One of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had learning French came, ironically, from teaching English.
I was working in Quebec with government officials, and on the wall of our classroom was a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” (no food, pick up before you leave, turn off the monitor, etc.).
Since it was a government building, the list was written in both English and French and became a visual joke throughout the course.
Why? Because even though both sides of the list had the same content, the French side was nearly twice as long as its English equivalent.
The English list was short, concise and to the point.
The French side was more flowery and complex and had loads of French conjunctions.
I was curious.
As I began learning more about the French language, I soon understood why French uses so many conjunctions: French’s roots stem from Latin, a language that used declension and that required the use of conjunctions to be understood.
In this post, we’re going to look at how French conjunctions are derived from the mother language (Latin) and introduce three types of French conjunctions: coordinating, correlative and subordinating.
At the end of this article, you’ll not only know how to use each type of conjunction, but you’ll also understand why conjunctions are so important to the soul of the French language.
French Conjunctions and Their Latin Roots
As many already know, French is one of the five most commonly used romance languages with Latin roots.
What a lot of people don’t know, however, is the way Latin syntax works. Without getting into too much detail (lest this post start sounding like a boarding school lesson), Latin was a language that used declension, which means that a sentence’s word order was much less strict.
In order to understand a word’s function in a specific phrase, you’d simply look at the ending of the word to see how it declined.
For example, in English you would say, “The boy carries water.” It’s the classic subject, verb, object formation of a sentence that English relies on.
The same phrase in Latin, however, could be said six different ways:
- puero portat aquam
- puero aquam portat
- aquam puero portat
- aquam portat puero
- portat aquam puero
- portat puero aquam
The word order itself doesn’t actually matter. The way the word ends (or “declines”) tells you the specific role it plays in the sentence.
You know that puero (the boy) is the subject because of the ending -o, that aquam (the water) is the object because of the ending -am and that portat is the third person singular verb because of the ending -at. (Yeah… no wonder this language died out, right?)
Now I know what you’re thinking: “What does any of this have to do with French conjunctions?!”
In a language that uses declension, sentences can become confusing really quickly. That’s why Latin relied heavily on clear conjunctions as signposts to help the reader or listener keep track of the conversation. As Latin matured with Roman oratory, the language became more flowery and complex, often packing entire paragraphs into one sentence. As you can imagine, this required conjunctions.
Modern French (which doesn’t use declensions) is so heavily rooted in Latin that conjunctions are an essential part of sounding like a native speaker. Whereas English will take a paragraph and break it into five separate sentences, French will naturally stretch all the same parts into a single, complex and often quite beautiful phrase in the same way Latin did.
It’s important to keep this in mind, as many French learners will break up all their ideas into bite-sized chunks (as they would in English) when just a few conjunctions in their toolbelt would help them sound more like a native speaker.
So, without further ado, let’s ditch the Latin and get to the good stuff. There are three main types of French conjunctions: coordinating, correlative and subordinating.
French Conjunctions: Fearlessly Bridge the Gap Between Ideas in French
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And now, it’s time to dive in to our list of French conjunctions!
French Coordinating Conjunctions
The role of a coordinating conjunction is to combine two words or clauses of equal importance (meaning neither clause relies solely on the other).
For example, here is the coordinating conjunction “and” combining two equally important words:
Sarah likes books and hot chocolate.
In this sentence, the implication is that Sarah likes both books and hot chocolate equally.
Now, let’s see the same conjunction used to combine two equal clauses:
Sarah likes books, and she likes to go to the park.
Here, we have two main clauses that could fully stand on their own feet (grammatically speaking, that is): Sarah likes books. She likes to go to the park.
We can join them with the conjunction “and” because they’re of equal significance.
But “and” isn’t our only option. Let’s look at 10 French coordinating conjunctions and how they work!
1. Car (because)
Example: Il mange car il a faim. (He’s eating because he’s hungry.)
This conjunction is more often seen in writing and less used in everyday conversation. If you want a coordinating conjunction that’s more often spoken, just check out the next term.
2. Parce que (because)
Example: Il mange parce qu’il a faim. (He’s eating because he’s hungry.)
It’s surprising to see how many lists of coordinating conjunctions in French leave out parce que (because). Though it has a few subtle differences from car (because), it has become nearly the same in meaning and use. The largest difference between the two? Parce que is typically spoken whereas car is typically written.
