Advanced French Tune-up: Getting Your Adjectives In Key and On Beat
So, you’ve been banging away at this French game for a while now.
You’ve had to negotiate the subjunctive, get the past tenses nailed down and develop those all-important listening skills.
So let’s revisit adjectives, an essential part of French vocabulary and a beacon of descriptive hope!
For a complete review of French adjective usage and a shiny new list of adjectives especially for you, the advanced French learner, read on.
- How to Use French Adjectives: The Advanced Edition
- Must-know Advanced French Adjectives
How to Use French Adjectives: The Advanced Edition
Yeah, you use them to describe a noun. We know that part. They’re the same in English. So what on earth could we mean by “how” to use them? Well, you can’t just go throwing them around willy-nilly. They’ve got a place, a way and they have cousins, too.
So get these three points down before you start going crazy with your descriptions.
1. Put adjectives in their place
To be before the noun or to be after the noun? That is the question. Back in your early days, you probably went over this in French class and skimmed over it in your textbook. It may not have seemed like a huge concern. But now you want your French to be top-notch, no details left out, and for that you need to be certain of whether that adjective is going before or after the noun.
It Goes Before the Noun If…
Remember this nice little acronym: B-A-N-G-S.
Beauty: Adjectives like joli(e) (pretty) and belle/beau (beautiful) go before the noun, because they describe beauty.
Age: Adjectives like jeune (young) and vieux/vieille (old) go before the noun.
Numbers: Ha! Bet you forgot numbers can be adjectives! No? You didn’t? Okay. Well, they go in front of the noun, in case you forgot.
Goodness: Adjectives that you use to say how good or bad something is, like bon(ne) (good) and mauvais(e) (bad), will go before the noun.
Size: Adjectives like petit(e) (small), gros(se) (fat) and haut(e) (high) are front-runners as well.
EXCEPTION: Grand(e) used before a person means “great,” as in un grand homme (a great man), but after a person means tall. So un homme grand is “a tall man.”
Okay, one more thing. Nope, we’re still not done here.
We didn’t add this to the acronym, because there’s just no room for an F, unless you want to call it B-FANGS. Adjectives that are functional, as in they don’t really serve to describe, will go before the noun. Here’s a little list for you:
autre — other
plusieurs — several
même — same
première, deuxième, troisième, etc. — first, second, third…
double, triple — double, triple
It Goes After the Noun If…
Yay! Start cheering, because most descriptive adjectives go after the noun. Unlike in English, where saying “the cup big” might get you some funny looks, adjectives’ default spot is after the noun in French.
So if we’re talking color, taste, personality, mood, nationality or religious affiliation, then they go after the noun. Basically, when in doubt, just remember BANGS, (or B-FANGS if you’re up for using a rapper name), and in all other cases, tack it after the noun.
Advanced Bonus: Adjectives That Have Multiple Personality Disorder
I’m sorry, did I say at any point that French adjectives were simple? Nope, but don’t worry, we’re going to explain these fun little exceptions and anomalies as coolly and easily as possible.
There are some adjectives that completely change meaning based on where you decide to put them.
Here’s the main list:
ancien(ne) — before: former / after: old, ancient
un ancien palais (a former palace)
un palais ancien (an ancient palace)
seul(e) — before: only / after: lonely
le seul hippopotame (the only hippopotamus)
l’hippopotame seul (the lonely hippopotamus)
certain(e) — before: particular / after: sure
une certaine marque (a certain brand)
une valeur certaine (a sure winner)
cher/chère — before: dear / after: expensive
ma chère bague (my precious ring)
ma bague chère (my expensive ring)
gros(se) — before: big / after: fat
le gros chat (the big cat)
le chat gros (the fat cat)
brave — before: amiable / after: courageous
un brave héros (a likable hero)
un héros brave (a courageous hero)
curieux/curieuse — before: strange / after: inquisitive
un curieux étudiant (a strange student)
un étudiant curieux (an inquisitive student)
pauvre — before: wretched / after: not rich
une pauvre veuve (a wretched widow)
une veuve pauvre (a not rich widow)
pur(e) — before: simple / after: untainted
un pur esprit (a simple mind)
un esprit pur (an untainted mind)
propre — before: ownership / after: clean
ma propre voiture (my own car)
ma voiture propre (my clean car)
So yeah, be careful with these adjectives, as using them incorrectly could lead to some unhappy mix-ups.
In addition, there are a few that have an even smaller distinction depending on whether they are before or after the noun.
If you’re an advanced learner who’s ready to get extra nitpicky, here they are:
rare — before: rare as in precious / after: rare as in infrequent
une rare peinture (a precious painting)
une peinture rare (a rare painting)
sale — before: dirty, nasty, rotten / after: physically dirty
une sale pensée (a rotten thought)
une chemise sale (a dirty shirt)
vrai(e) — before: real, serious / after: real, true
une vraie histoire (a serious story)
une histoire vraie (a true story)
véritable — before: real, serious / after: real, genuine
un véritable discours (a serious speech)
un discours véritable (a genuine discourse)
2. Is it a boy or a girl?
Ah, everyone’s favorite grammar rule: gender agreement! As you know, adjectives need to agree with the noun they are describing. For example, you can have either une vieille pomme (an old apple) or un vieux yaourt (an old yogurt). By the way, eww, but you see what I’m getting at. Sometimes it’s straightforward and sometimes, not so much. For a more in-depth discussion on French gender rules, check this post out. For now, let’s just talk adjective rules.
