French Fundamentals: 6 Grammar Basics It Pays to Master Early On
No matter what level you’re at, it’s important to build upon a firm understanding of the rules of the language.
If you slip and fall, your good grammar will be there to catch you.
In this post, we’ll focus on six fundamentals of French grammar that will help you pull through the language from start to fluency.
By getting down these basics, you’ll make your whole French-learning journey go a whole lot smoother!
- 6 French Grammar Basics to Learn ASAP
- Setting the Stage for Good Grammar Habits
6 French Grammar Basics to Learn ASAP
1. Personal pronouns: Get up-close and personal
Personal pronouns are an integral part of French, so getting familiar with them right away is incredibly important. While there are a number of different types of pronouns, personal ones are those like “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “we,” “they” or “it,” used as the subject of a particular sentence.
French and English pronouns vary somewhat in terms of type and usage, so it’s very important to understand the differences!
While they might seem simple and straightforward at first, French personal pronouns don’t always translate directly into English, and so it pays to give them special attention.
Let’s have a look:
Vous (you, formal or plural)
Learning the difference between tu (you, informal) and vous (you, formal) is paramount when in France; they take their terms of address very seriously.
While you would address family members, children and friends with tu, you would always address strangers, figures of authority and elders with vous.
Similarly, there is a difference between on (we/one) and nous (we) which, while less obvious, is worth paying attention to: While on can be used to mean both “we” and “one,” nous is only used as a pronoun for “we.” In contemporary French, however, on is employed much more frequently than nous, so don’t be surprised if you hear it a lot more than you do its counterpart.
2. Regular verbs: Make them part of your regular routine
When it comes to French conjugation, regular verbs are your friends. Taking the time to memorize the endings of regular verb conjugations in the present tense takes practically no time at all, and committing the most popular usages of verbs to memory will follow naturally as an added bonus of practicing those conjugations.
Conjugation is something that you’re going to want to get your head around at a very early stage: In short, it’s the way a verb is written/pronounced in order to agree with the main subject of the sentence (often one of the personal pronouns listed above).
In French, there are three sets of regular verbs that rear their heads again and again, so learning the patterns of each one will really come in handy.
Verbs ending in -er, -ir and -re follow the same pattern in most instances. Hence they’re called “regular” verbs.
For example, regular –re verbs—most verbs which end in -re, like vendre (to sell) or perdre (to lose)—follow this pattern of endings in the present tense:
Je → -s
Tu → -s
Il/elle/on → –
Nous → -ons
Vous → -ez
Ils/elles → -ent
So the conjugation of the verb descendre (to descend), for example, looks like this:
There are regular endings lists all over the Internet, which you can easily make a part of your learning arsenal. Once you’ve learned all three regular verb patterns, you’ll find it makes speaking and writing a whole lot easier!
Regular -er and -ir verbs have different ending patterns of their own, and while they do differ from one another, they’re really not hard to get to grips with.
Remember, however, that while regular verbs do cover a lot of conjugations, it’s a good idea to practice the actual verbs that you use most commonly, and make them the “regulars” in your French grammar routine.
3. Plurals: Go forth and multiply!
Learning grammar in a foreign language will teach you a lot about languages in general, bringing your attention to many technical things you had no idea were going on!
Plural nouns are just one (or some) of these things. While they’re relatively simple to get your head around, they do require a little extra attention from time to time. Different endings apply to different types of nouns: As long as you learn them all, you’ll be fine!
Most nouns require simply an extra s to be turned from singular to plural. For example, to talk about a bunch of flowers, you would change the singular fleur (flower) to the plural fleurs (flowers). Nouns that end in vowels, however, have a few different rules.
Most nouns that end in –au take on an x to become the plural form. Bateau (boat) becomes bateaux (boats), for example.
Others, which end in –al, take on an –aux, but instead of tacking this onto the end, you actually put -aux in place of -al. For example, the word journal (newspaper) ends up being written as journaux (newspapers) in the plural.
The majority of nouns which end in s, z or x do not change when they become plural and can instead be identified by their article. Un virus (a virus), for example, becomes des virus in the plural form.
4. Adjectives: Match ’em up
In English, none of our words have gendered agreements, so the whole idea of using masculine and feminine French words can feel a little strange at first. Adjectives must agree with the object they’re describing and the number of objects being referenced. This grammar point may seem tricky at first, but will soon become easy for you to remember; all it takes is a little focus in the beginning to get used to it.
French nouns and their corresponding adjectives can be either masculine or feminine, as well as singular or plural. Understanding which you’re dealing with is of paramount importance. Although there aren’t any universal rules for identifying these categories, there are a number of patterns that make them easier to recognize.
In general, for example, feminine words end with an e, so the most common way to make an adjective agree with a feminine noun is simply to add an e at the end. Joli (pretty) becomes jolie in the feminine form. Most masculine adjectives, however, don’t need anything done to them—and, even if they have an e at the end already, won’t need to be altered to agree.
If words end with a consonant, however, you need to do something different to make them agree with a feminine noun. Typically, an extra consonant and an e are added onto the end—for example, bon (good) becomes bonne, and mignon (cute) becomes mignonne.
As with other rules, there’s tons of learning material out there for going over all of the adjective rules and their variations. This post goes over the basics of adjective agreement, and this one goes more in-depth.