3. Or (but/and yet)
Example: Il faudrait arriver au travail avant 8h30, or, il y a trop de traffic. (It’s required to be at work before 8:30, but/and yet, there’s too much traffic.)
Though many websites will say that or means “now,” it’s more often used to mean “but” or “and yet” when used as a conjunction.
Also, note that the word “traffic” used in the example above isn’t a purely French term, but the English word has become popularized in everyday spoken French. The actual French word would be la circulation (traffic).
4. Ensuite (then)
Example: Je vais aller au travail et ensuite au magasin. (I’m going to go to work and then to the store.)
When used as a French coordinating conjunction, ensuite (then) is typically preceded by another conjunction, et (and), as seen above. They are, however, two separate conjunctions.
5. Et (and)
Example: J’aime ma maman et mon papa. (I love my mom and my dad.)
Et (and) is one of the most common coordinating conjunctions and works well to join two sentences or words together. In the example above, you can see that it’s used to join two words: ma maman (my mom) and mon papa (my dad).
In some cases, it can be used to combine two separate clauses.
J’aime ma maman et j’adore mes amis. (I love my mom and I really like my friends.)
6. Ou (or)
Example: Veux-tu un verre du vin ou une baguette… ou peut-être les deux? (Do you want a glass of wine or a baguette… or perhaps both?)
Ou (or) is another common French conjunction that allows a speaker to provide two options of equal importance.
Note: This is not to be confused with où, which means “where.” Notice how the accent grave (grave accent) distinguishes between the two. If this trips you up, don’t worry. Homophones can be tough! It just takes a little practice.
7. Ou bien (or else/or otherwise)
Example: Vous pouvez utiliser une carte de crédit, ou bien, nous accepterons aussi les chèques. (You can use a credit card, or otherwise, we’ll also accept checks.)
This one can be tricky to master. In most dictionaries or online resources, you’ll find the translation for ou bien as “or else.” However, in practical use, I’ve found that it more often means something closer to “or otherwise,” as in the example above. This is particularly true since in English the phrase “or else” can have a threatening connotation which it doesn’t take in French.
8. Puis (then)
Example: Je me suis habillé, puis je suis allé dehors. (I got dressed, then I went outside.)
Puis (then) is nearly synonymous with ensuite (then) though there is an important difference. Puis is strictly used as a conjunction to join two sentences together and can never be placed at the end of a phrase. Ensuite, however, can be used as a conjunction (as seen above) but can also be used as an adverb and placed at the end of a sentence.
For example, you can say, “Qu’est-ce qu’il a fait ensuite?” (“What did he do then/next?”), but you can never say, “Qu’est-ce qu’il a fait puis?”
9. Mais (but)
Example: Je veux aller au spectacle, mais je n’ai pas assez d’argent. (I want to go to the concert, but I don’t have enough money.)
This French conjunction simply means “but” and is used just as in English: when you have two equal clauses but the second phrase adds information that contradicts the first.
10. Donc (therefore/so)
Example: J’ai fait le ménage, donc je peux aller au cinéma. (I cleaned so I can go to the movies.)
Donc (therefore/so) connects two related clauses and shows a cause and effect. In other words, X is true donc (therefore) Y is true.
Coordinating conjunctions are an essential part of stepping up your game and reaching French fluency. Again, they’re used when you’re joining two sentences or words of equal importance.
French Correlative Conjunctions
In some cases, you can join coordinating conjunctions to expand your ideas and express even more complex thoughts. This type of conjunction is sometimes referred to as a “correlative conjunction.”
Here’s a list of correlative conjunctions.
1. Ni… ni (neither… nor)
Example: Ni lui ni elle m’aime trop. (Neither he nor her like me very much.)
This French conjunction is used in exactly the same way as you would say “neither… nor” in English. Though ni isn’t properly considered a coordinating conjunction (although it’s sometimes improperly used as such), it’s a powerful tool when expressing multiple things in the negative. It’s the opposite of ou… ou, as we’ll see next.
2. Ou (bien)… ou (bien) (either… or)
Example: Vous avez deux choix pour desserts, ou (bien) du gâteau ou (bien) de la crème brûlée. (You have two choices for dessert, either cake or crème brûlée.)
