 1930 et mourut 1998." ("He was born in 1930 and died in 1998.")
  • "Hier, il plut." ("Yesterday, it rained.")
  • used to describe past events or situations in an imperfective aspect; that is, ongoing past events or situations
  • often used in conjunction with the simple or compound past to indicate an event that was ongoing while another took place
  • used in a contrary-to-fact protasis (with the apodosis in the conditional)
  • often analogous to English past continuous (e.g., "was doing")
  • "Quand j'étais jeune, j'habitais à Paris." ("When I was young, I lived in Paris.")
  • "Il rangea la salle tandisqu'elle faisait la vaisselle." ("He cleaned the room while she was washing the dishes.")
  • "Si je le savais, je te le dirais." ("If I knew it, I would tell you.")
  • used to describe future events
  • mostly the same as in English, except that it is a simple (one-word) tense in French
  • "Je le ferai demain." ("I'll do it tomorrow.")
  • used in an apodosis when the protasis is contrary to fact (in the imperfect)
  • used to describe a past event from the standpoint of an even-earlier event
  • mostly the same as in English, except that it is a simple (one-word) tense in French
  • "Si je le savais, je te le dirais." ("If I knew it, I would tell you.")
  • "Ils dirent que je réussirais." ("They said that I would succeed.")

Additionally, the indicative has five compound (two-word) tenses, each of which results from applying the perfect aspect (e.g., "have done") to one of the above simple tenses. These tenses are used to indicate events prior to the corresponding simple tenses; for example, "A ce moment-là, il se souvint de ce qu'il avait promis" ("At that moment, he remembered what he had promised"). In addition, except in literature or very formal speeches, the present perfect is used in modern French wherever the simple past would have been used in older or more literary writing. Since this use is much more common than its use as a true present perfect, it is usually called the compound past (le passé composé). Further, where older or more literary French would have used the perfect aspect of the simple past tense (le passé antérieur), modern non-literary French uses the pluperfect (le plus-que-parfait; the perfect aspect of the imperfect tense), or sometimes a new form called the surcomposé (literally, "over-compound"), which re-applies the perfect aspect to the compound past, resulting in a structure like "Je l'ai eu fait" (literally, "I've had done it").

Unlike English or Spanish, French does not mark for a continuous aspect. Thus, "I am doing it" (continuous) and "I do it" (not) both translate to the same sentence in French: "Je le fais." However, this information is often clear from context; and in the case of the past tense, the difference between the imperfect tense and the simple and compound past tenses is often the difference between continuous and not.

Tenses and aspects of the subjunctive mood

The subjunctive mood has only two simple tenses: a present (le présent du subjonctif) and an imperfect (l'imparfait du subjonctif). Of these, only the present is used nowadays; like the simple past indicative, the imperfect subjunctive is only found in older and more literary works. When both tenses are used, there is no difference in meaning between the two; the present is used in subordinate clauses whose main clauses are in a present or future tense, as well as in the few main clauses that use the subjunctive, and the imperfect is used in subordinate clauses whose main clauses are in a past tense. Except in literature and very formal speeches, modern French uses the present subjunctive wherever an older or more literary work would use the imperfect.

As with the indicative, the subjunctive also has one compound tense for each simple tense. The difference between the present perfect subjunctive (le passé du subjonctif) and the pluperfect subjunctive (le plus-que-parfait du subjonctif) is analogous to the difference between the present subjunctive and imperfect subjunctive; of the two, only the present perfect subjunctive is found in modern French.

Tenses and aspects in other verb forms

The tenses and aspects of other verb forms are mostly as in English, except for the lack of a continuous aspect marking:

  • The imperative only has a present tense, with a rarely-used perfect aspect: "fais-le" means "do it," while "aie-le fait" means "have done it."
  • The infinitive has a present tense, with a perfect aspect: "faire" means "to do," while "avoir fait" means "to have done."
  • There is a present participle, with a perfect aspect: "faisant" means "doing," while "ayant fait" means "having done." As noted above, this participle is not used in forming a continuous aspect. Further, it cannot be used as a noun, in the way that present participles in English have the same form as gerunds; the only noun verbal is the infinitive.
  • There is a separate past participle: "fait" means "done." As in English, it can be used in the passive voice, in the perfect aspect, or on its own as an adjective. The past participle has no perfect aspect, except arguably in the special surcomposée tense described above.