5. Avoir and être: Get a firm handle on “to have” and “to be”
When you’re first learning French, there are two verbs you should learn before all others, as they are used in everyday language all the time.
Avoir (to have) and être (to be) are applicable to many different areas of French, and learning them will make forming sentences and having conversations a breeze in the future.
Let’s have a look at them:
Avoir — present tense
Être — present tense
Getting to grips with both verbs in the variety of tenses that you’re likely to use is a very good idea, and will ultimately make expressing yourself much easier.
If you’re on the hunt for a great conjugation book to help you with those tenses, a “Bescherelle” will answer all of your verb inquiries.
6. Reflexive verbs: Be re-flexible
In French, reflexive verbs are used to describe something that someone does to themselves, and there are many examples that relate to rituals in everyday life.
In English, we might say that “I wash myself” is reflexive, as it refers to something that we do to ourselves. In French, however, the reflexive follows a slightly different pattern: For example, to say “I wash” when getting ready in the morning, the French would say Je me lave, or literally, “I myself wash.” The me in the phrase is the reflexive part, as it references who the washing is being done to. If you wanted to say “You wash yourself,” you would say Tu te laves.
Remembering how to transform a pronoun into its reflexive form is very easy. Here are the corresponding reflexive pronouns for each personal pronoun:
Je → me
Tu → te
Il/elle/on → se
Nous → nous
Vous → vous
Ils/elles → se
In the early learning phases, many reflexive verbs are taught as being related to the daily routine or the house, although there are many varieties of reflexive verbs. The words for “wake up,” “wash” and “go to bed” all take the reflexive form, and are amongst the most commonly used.
Reflexive verbs in French may feel alien to you at first, but if you review them regularly, they’ll soon come completely naturally to you.
Setting the Stage for Good Grammar Habits
Now that you’ve learned these basics, how can you now chart a good course for your French grammar studies?
Know and track your level
First things first, knowing your level is vital to the learning process, as it ensures the type of content you use for grammar will be appropriate for you.
There are many places online where you can put your existing skills to the test and find out your specific level. Websites like France Langue and Language Level are perfect for quick tests.
No matter what level you’re at, though, taking the time to understand the ins and outs of grammar is important. Technicalities in the language will continue to affect what you learn down the line, so getting to grips with various rules sooner will make your life much easier.
Knowing your level will help give you a better idea of what areas of grammar you should be focusing on, and may also help bring into focus what grammar basics you need to brush up on.
Set aside time just for grammar study
Diving into French grammar without a plan might not seem like such a bad idea, but it’s worth taking a little time to think about your approach.
While it might be tempting to just go for it and jump into the language without a safety net, allocating a little more time than you think you need to understanding grammar can pay off in the future; some grammar rules just take a little longer to absorb.
Even those who consider themselves to be advanced learners can afford to set aside some time just for studying French grammar; the technicalities of the language are notoriously hard even for natives, so it pays to take them seriously!
Invest in a great grammar book
When it comes to finding French grammar books, the world is really your oyster. There’s something out there for everyone! Depending on your level, you may benefit from a specific type of French grammar book.
While beginners might be most focused on the basics of verb conjugation, for example, intermediate and advanced learners can get into the nitty gritty of complex tenses and agreements.
Generally speaking, though, “Le bon usage” is a favorite amongst both French speakers and learners, and the “Berlitz French Grammar Handbook” is a solid grammar reference.
Find a good French-English dictionary
While it’s probable that you already have a good French dictionary for normal vocabulary-checking purposes, it can also be incredibly helpful to pick one up when you’re thinking about grammar. Many dictionaries come equipped with grammar explanations and exercises, doubling up as more in-depth reference books and verb checkers.
Lots of common words may also lead to other examples listed under a “see also” section—finding a dictionary with a lot of usage examples will enable you to see grammar in action and help cement it in your memory.
There are a whole load of dictionaries out there, but one good one to check out is the Collins French Dictionary, which can be accessed either in book form or online.
French learning is and should be fun, but it’s still important to take grammar seriously. If you get confused or drift off course, it’s going to be your grammar that has your back.
As long as you master and keep coming back to these basics, the language will come much more easily to you at any level.
See French grammar in use for context
Textbook learning can get you far, but to really understand the rules of French grammar, it’s best to see them in action. That is, to actually read or listen to a plethora of French phrases and sentences, whether in spoken conversation or in written text.
If there aren’t French speakers around to chat with, then you can consume authentic French media, the kind made for and by native speakers. This lets you get a realistic depiction of French grammar in different contexts.
You can read French books, listen to podcasts or stream French movies online.
You can also peruse the curated authentic video library on the language learning program FluentU. Each of the program’s clips have interactive subtitles that provide contextual translations and grammatical details, so you can break down spoken phrases word for word.
You’ll have detailed grammar information about each word without even having to leave the video player. You can also add words to flashcard lists and view other videos that use the word in that same grammar form, for additional context.
FluentU will also help you actually learn these words thanks to personalized quizzes that incorporate multimedia aspects for a more memorable experience.
French grammar might have a bit of a reputation for being tricky, but once you get going on it, you’ll realize it’s not as scary as you thought.
Grammar lessons do require a little planning and organization, but once you take the plunge and start learning, everything will start to link up and make sense, probably much more quickly than you had imagined.
Taking the time to understand the basics of French grammar is guaranteed to serve you well later down the line.
If you make these basics second nature, it won’t be long before speaking French is second nature, too!