The Easy to Remember Endings
As a seasoned French connoisseur, you may be aware of a chunk of the gender and quantity agreement rules. For example, with most adjectives you just tack on an e for feminine, an s for masculine plural and an es for feminine plural. This works with a lot of the common adjectives, like these:
But of course we’ve got some endings that just won’t conform. Here are our rebel endings and what to do with them.
If the masculine singular ends with an e, then it will be the same for the feminine, like with these adjectives:
For the plural, you simply add an s.
If the masculine singular ends with an x, then it will end with se for the feminine:
For the masculine plural it stays the same, and for the feminine plural, add an s.
If the masculine singular ends with an f, then it will end with ve for the feminine:
For the plural, you simply add an s.
If the masculine singular ends with er, then it will end with ère for the feminine:
For the plural, you simply add an s.
Sometimes, if the masculine singular ends in a consonant like n, s or l, then it will end with a double consonant and an e for the feminine, like with these:
For the plural, you’ll usually add s, unless it already ends in an s, in which case you do nothing.
The Ones You Need to Think About Real Hard
And of course, there are the exceptions, the ones that change COMPLETELY when you try to make them feminine.
These, if you haven’t already memorized them, need to go into your brain’s “French vault”:
(These are listed in this order: masculine/feminine/masculine plural/feminine plural.)
You’re likely to come across more exceptions as your French gets even more advanced. For the most part, they follow the rules we mentioned before, and these will soon come naturally just from immersion.
3. Add it to a verb
All this talk about nouns and adjectives makes you feel sorry for the neglected verbs. Well, luckily for verbs, and for you, if you like your language extra-flowery and descriptive, French has adverbs just like English does. Adverbs describe a verb and usually end in ment, kind of like how English adverbs usually end in ly.
Unfortunately, not everything about French adverbs is the same as in English, so let’s hit a few points that will help you use them correctly, perfectly and precisely. (See what I did there so gracefully?)
Adjectives You’re Allowed to Turn into Adverbs
So there’s a little differentiation we can make between types of adjectives. No, it’s not that some of them are a pain in the butt and some are easy as pie, but that there are both qualitative and classifying adjectives.
Here are some examples of qualitative adjectives:
These describe qualities (hence the name) of the noun.
A classifying adjective would be like these:
These categorize the noun. Generally speaking, you can turn a qualitative adjective into an adverb, but not a classifying adjective.
Kind of like how “beautifully” is a perfectly acceptable adverb in English, but Frenchly is just…not a word.
In addition, just because an adverb exists in English doesn’t mean it does in French. Though there’s usually a word that exists to express it, it may not have been the translation you were trying for in the first place.
Rules and Regulations for the Transformation
Okay, now that we’ve accepted that not everything can be turned into an adverb, let’s talk about what we can do.
Normalement (normally): In most cases, you simply take the feminine form of an adjective and add ment to the end, like so:
Plein (full) becomes pleine in the feminine, and then with the ending, it becomes the adverb pleinement (fully).
Parfait(e) (perfect) becomes parfaitement (perfectly).
Haut(e) (high) becomes hautement (highly).
And so on and so forth.
There are a few other rules to abide by. Let’s say your adjective ends with ant or ent. You would chop off the ant or ent, and add amment or emment (respectively).
Here’s how it looks:
Courant (common) becomes couramment (commonly).
Récent (recent) becomes récemment (recently).
ATTENTION: Adjectives whose singular masculine form already ends in a vowel like vrai (true) or poli (polite), will get the normal treatment except that you use the masculine singular instead of the feminine singular before adding ment (giving you vraiment and poliment) just to avoid too many unnecessary vowels.
Irrégulièrement (irregularly): Here come the exceptions! Luckily, there aren’t too many.
Bref/brève (brief) becomes brièvement (briefly).
Gentil/gentille (nice) becomes gentiment (nicely).
And of course, the two adverbs that have been haunting you since your beginner French days:
Bien (well) is the adverb; bon (good) is the adjective.
Mieux (best) is the adverb; meilleur (best) is the adjective.
Now don’t you forget it again!
It can be difficult to grasp at first, but remember: Practice makes perfect.
You can give yourself a hand by using an app to help you differentiate between your bien and your bon. A program like FluentU, for example, will let you see the words in action through authentic French videos, and will help you remember them with personalized quizzes.
Or, you can listen to this Cliff Notes podcast that goes more in-depth in explaining this concept.
Must-know Advanced French Adjectives
Okay! You get it! Now you’re an expert on how to use adjectives as well as their verbose cousins, adverbs, and basically you’re just a French know-it-all. To wrap things up, let’s give you some new material to work out your newfound adjective knowledge with.
