Have you ever tried eating a dish without any seasoning?
No spices. No salt. No sauce. Just the main ingredient.
Imagine trying to eat even something as simple as rice and beans like that. It wouldn’t be very enjoyable, would it?
But if you cook the beans slowly in tomato sauce, add some meat and spices and serve it over rice (which I love when my mom does), you get a delicious and satisfying meal.
And if you marinate chicken, add seasoning and vegetables and cook it slowly in wine, you get a hearty, traditional French coq au vin.
Sauce (which is used copiously in French cooking), herbs and condiments are key to creating a quality plate of food. After all, no one wants to eat boring, tasteless meals.
Why would language be any different?
You can think of nouns and verbs as the “meat” or primary parts of a sentence. But without descriptive adjectives, your sentences will come out dry and flavorless.
French is such a rich language. There are so many descriptive words, from basic everyday adjectives to more advanced or literary terms. Growing your repertoire of descriptive French words won’t just boost your written and spoken French, but will also endow you with a deeper appreciation of the language itself.
Here, we’ll introduce you to a variety of French descriptive words spanning various contexts. We’ll talk about describing what something looks like, what someone’s personality is like, how you feel and more.
How to Use French Adjectives
Good news! Adjectives in French have the same use as adjectives in English. They function, in essence, as descriptive words. They modify a noun and provide extra information we wouldn’t otherwise have.
We often use them without even realizing it! And we can employ them for something as simple as pointing out an object’s color to articulating a complex mélange of emotions surrounding a breakup.
Should You Put Them Before or After the Noun?
Okay. There’s also some not-so-good news: there are a couple significant differences between French and English in how adjectives are employed.
First, in French, adjectives usually come after the noun, not before. For instance, you’d say le vase rond (the round vase).
Did you notice I said “usually?” Well, if there’s anything you should know about French grammar, it’s that there are always exceptions to the rules. In this case, there’s an acronym to help you remember what adjectives go before the noun (like they do in English).
That acronym is BAGS:
- Beauty: Words such as beau (handsome), belle (beautiful) and joli (pretty) go before the noun.
On peut trouver les plus belles robes au centre commercial. (One can find the most beautiful dresses at the mall.)
- Age: Jeune (young) and vieux (old), as well as other words pertaining to age, precede the noun.
Quand il était un jeune écrivain, il habitait à Paris. (When he was a young writer, he lived in Paris.)
- Goodness: When writing your great French philosophical treatise on the battle between good and evil—what else would you do in your spare time?—remember to put bon (good) and mauvais (bad, evil) before the noun.
Son mauvais projet est de régner sur le monde. (His evil plan is to rule the world.)
- Size: Words like petit (small) and grand (big) precede the noun.
Je promène mon petit chien chaque jour. (I walk my little dog everyday.)
Make Sure They Agree with the Noun’s Gender
There’s one more thing to keep in mind when using French adjectives in a sentence. The gender of the adjective must match the gender and plurality of the noun it modifies. This means that the spelling of the adjective may change.
Generally, when you look in a textbook or at a vocabulary list, you’ll find the adjectives in their masculine singular form. In most cases, to make an adjective feminine, add “-e” and to make it plural, add “-s.”
If the masculine form already ends in “-e,” such as with mince (skinny), you don’t need to change anything when using it with a feminine noun.
Sometimes, you must add an extra consonant before putting the “-e” on the end of the word. For instance, the feminine form of gros (fat) is grosse.
If an adjective ends in “-eux,” the feminine ending becomes “-euse” and feminine plural is “-euses.” For example, heureux (happy) becomes heureuse in the feminine form. The masculine plural doesn’t change.
And, surprise! (Not really, though). There are adjectives that are completely irregular! I wish I could lie to you, but these simply need to be memorized.
I know. So much to remember. But in the list below, we’ll walk you through it. Adjectives will be listed in their masculine singular form, and if the word doesn’t follow the standard rule of adding “-e/-s” for agreement, we’ll let you know how to put them in the proper form.
Where to Practice with Descriptive Words
Reading this article is a great start to boosting your French, but learning must always be put into practice in order to stick. These are some very practical ways you can take the next step:
- Tex’s French Grammar reviews adjective agreement and has a fill-in-the-blank exercise.
- If you’re ready for a bit more of a challenge, this Sporcle quiz has you type in the correct form of the adjective—and it features several irregulars!
