Does your spoken French lack eloquence?
You may already be headed for the French major leagues.
You may even be participating in French conversations, or well on your way to doing so.
But there’s still room for improvement.
Sometimes, your French flows beautifully, like the sound of bells carried by the breeze on a clear summer’s day.
Other times, well…not so much.
The key to crossing the bridge from intermediate French conversation to advanced French conversation is all in the structural details.
Sure, a good command of vocabulary and common phrases is important.
But without the sentence structure needed to make that knowledge operational, you’re pretty much left pointing at stuff and yelling the French words and expressions you know, just hoping one of them fits the occasion.
And let’s face it, nobody wants that.
So here are some shortcuts to help fill in your knowledge gaps.
Come on, we’ll make your French more precise…and while we’re at it, extra fancy.
4 Simple Shortcuts for Advanced French Conversation Newbies
1. Sprinkle in “Si” Sentences
If only, if only. People like discussing possibilities. In French and English alike, you express such dreamy thoughts with the word “if” (si in French). If you’ve ever expressed these thoughts in French or tried to barter (If you give me a million dollars, I’ll eat that snail), you know how important that little word si is.
But here’s the thing: If you want to speak proper advanced fancy French, you need to know how to construct sentences around the word si.
So here are the four different types of si sentences or clauses.
It Happens All the Time
This formation is present tense + present tense and is used to describe something that happens regularly.
Both parts of the si clause are in the present tense, making this the easiest of the four types.
Here’s an example:
Si je ne parle pas anglais, je parle français. (If I don’t speak English, I speak French.)
I’d Bet My Horse on It
This formation of si clauses is used to express things that are likely to happen: the what-ifs that aren’t far-fetched.
It is formed with the present tense + future tense. In other words: If this happens now, then something else will happen later.
Si tu ne manges pas, tu auras faim. (If you don’t eat, you will be hungry.)
This form is used when you are describing an event that would happen if something else had happened in the past.
It uses the imperfect + the conditional (I’ve included a quick review of how to form these tenses at the bottom of the post, just in case you’re rusty).
Si j’économisais de l’argent, j’aurais un yacht. (If I was saving money, I would have a yacht.)
Now we’re getting into the serious hypotheticals. That is, something that would have happened if another event had happened first.
You can express this with the past perfect + conditional perfect. This one is used less commonly, so don’t worry if you aren’t too familiar with the verb conjugations.
But if you’re one to experience a lot of regret and want to talk about it in French, then you may want to peer at the end of the post and brush up on these tenses (you’d be surprised at how much you use them).
Here’s an example:
Si j’avais eu les œufs, j’aurais préparé une omelette. (If I had had eggs, I would have cooked an omelette.)
2. Exploit the Many Uses of “Que”
In French, you’ll find yourself using que in almost every other sentence. But you may have heard it in certain contexts and thought, “Why did they just use que?”
For French beginners, que is often equated with the English word “that.” And like the French word que, “that” is used very often in English.
So throw a que here, throw a que there, and you’re speaking like a pro, right?
Well, sort of. But first we need to break down the different ways it’s used.
Some of these you may already know, and others you might not be totally sure about.
Que can be used the same way “than” is used in English. Use it this way to compare one thing to another.
Je suis plus intelligent que lui. (I am smarter than him.)
As a Conjunction
Use que to combine phrases in the same fashion as “that” in English.
Je pense qu’il est américain. (I think that he is American.)
As an Exclamation
You can use que to say things with excitement! Yay! Comme is used the same way and is interchangeable with que in this case. It’s used like “how” in the phrase “How lovely!”
Que tu es intelligent! (How smart you are!)
In “Est-ce que”
Bet that looks familiar. When forming questions, est-ce que is the interrogative phrase that you pop in French phrases to make a question. It translates exactly to “is it that.”
Est-ce que vous comprenez? (Do you understand?)
As a Question Pronoun
There are three interrogative pronouns: qui, que and lequel. These are used in questions and are the who, what and which of the question world.
Que is used before est-ce que (there it is again) or with inversions in questions. In short, que is added to ask, “What?”
Qu‘est-ce que vous voulez? (What is it that you want?)
Tip: “What” in English serves more than one function. But in French, be sure to make the distinction between que and quoi: que as used above, and quoi for after the verb.
Tu veux quoi!? (You want what?!)
As a Negative Adverb (ne…que)
You’re probably familiar with these negations: ne…pas (not), ne…jamais (never), ne…plus (no more).
There’s also ne…que, which translates to “only.” This one is very useful in conversation.
Je n’ai qu’un croissant. (I have only one croissant).
As a Relative Pronoun
In this function, que is similar to “that” in English. Imagine that! Alright, that’s enough.
In this case, it also translates to “whom,” “what” and “which” in English. It’s used to replace a direct object and link two clauses.
Here’s an example if it’s not clear:
J’ai perdu le pull que ma grand-mère m’a fait. (I lost the sweater that my grandmother made me.)
3. Conquer Common Subjunctive Phrases
If you’ve been climbing the intermediate French ladder, you may already be familiar with this fun mood (oh and it’s moody, alright). By fun, I mean it takes some practice to get the hang of.
But the unfortunate truth is that proper French speakers actually use the subjunctive in everyday speech. It’s not just one of those crazy things your high school French teacher taught you for no reason.
And if you’re uncertain (ha, get it, because the subjunctive often expresses uncertainty), then here’s a quick review of how it’s formed and when to use it. But if you’re feeling limber and ready to dive into using it in conversation, put down that three-page list of subjunctive phrases and try out these common ones to get things moving right along.