Marguerite, une femme osseuse mais saine, avait un chat potelé. À cause de sa carrure, Marguerite était un peu maladroite. Quand elle donnait à manger à son chat, elle lui faisait souvent tomber la boîte de thon dessus. C’était donc un chat très amer
(Marguerite, a bony but healthy woman, had a chubby cat. Because of her build, Marguerite was a little clumsy. When she fed her cat, she often dropped the can of tuna on him. So he was a very bitter cat.)
This means bony, like the catacombs. Use it to describe body parts, illnesses and that skeleton in your closet.
This means healthy, but you may already have made the connection to the English word for good mental health. (“I promise I’m sane!”) Use it to describe people who aren’t sick, food that won’t kill you and things that are just good and wholesome.
This means chubby, so be careful who you describe with it. Though it’s not vulgar, reserve it for describing animals or babies to avoid getting slapped in the face.
This means clumsy. Keep this word in mind for when you’re trying to describe someone as “awkward” in French, as that is one of those pesky words that just doesn’t translate. It may not cover every meaning of “awkward,” but you can use it to describe someone physically so.
This means bitter, and that goes for both people with a bone to pick and food that leaves a bad (or good, if you’re into that sort of thing) taste in your mouth. Use it to describe someone who’s resentful or that grapefruit from yesterday morning.
Marguerite, malgré la désapprobation de son chat, a décidé de repeindre sa cuisine. Elle a choisi des couleurs diverses. Il était pinailleur, mais il a finalement choisi vert. Marguerite était d’accord avec vert, mais elle voulait vert foncé et il voulait vert clair. Ils se sont disputés pendant quinze jours. Enfin, Marguerite était épuisée. Le chat puissant avait gagné et la cuisine serait verte.
(Marguerite, despite the disapproval of her cat, decided to repaint the kitchen. She chose various colors to show her cat. He was fussy, but he finally chose green. Marguerite was okay with green, but she wanted dark green, and the cat wanted light green. They fought for fifteen days. Finally, Marguerite was exhausted. The powerful cat had won and the kitchen would be green.)
This means nitpicking. Fussy or persnickety, as we know it. Use it to describe someone who won’t stop pecking at the details, but maybe not to their face. Let’s be nice French speakers, okay, guys?
These mean dark/light. These are particularly useful terms when you are talking about colors. One day, you’re going to have to ask someone to hand you a crayon in French, and you’re going to want to be specific.
This means exhausted. When fatigué (tired) just isn’t going to cut it, break this one out. In addition, it also means “out of stock,” as in your favorite coffee brand is épuisé and now you’ll be épuisé without it.
This means powerful. A force to be reckoned with! Violent! Influential! Almighty! It really depends on the context you are using it in, so you could break this adjective out for either your powerful dishwasher or a violent and all-powerful dictator. Your choice.
Quand Marguerite a fini sa cuisine, elle a invité ses amis pour une petite fête. Avant, elle avait dit à son chat d’être sans préjugés, parce que le chat n’était pas très poli avec les autres. Heureusement, le chat s’est caché quand les amis de Marguerite sont arrivés. Tous ses amis étaient bavards, et ils sont rapidement devenus pompettes. Tous sauf Marguerite, qui était sensible à l’alcool et était complètement bourrée après trois verres. Elle n’arrêtait pas de dire des blagues bébêtes, et le chat, sous le canapé, a tout filmé avec son smartphone.
(When Marguerite had finished her kitchen, she invited her friends over for a little party. Before, she had told her cat to be open-minded, because the cat was not very nice with others. Luckily, the cat hid when Marguerite’s friends arrived. All her friends were chatty, and they quickly became tipsy. Everybody but Marguerite, who was sensitive to alcohol and was completely drunk after three glasses. She kept on telling silly jokes, and the cat, under the couch, filmed all of it with his smartphone.)
This means open-minded. Actually, more specifically it means without prejudices. Just préjugé means prejudiced, and is a helpful adjective to know. So whether you’re talking about someone who is or isn’t prejudiced, remember this one.
This means chatty. And there’s a verb too! Bavarder (to chat). Man, I love this word. Use it to describe your crazy aunt, your best friends or your dog, if he won’t stop barking.
This means tipsy. This is more of a slang word, yay slang! If you’ve had a little to drink but aren’t completely sloshed, this cute-sounding French word is the perfect description.
This means sensitive. Faux ami alert! It does not mean sensible. The adjective for sensible is pratique, raisonnable or sensé. Use this adjective to describe someone who’s kind of touchy or in a delicate situation.
This means wasted. If you’re no longer pompette, went overboard and need a new adjective, then this is your guy. It is also more informal speech, so make sure you’re saying tu es bourré with friends, and not vous êtes bourré with a stranger.
This means silly! (Cue giggles.) AKA goofy, childish or daft (if you’re British). Use it to describe anything that has you either eye-rolling at its childishness or makes you smile because it’s just so darn silly!
Seriously, next time you have a conversation with your French exchange partner, it should be beautiful with all of these adjectives and adverbs.
There are a lot of rules involving gender and placement, and there are almost no bounds on how much new vocabulary you can derive from them.
But before you know it, you’ll be fluent and using French adjectives like you’ve known the rules your whole life.