- Whether in English or in French, using the same old adjectives over and over again makes for boring communication. Practice words you learn here and discover many more with Quizlet’s virtual flashcards.
- A couple of good places to start include this set and that set. Then, expand your repertoire even further with advanced French adjectives.
- FluentU is the best way to practice descriptive French words in real-world contexts. FluentU provides authentic French videos, like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring talks and more, that’ve been transformed into personalized language lessons.
There are interactive captions for every video. So whenever you encounter an unfamiliar adjective (or any other type of word) you can click on it for an instant definition, pronunciation and visual learning aid. You’ll also see other videos that have the word, so you can quickly learn how it’s used in different contexts.
FluentU also provides flashcards and quizzes tailor-made for every video, so you won’t forget what you’ve learned. It’s a fun way to actively build your French comprehension and communication skills, while absorbing French as native speakers actually use it.
To get your description skills in gear, check out this video explaining France’s favorite sandwich or this slightly surreal film re-imagining Picasso as a variety of textures. You can explore the full video library for free with a FluentU trial.
Make Your French Magnifique with These Meaningful Descriptive Words!
Since we use adjectives to talk about everything from cars to complex emotions, we understandably have a wide array of words to choose from, which is why we’ve broken them down into categories.
Lookin’ Hot? (Or Not): Physical Description
Certainly the most well-known kind of adjective, physical descriptive words characterize what a person, place or thing is literally like—it’s something we can determine via our five senses.
Doux (soft, sweet) and dur (hard)
Son animal en peluche est si doux! (His stuffed animal is so cute!)
Note that in the feminine form, doux becomes douce.
Laid (ugly) and joli (pretty)
Ma femme est la plus jolie dans le monde! (My wife is the prettiest in the world!)
Check out this article to learn more about using the comparative and superlative in French.
Mince (skinny) and gros (fat)
On doit faire de l’exercice pour ne pas devenir gros. (One must exercise in order to not become fat.)
Remember that because mince already ends with “-e,” the feminine form is the same.
Similarly, as gros already ends with “-s,” the masculine plural doesn’t change. However, we do add “-s” for the feminine form of gros, making it grosse.
Sec (dry) and mouillé (wet)
Après une heure au soleil, mes vêtements sont encore mouillés! (After an hour in the sun, my clothes are still wet!)
I’m sorry, but sec is a very weird adjective: the feminine form is actually sèche.
Droit (straight) and courbe (curved)
Les enfants en maternelle apprennent à dessiner une ligne droite. (Children in kindergarten learn how to draw a straight line.)
Raidés (straight) and bouclés (curly) — as in hair
Nous avons tous les cheveux bouclés. (We all have curly hair.)
Note that we’re presenting these two adjectives in the plural because you normally won’t talk about a single strand of hair.
Add some color to your conversation! Don’t forget that colors are important descriptive words too.
Think colors are a bit too simple for your French prowess? Make your description more precise by adding foncé (dark) or clair (light).
Leur nouvelle maison est bleue claire. (Their new house is light blue).
It’s What’s On the Inside That Counts: Personality
I’m sure you have a dazzling personality, but what good is it when you can’t brag a bit about it? Or how will you talk about that friend with a dynamite sense of humor? These words will help you communicate what someone’s like.
Amical (friendly), gentil (nice, kind) and méchant (mean)
Elle est si méchante. Elle refuse absolument de me parler. (She is so mean. She absolutely refuses to talk to me.)
Note that with gentil, we add an extra consonant so that the feminine form is gentille.
Courageux (courageous, brave) and lâche (cowardly)
Ceux qui ont caché les Juifs des Nazis pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale étaient vraiment courageux. (Those who hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II were really brave.)
Recall that “-eux” becomes “-euse” in the feminine form.
Fort (strong) and faible (weak)
Mon frère a un esprit faible. Il croit tout ce qu’on lui dit. (My brother has a weak mind. He believes everything one tells him.)
Remember not to add an extra “-e” to faible in the feminine form.
Assuré (confident) and timide (shy)
Elle parle rarement en classe parce qu’elle est timide. (She rarely speaks in class because she is timid.)
Don’t attach an extra “-e” to timide in the feminine form.
Drôle (funny) and ennuyeux (boring)
Mon grand-père me racontait des histoires drôles de sa jeunesse. (My grandfather used to tell me funny stories about his youth.)