While you can use ou bien… ou bien (or… or), the simple ou… ou construction is most typically heard in spoken French.
3. Soit… soit (either… or)
Example: Il faut choisir soit le rouge soit le bleu. (You need to choose either red or blue.)
This combined conjunction is nearly identically to ou… ou, as seen above, and is regularly used in spoken French. However, soit… soit is arguably preferable in French writing.
Again, combining coordinating conjunctions can be a powerful tool for French learners. But sometimes, you want to express two ideas that aren’t equally important. In these cases, you’ll need to combine the phrases with a subordinating conjunction, which we’ll discuss below.
French Subordinating Conjunctions
Sometimes when expressing yourself, you want to join two phrases together. However, one of your sentences is entirely dependent on the other (hence why it’s formally known as a “dependent clause”).
“I’ll give you a ride to the grocery store if you give me $5.”
There are two parts of this sentence: “I’ll give you a ride to the grocery store” and “you give me $5.”
The second part (“you give me $5”) isn’t able to stand on its own without the main clause (“I’ll give you a ride”). In this case, the second part creates a condition to the main clause, so we use the appropriate conjunction “if.”
However, there are many other instances where you would want to join two unequal phrases. Let’s take a look at them in French.
1. Que (that)
Example: Je pense que finalement il ne viendra pas. (I think that, in the end, he isn’t going to come.)
This French conjunction is incredibly common! It introduces a second clause that compliments the first or adds some necessary information to the main clause. It’s most often translated as “that” in English, as in “I think that…” or “It’s a good thing that…” and is used as a segue into a dependent clause.
2. Lorsque (when)
Example: Je fais toujours mes devoirs le vendredi soir lorsque je veux sortir le samedi. (I always do my homework on Friday night when I want to go out on Saturday.)
This French conjunction comes from the phrase lors que (once) and has come to mean “when.” You typically won’t hear lors que in everyday conversation, as it’s more formal.
3. Quand (when)
Example: Je nageais beaucoup quand j’étais jeune. (I swam a lot when I was young.)
Another conjunction meaning “when,” quand is more popularly used than lorsque (when). The two are practically interchangeable but, honestly, you’re always safer to stick with quand.
4. Comme (like/as/since)
Example: Ses yeux brillaient comme des diamants. (Her eyes shine like diamonds.)
Comme (like/as/since) is used to compare two things or to indicate the cause of something. Above, it’s used in the comparative form, but consider the following sentence indicating causality:
Comme elle a beaucoup d’argent, elle peut acheter n’importe quoi. (Since she has lots of money, she can buy anything.)
In this example, the fact that she has lots of money results in (or causes) the fact that she can buy anything.
More often than not, however, comme will be used as a comparison, as seen in the first example.
5. Puisque (as/since)
Example: Mon ami est allé au restaurant puisqu’il avait faim. (My friend went to the restaurant since he was hungry.)
Similar to comme (like/as/since), puisque also means “as/since.” However, it’s strictly used to indicate cause. Oftentimes, puisque can be translated more loosely as “because” in English, but the formal use and definition is “since.”
Keep in mind that you can also start a sentence with puisque, making the above example look like this:
Puisqu’il avait faim, mon ami est allé au restaurant. (Since he was hungry, my friend went to the restaurant.)
6. Si (if)
Example: Je t’aiderai si tu m’aides avant. (I can help you if you help me first.)
Si (if) is used to indicate a condition, meaning that the main clause will only be true if the dependent clause is true. It functions in the exact same way that the word “if” does in English.
7. Quoique (even though)
Example: Je me lève vers 5h00 le matin quoique je préfère dormir plus tard. (I wake up at 5:00 in the morning even though I prefer to sleep longer.)
Quoique (even though) is a conjunction that joins two related ideas but indicates two opposing ideas. In the example above, you have the main clause (that you wake up early) and the secondary clause which goes against the first (that you would prefer to sleep later).
Quoique is a slightly shorter equivalent to malgré que (despite the fact that).
Learning how to master your French conjunctions is a necessary part of growing as a French speaker. Conjunctions allow you to combine thoughts to make more complex sentences rather than just stringing along a series of simple ideas.
In other words, these little idea-connectors give you infinitely more freedom to express yourself which is, of course, the whole point of learning French in the first place!
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