Compound tense auxiliary verbs

In French, all compound tenses are formed with an auxiliary verb (either être "to be" or avoir "to have"). Most verbs use avoir as their auxiliary verb. The exceptions are sixteen commonly used verbs of motion or change of state, as well as their derivatives, and all reflexive verbs. Those sixteen verbs, plus three common compounds, are:

  • (Devenir - to become)
  • (Revenir - to get back)
  • Monter - to climb/go up
  • Rester - to stay
  • Sortir - to go out
  • Venir - to come
  • Aller - to go
  • Naître - to be born
  • Descendre - to go down
  • Entrer - to enter
  • Retourner - to send back/ to return
  • Tomber - to fall
  • (Rentrer - to return)
  • Arriver - to arrive
  • Mourir - to die
  • Partir - to leave or part

As is implied above, these verbs spell the mnemonic "Mrs Vandertamp" (or "Dr Mrs Vandertramp" if the three compounds are included).

In other Romance languages, such as Italian, this exact same distinction is made between the two auxiliary verbs. The semantic basis for it lies in the quality of the subject; where the subject is not an active agent or initiator of the action or change (that is, when it is an unaccusative verb) the auxiliary être is used.

The distinction between the two auxiliary verbs is important for the correct formation of the compound tenses and is also essential to the agreement of the past participle.

Past participles

The past participle is used in French as both an adjective and to form all the compound tenses of the language. When it is used as an adjective, it follows all the regular agreement rules of the language, but when it is used in compound tenses, it follows special agreement rules.

-er verbs form the participle by changing the -er ending to , -ir verbs by changing -ir to -i, and -re verbs by changing to -u. Therefore, the past participle of parler, "to speak", is parlé; for finir, "to finish", fini, and for vendre, "to sell", vendu.

The rules of agreement for past participles differ for avoir verbs and être verbs. For avoir verbs, the past participle does not agree with the subject, but it will agree with a direct object that comes before the verb, either in the form of a pronoun or a relative clause using que: elles ont mangé les fraises que j'avais cueillies. Elles les ont mangées.

For the sixteen commonly used être verbs, the past participle always agrees with the subject: elles sont parties. For reflexive verbs, the past participle generally agrees with the subject, unless there is a direct object to the reflexive verb coming after this verb: elles se sont lavées, elles se sont lavé les mains. Past participle used in reflexive verbs that only have indirect object never agrees: elles se sont parlé (elles ont parlé à elles-mêmes).



Every French noun has a grammatical gender, either masculine or feminine. The grammatical gender of an animate noun usually corresponds to the noun's natural 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 the section on articles); 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 "professeur" ("teacher") is always masculine, 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 -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").

As with English, nouns are inflected for number; to form a plural noun from the singular, usually add -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") in their singular forms generally do not change forms even in writing. However, some nouns are pronounced differently in their plural forms: œil ("eye") becomes yeux, cheval ("horse") becomes chevaux, and os ("bone" or "bones") is pronounced differently when it is plural from when it is singular; 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 the section on articles). 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 case or person. (However, pronouns are; see the section on pronouns.)


French has three articles: definite, indefinite, and partitive. (The meaning and use of each is described below.) Articles agree with their nouns in gender and number; for example, a feminine, singular noun requires a feminine, singular article. However, none of the articles distinguishes between masculine-plural and feminine-plural; thus, each article has a masculine, singular form, a feminine, singular form, and a plural form. The morphology of the articles is as follows:

  singular plural
masculine feminine
definite article le1,2 la1 les2
indefinite article un3 une3 des4
partitive article du5,6 de la5,6 des4,5
  1. Le and la become l' before a vowel; see the section on elision and liaison.
  2. The prepositions à ("to" or "at") and de ("of" or "from") contract with le(s) to form au(x) and du/des, respectively. These contractions are obligatory, except that le does not contract before a vowel (since it becomes l').
  3. Un(e) is also the word for "one"; this makes semantic sense.
  4. Des is the plural form of both the indefinite article and the partitive article; this makes sense, as there is no real difference in meaning. Note that many grammarians describe it as exclusively indefinite or as exclusively partitive, saying that the other article has no plural form; this amounts to the same thing.
  5. The partitive article is formed by adding the preposition de ("of" or "from") to the definite article.
  6. Du and de la become de l' before a vowel; see notes 1 and 5 above.