Drôle in the feminine form doesn’t need another “e” and ennuyeux becomes ennuyeuse in the feminine.
Digging Deep: Feelings
Whether you like to keep your deepest emotions inside or have everything out in the open, knowing how to discuss what you feel like (both physically and emotionally) will go a long way.
Malade (sick) and sain (healthy)
Ma mère est malade avec la grippe. (My mom is sick with the flu.)
As the example sentence demonstrates, malade is both the masculine and feminine form.
Heureux (happy), malheureux (unhappy) and triste (sad)
La chanson est si triste. Je pleure chaque fois que je l’écoute. (The song is so sad. I cry every time I listen to it.)
Fâché (angry) and content (pleased)
J’étudiais toute la semaine, et maintenant je suis complètement contente avec ma note. (I studied all week long and now I am completely pleased with my grade.)
Pressé (rushed), nerveux (nervous) and calme (calm)
Vous devez rester calme! Je suis sûre que tu vas trouver un bon travail. (You must remain calm! I am sure you will find a good job.)
The feminine form of nerveux is nerveuse.
Fatigué (tired), épuisé (exhausted) and vif (lively)
À cause de son cancer, mon oncle est souvent fatigué. (Because of his cancer, my uncle is often tired.)
Note that vif has an irregular feminine form, vive. Just add “-s” to make it plural.
Functional Descriptive Words
Okay, we may not think of these as often, but functional adjectives are used very often and play a key role in structuring a sentence. The reason I call them “functional” is that they’re less concrete and more often serve a grammatical purpose rather than explicitly describing what something’s like.
You’ll get the idea as you look over this list.
Autre (other, different)
Oui, je suis d’accord avec vous sur cette question, mais l’avortement est une autre chose. (Yes, I agree with you on that question, but abortion is a different matter.)
Certain (certain, different)
Excusez-nous, nous cherchons un certain homme qui habite ici. (Excuse us, we are looking for a certain man who lives here.)
Tout (all) and chaque (each)
Demain, chaque étudiant va partager leurs recherches avec la classe! (Tomorrow, each student will share their research with the class!)
Même (same), pareil (same) and semblable (similar)
J’ai la même chemise. (I have the same shirt.)
Law and Order (Or Just Order)
French words that describe order (for instance, if you’re describing in what order a series of events took place) are considered adjectives. The good news is that, in this case, there’s a clear pattern. You don’t need to learn an entirely new word for each number.
These are just some quick guidelines to help you use “order words” in an orderly fashion (I’m sorry—I just had to).
The main irregulars are premier (first) and dernier (last)
Ce séjour est ma première fois en France. (This trip is my first time in France.)
Note that for both of these words, we must not only add the usual “-e” in forming the feminine, but we must also put an accent on the second “e,” making them première and dernière.
The general rule to make a cardinal number (e.g. “three”) into an ordinal number (e.g. “third”) is to add the ending “-ième.”
Following this rule, trois (three) becomes troisième (third), as in, Ils ont pris le train en troisième classe. (They rode the train in third class.)
Seconde (second) is interchangeable with deuxième.
Quatre (four) loses its “-e” and becomes quatrième (fourth).
Cinq (five) gets a “-u” added to it because “q” is always followed by “u” unless it’s the last letter in the word. Thus, we have cinquième (fifth).
With neuf (nine), “f” becomes “v” for pronunciation purposes. It just sounds better that way… French is a beautiful, and sometimes picky, language. Therefore, “ninth” is neuvième.
The abbreviations for premier are 1er (masculine) and 1ère (feminine).
Similarly, seconde becomes 2nd (masculine) or 2nde (second).
No one wants to spell out a long number like 563rd in English, much less in French. When dealing with a large number such as this, simply write the numerals and add “-ème” (Parisian French) or “-e” (Quebec French). Thus, one would write either 563ème or 563e.
Whew! So much to keep in mind! And yes, this is only a sampling of the hundreds of rich words (adjectives and beyond) in French. It truly is a wonderful (though not easy) language, one that only becomes more and more fascinating as you continue to expand your vocabulary and expression. I hope that, as you use these words, you’ll fall more in love with the French language!
Rachel Larsen is a lifelong Francophile and freelance writer who dreams of living in France one day. She’s currently a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. To learn more, visit her LinkedIn page.
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