- Il faut que (It is necessary that)
- Il est amusant(e) que (It is amusing that)
- Il est possible que (It is possible that)
- Il vaut mieux que (It is better that)
- Il est temps que (It is time that)
- Il semble que (It seems that)
- Il est nécessaire que (It is necessary that)
These can also be expressed in the second or third person.
- Je suis content(e) que (I am happy that)
- Je suis triste que (I am sad that)
- Je suis surpris(e) que (I am surprised that)
- Je suis désolé(e) que (I am sorry that)
- J’ai peur que (I am scared that)
Conjunctions That Take the Subjunctive
- jusqu’à ce que (until)
- avant que (before)
- pour que (in order that)
- sans que (without)
- quoique (although)
- le meilleur…que (the best that)
- le premier…que (the first that)
- le seul…que (the only that)
4. Leap into Action with French Verbs + Prepositions
It’s always those little words that make a big difference. If you want to be fully comprehended and express the intricacies of the language, you’ll need to know where to put prepositions when using French verbs. Prepositions like à and de can change the meaning of a verb and are often needed to properly construct a sentence.
Sometimes it can be tough to remember when to use them, which verbs take them and which don’t. And to make matters more confusing, it’s not always logical.
For example, in English you would say “I’m listening to the radio,” but in French, it’s “J’écoute la radio.” In some cases, you must resist the urge to add a preposition when it’s not needed!
So take a deep breath. We’re going to cover all your bases here, of course. Get these down (oh hey, flashcards), and you’ll advance right along. There are more than those listed below, but these are the ones you’ll encounter the most often.
Verbs That Use “à” When Followed by an Infinitive:
- aider à (to help to)
- apprendre à (to learn how to)
- chercher à (to attempt to)
- s’habituer à (to get used to)
- venir à (to happen to)
- réussir à (to succeed in __-ing)
- se mettre à (to start out __-ing)
Verbs That Use “à” When Followed by a Noun:
- croire à (to believe in)
- être à (to belong to)
- parler à (to talk to)
- ressembler à (to resemble)
- pardonner à (to forgive someone)
- goûter à quelque chose (to taste something)
Verbs That Use “de” When Followed by an Infinitive:
- accepter de (to agree to)
- accuser quelqu’un de (to accuse someone of)
- choisir de (to choose to)
- décider de (to decide to)
- essayer de (to try to)
- manquer de (to fail to)
- persuader de (to persuade to)
- refuser de (to refuse to)
Verbs That Use “de” When Followed by a Noun:
- s’approcher de (to approach)
- avoir envie de (to want)
- douter de (to doubt)
- se moquer de (to make fun of)
- s’occuper de (to take care of)
- partir de (to leave)
- se souvenir de (to remember)
- tenir de (to take after)
- se tromper de (to mistake)
French Conjugation Recap
In case you’re rusty, or just discombobulated from all this grammar-speak, here’s a quick refresher on how to form a few useful tenses. You can use these for si sentences, and they’re also just good to know!
The Imperfect Tense
This past tense is the English equivalent of “I was __-ing.” Basically, while the perfect tense (passé composé) is something that happened at a defined moment, the imperfect tense is something that was happening continuously.
To form it, you’ll use the present stem of the verb from the nous form:
Nous partons (We leave)
Take away the nous and the -ons, to find the stem: part-
Then, add the endings for the imperfect tense:
Mix it all together and you’ve got:
Je partais (I was leaving)
The only irregular stem for this tense is for être (to be): ét-
Yay! An easy tense!
The Conditional Mood
This tense is used to express things that would happen (see why it’s important for si sentences?). In English, the equivalent is “would” + the verb. If you’re familiar with the future tense, forming the conditional will be easy as pie! You’ll use the same stems as the future tense (the stem is the infinitive of a verb, with the exception of some irregulars).
The endings for the conditional are the same as the imperfect (refer to the endings above to form the conditional!).
The conditional is like a marriage between the future tense stem and the imperfect tense endings.
There you have it!
The Past Perfect Tense
Yay compound tenses! If you’re approaching advanced french, then you should be well acquainted with the conjugation of the most common past tense, the perfect tense (passé composé). The past perfect is almost like the double past, something that happened in the past before something else did.
In English, you know it as “He told me that he had been in Peru.”
Like when conjugating the perfect tense, you use avoir or être. But instead of using the present tense conjugation for the auxiliary, you use the conjugation of the imperfect, giving you:
And to round off this compound tense, throw in the past participle of the verb:
J’avais vu (I had seen)
Tu étais parti (You had left)
Il était tombé (He had fallen)
Nous avions nagé (We had swum)
Vous aviez dansé (You had danced)
Ils avaient eu (They had had)
Oh, and it uses all the same rules as the perfect tense, agreements and all.
The Conditional Perfect
I know this one sounds scary, but it’s really just another compound tense that may pop up now and again (especially with those si sentences). It’s important to be familiar with it if you’re serious about French. Also known as the past conditional, it expresses things that would have happened.
Being a compound tense, it’s formed similarly to the past perfect. You combine the conditional and the past participle (again following the same rules as the perfect tense).
So you take the conditional of the auxiliary:
J’aurais, tu aurais, il serait, nous serions, vous seriez, ils auraient, etc.
And once again, add the past participle:
Je serais allé(e). (I would have gone.)
Tu aurais acheté. (You would have bought.)
Il serait mort. (He would have died.)
Nous aurions dansé. (We would have danced.)
Vous seriez tombé(e)(s). (You would have fallen.)
Ils auraient vu. (They would have seen.)
Now you’re all set for those si sentences, and you can sprinkle these fancy tenses in whenever needed to enhance your French conversational skills!
Once you master these four shortcuts, you’ll be skipping ahead to the glories of advanced French conversation. Now if only you could get your accent right…
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