The French definite article is analogous to the English definite article the. Like the, the French definite article is used with a noun referring to a specific item when both the speaker and the audience know what the item is; so, "J'ai cassé la chaise rouge" ("I broke the red chair"). Unlike the, the French definite article is also used with an uncountable noun to describe all of it, or with a plural noun to describe all of them; so, "J'aime le lait" ("I like [no article] milk") or "J'aime les romans" ("I like [no article] novels").

The French indefinite article is analogous to the English indefinite article a/an. Like a/an, the French indefinite article is used with a noun referring to a non-specific item, or to a specific item when the speaker and audience don't both know what the item is; so, "J'ai cassé une chaise rouge" ("I broke a red chair"). Unlike a/an, the French indefinite article has a plural form, often translated as some but usually simply omitted in English; so, "Il y a des livres là-bas" ("There are some or [no article] books over there").

There is no English partitive article; the French partitive article is often translated as some, but often simply omitted in English. It is used to indicate an indefinite portion of something uncountable, or an indefinite number of something countable: so, "J'ai du café" ("I have some or [no article] coffee").

As may be seen from the above, French, articles and determiners are required in French much more often than in English. This might be attributed to the fact that in speech, it is generally impossible to distinguish the singular and plural forms of a noun, so it is useful to include articles and determiners so as to make the distinction clear.


Most adjectives follow the noun, except for a small but common subset, corresponding roughly to adjectives describing beauty, age, goodness, or size (BAGS). For some adjectives, the meaning changes based on its position relative to the noun:

  • mon ancienne maison ("my former house") vs. ma maison ancienne ("my ancient house")
  • ma propre maison ("my own house") vs. ma maison propre ("my clean house")
  • un grand homme ("an important man") vs. un homme grand ("a tall man")

Many compound words contain an adjective: belle-mère (one word: "mother in law") vs. belle mère (two words: "handsome mother"). Some of them use an archaic form of the feminine adjective (without -e): grand-route, grand-rue (but une grande route "a long way", une grande rue "a long street").

Possessive determiners

Possessive determiners (or possessive adjectives) agree with the object possessed:

singular plural
masculine feminine
possesser first person singular mon ma mes
plural notre nos
second person singular ton ta tes
plural votre vos
third person singular son sa ses
plural leur leurs


  • This is my car. C'est ma voiture.
  • Their flowers are pretty. Leurs fleurs sont jolies.


Personal pronouns

  singular plural
first person je nous
second person informal tu vous
formal vous
third person masculine il ils
feminine elle elles
indefinite on  

On is commonly used to translate the english passive voice and is comparable to english's one ("on a volé la Joconde" would be literally translated by "(some)one has stolen the Joconda (Mona Lisa)"). In addition, on is tending to replace the more formal nous in oral situations ("on a ce qu'il faut" for "we have what's needed").

Direct object pronouns

  singular plural
first person me nous
second person informal te vous
formal vous
third person masculine le les
feminine la

Note: The pronouns me, te, and le/la contract to m', t', and l' respectively.


  • (I have a book.) I'm giving it to the teacher. Je le donne au prof.
  • (Danielle is my sister.) Have you seen her? Est-ce que tu l'as vue?

Indirect object pronouns

Indirect object pronouns replace only people.

  singular plural
first person me nous
second person informal te vous
formal vous
third person lui leur

Note: lui is used for both masculine and feminine indirect objects.


  • Je donne mon livre à elle. becomes Je lui donne mon livre.
  • Il prépare une surprise à moi. becomes Il me prépare une surprise.

Notice that reflexive and indirect object pronouns cannot be used together.

  • WRONG: Je me fie à ce mécanicien. does not become Je me lui fie.
  • RIGHT: Je me fie à ce mécanicien. does become Je me fie à lui.

Reflexive pronouns

  singular plural
first person me nous
second person informal te vous
formal vous
third person se se

Note: me, te, and se contract to m', t', and s' respectively.

As odd as it may seem, the French do say "nous nous voyons tous les jours" ("we see each other daily") thus repeating twice nous (or vous).

Possessive pronouns

Possessive pronouns agree with the object being possessed.

  singular plural
first person masculine le mien le nôtre
feminine la mienne la nôtre
second person masculine le tien le vôtre
feminine la tienne la vôtre
third person masculine le sien le leur
feminine la sienne la leur

Note: To form the plural of these pronouns, simply add -s. Example: les vôtres (yours)


  • Is this car yours or mine? Cette voiture, c'est la tienne ou la mienne?
  • I'm talking to my brother while you're talking to yours. Je parle à mon frère pendant que tu parles au(x) tien(s).

