How well do you and the French language know each other?
If you’ve been studying French for a while now, you’ve probably noticed a few things about it that aren’t obvious to outsiders.
For example, slang phrases and words can seem indecipherable, and sometimes it takes straight memorization to figure them out.
French idioms are even worse because even though you think you know the words that are being used, speakers employ them to mean completely different and unrelated things.
And then there’s casual French.
Casual French is the French used in informal circumstances. These circumstances include conversations with friends or family, interactions on social media and language use in media such as TV shows, movies and even some books.
More often than not, informal spoken French is the most common form of casual French, and it is different from written French because it is more okay to break prescriptive grammar rules—rules that speakers can bend while still being comprehensible.
While it’s not advisable to break all the grammar rules of French (because your French will end up being a completely incoherent word salad), there are some rules that you can definitely ignore in casual situations.
French speakers break these rules all the time (causing grammarians to shudder and lose sleep), and you’ll be relieved to know that the ability to communicate is not lost.
So before we give you a crash course in acceptable rule-breaking, let’s take a quick look at some resources you can use to get familiar with this new way of speaking.
Resources for Getting to Know Casual French on a More Intimate Basis
Though the best way to practice your I-don’t-care-about-the-rules-and-I’m-going-to-break-them outlook is to find a French friend to practice your casual language skills with, there are also a number of casual French guides available.
Check these ones out:
“Contextualized French Grammar: A Handbook” by Stacey Katz Bourns
“French Slang: Do you speak the real French? The essentials of French slang” by Mr. Frederic Bibard
“Dirty French: Everyday Slang from “What’s Up?” to “F*%# Off!” by Adrien Clautrier and Henry Rowe
And if you want to see this laid-back French in action, FluentU has a ton of great videos jam-packed with casual French that would horrify diehard grammar purists. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for your enjoyment.
Now grab your helmet, you rule-breaker, you. We’re about to engage in some educated rearrangement of the language.
Take a Hike! 5 French Grammar Rules You Can Send Packing in Casual Situations
1. Using ne in the negative
In formal, written French, the negative is formed one main way. Though there are a few exceptions where this rule can be broken in formal French, a negative phrase normally must be made by surrounding the verb with ne and pas. Check out these examples:
Je ne veux pas. (I don’t want.)
Elle n‘a pas d’argent. (She doesn’t have any money.)
Ils ne vont pas à l’école. (They’re not going to school.)
Well, I’m about to blow your mind. That helmet I told you to bring? Put it on.
In casual French, speakers can drop the ne particle in negative constructions. This means that only the pas particle remains, but the phrase itself means exactly the same thing it would if the ne particle had remained.
Check out these phrases translated into casual French:
Je veux pas. (I don’t want)
Elle a pas d’argent. (She doesn’t have any money.)
Ils vont pas à l’école. (They’re not going to school.)
Simple, right? Exactly. The French can’t bother being meticulous in casual circumstances. Surrounding your verb with both the ne and pas is too much work! Besides, there bigger things to worry about, like making crêpes or hollandaise sauce. Now those are things that require meticulous attention!
2. Using nous to mean “we”
When studying French, learners are often taught that on means “one” and nous means “we.” On probably seems silly to English speakers when we think of it that way:
On va à la bibliothèque. (One goes to the library.)
I mean, who uses the pronoun “one” besides the Queen?
In any case, French speakers use the pronoun on (one) to replace the pronoun nous (we) in casual circumstances.
It’s almost like when speakers use the pronoun tu (you, informally) instead of vous (you, formally) when addressing someone in a situation that doesn’t need the utmost formality.
Check out these examples below:
Nous devons aller au magasin (We have to go to the store) becomes…
On doit aller au magasin.
Nous sommes allés à la fête de Marie (We went to Marie’s party) becomes…
On est allés à la fête de Marie.
So you see? The meaning is the same. There’s only one thing you need to watch out for: Even though on is taking on the meaning of nous in casual French, you must still conjugate the verb properly.
If you use on, you cannot use the nous ending. You must conjugate the verb with the on pronoun.
3. Keeping je and il y a intact
As with the ne situation, casual French can’t be bothered with pronouncing every single letter in a word in the way that formal French wants to. Save meticulous for crêpes and hollandaise sauce, remember?
In casual French, the word je (I) shortens to j’ in front of consonants and vowels instead of just in front of vowels like it does in formal French. The best part: This is completely acceptable, and there is no change in meaning!
Check out these examples:
Je suis heureux (I am happy) becomes…
Je veux boire du lait (I want to drink some milk) becomes…
J’veux boire du lait.
It’s also interesting to note that when je (I) shortens to j’ in front of suis (am), its pronunciation becomes [shui].
And the same thing happens to il y a (there is).
In casual French, speakers drop the il of this phrase and shorten it to only the y a. Despite how odd it might sound at first, the phrase still remains completely comprehensible:
Il y a un livre sur la table (There is a book on the table) becomes…
Y a un livre sur la table.
4. Using ceci, cela, etc.
In formal French, speakers use indefinite demonstrative pronouns to denote what object or thing they are talking about.
For example, instead of saying Je veux cette tasse (I want that cup), they might say Je veux cela (I want that one over there). I would go on to explain what each indefinite demonstrative pronoun means and where you should use each one, but in casual French, it doesn’t matter.
(But if you wanted to know, ceci is for things that are close by the speaker and cela is for things that are farther away.)
In fact, replace all of them with ça (that)!
Now, in all my years of learning French, I have never seen one French teacher who could keep the veins in their forehead from bulging when a student used ça instead of the proper indefinite demonstrative pronoun, but in casual French, it’s completely okay.
Je veux cette tasse (I want that cup) would become…
Je veux cela (I want that) in formal French.
Je veux ça (I want that) is what it becomes in casual French.
One exception to take note of, though, is the expression ceci dit or cela dit (that being said). In this case, you can’t say ça dit. Well, you can, but it’ll sound weird.
5. Est-ce que… ?
In formal French, there are two main ways to make questions (though there are more). For questions that require a yes or no answer, take the statement in the declarative form and add Est-ce que in front of it.
It looks something like this:
Vous parlez avec Jacques (You speak with Jacques) becomes…
Est-ce que vous parlez avec Jacques ? (Do you speak with Jacques?)
There is also another way: inversion. Take the subject of the sentence (vous, in this case) and the verb of the sentence (parlez, in this case) and invert them.
You get something like this:
Parlez-vous avec Jacques ? (Do you speak with Jacques?)
But why be so complicated? When using casual French, there’s no need for est-ce que or inversion, simply say the declarative phrase with a rising intonation like you would ask any other question:
Vous parlez avec Jacques ? (You speak with Jacques?)
Again, know that breaking these rules in casual French won’t affect your ability to make yourself understood.
Native French speakers have been breaking them for…well, forever!
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