Object Pronouns

The pronoun y

y is used to replace a preposition plus a noun, some of which are the following:

  • à
  • en
  • dans
  • derrière
  • devant
  • sous
  • sur


  • Allez-vous à Paris? Oui, nous y allons.
  • Est-ce que tu travaille dans ce bureau? Non, je n'y travaille plus.

The pronoun en

en is used to replace:

  • an indefinite article
    • Tu connais des professeurs ici? Oui, j'en connais.
  • partitive expression
    • Voulez-vous du jus? -> Non, je n'en veux pas.
  • nouns used with quantity expressions or numbers
    • As-tu des frères? Oui, j'en ai deux.
  • de noun
    • Il est revenu de France? Non, il en revient lundi.
  • de infinitive
    • Ils ont peur de nager? Oui, ils en ont peur.


Lequel is used as the interrogative pronoun in French. It signifies which one or which ones. It agrees with the noun it replaces:

  singular plural
masculine lequel lesquels
feminine laquelle lesquelles

Examples: "Lesquelles dois-je lire, parmi ces lettres? ("Which ones should I read, among those letters?") "Lequel est le plus amusant?" ("Which [of them] is the funniest?")

Lequel can be contracted with à and de.

  • "Je veux parler à un jeune homme." "Auquel?" (I want to talk to a young man. To which one?)
  • "J'ai besoin de ces stylos." "Desquels?" (I need these pens. Which ones?)



  singular plural
masculine ce
cet (before vowel)
feminine cette ces

The demonstrative determiners (or demonstrative adjectives) can mean either this or that, these or those. To be more precise or to avoid ambiguity, -ci or -là can be inserted after the noun:

  • cet homme-ci "this man"
  • cet homme-là "that man"

Ça is a popular shorthand form for cela (meaning that, it can mentally understood as : ce-là (this-there)). For example :

  • Ça/cela n'a pas d'importance (it doesn't matter)
  • Tu vois ça (pointing with index)? Eh bien, c'est la tour Eiffel (You see this? It is the Eiffel tower)

Notice here the widely used in oral "c'est", a compound of ce and est.

Another demonstrative determiner, the word quel, means which or what. It agrees with the noun it modifies:

  singular plural
masculine quel quels
feminine quelle quelles

Examples: quel train, quelle chaise, quels hommes, and quelles classes.

Quel can be used as an exclamation.

  • "Quel film!" (what a movie!)
  • "Quelle gentillesse!" (what kindness!)


  singular plural
masculine celui ceux
feminine celle celles

These pronouns agree with the noun they refer to (this one, that one, these ones, those ones). To distinguish between this/that and these/those, -ci or -là can be used as a suffix just as in the demonstrative determiners.

  • "Tu vois cet homme? Celui-ci? Non, celui-là." "Do you see that man? This one here? No, that one over there"


French has a two part negation, consisting of the ne particle, which signifies a global negation, preceding the verb, and one of several other words following the verb, clarifying the type of negation:

  • ne ... pas "not"
  • ne ... rien "nothing"
  • ne ... jamais "never"
  • ne ... personne "nobody" (but the word personne alone means person)
  • ne ... aucun(e) "not any", but not identical to the german kein
  • ne ... plus "not any more, no longer"
  • ne ... guère "not much, not any" (archaic)
  • ne ... que "only"
  • ne ... point "not" (literary equivalent of ne ... pas)


  • Je ne sais pas. "I don't know."
  • Nous n'avons vu personne. "We didn't see anybody."
  • Il ne fume plus. "He doesn't smoke anymore."
  • Je n'ai aucune idée. "I have no idea."

In colloquial French it is common to drop the ne in fast speech, although this can create some ambiguity with the construction, meaning either "I (do something) still" or "I (don't do anything) any more."

It is also common in current literary style to omit the pas when the construction is of the ne...pas form with the verbs vouloir and pouvoir ("to want", "to be able to").

Word order

  • Subject
  • ne (establishes global negation within phrase)
  • Reflexive pronoun
  • Indirect Object pronoun me, te, nous, vous
  • Direct Object pronoun
  • Indirect Object pronoun lui, leur
  • y and/or en
  • Finite verb form
  • complement to ne to clarify form of negation (pas, rien, personne, jamais)
  • Past participle
  • Object (may be a negative complement)fr:Grammaire française



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