The Complete Guide to Core French Grammar Topics
Without grammar, the building blocks of the French language would lack order, finesse and their well-loved prestige.
And although language learners tend to find grammar intimidating, the topic hardly deserves its bad rap.
In fact, French grammar isn’t too difficult to grasp in its entirety.
In this post, we’ll look at all the major topics in French grammar, boiled down to their most basic concepts for easy consumption (with links to our deep dives on each topic.)
- 1. Nouns
- 2. Verbs
- 3. Tenses
- 4. Aspects
- 5. Mood
- 6. Adjectives
- 7. Adverbs
- 8. Pronouns
- 9. Prepositions
- 10. Conjunctions
- 11. Sentence Structure
- 12. Questions
- 13. Exclamations
- 14. Casual Speech
Like English, a noun in French generally denotes a person, place or thing.
These nouns can be concrete, meaning they can be physically found in the real world, or they can also be abstract. Abstract nouns cannot be found in the physical world.
Nouns can also be proper or common. Proper nouns have capital letters as their first letter and denote specific people, places or things, such as the name Marie, the city of Paris or la tour Eiffel (the Eiffel Tower). Common nouns do not take capital letters.
In short, every noun in French has a gender. That means nouns can be masculin (masculine) or féminin (feminine).
This seems logical for nouns that denote a person, but inanimate objects such as la table (the table) and le livre (the book) have genders too.
Some word endings in French follow patterns that let us know whether a word is masculine and feminine, but generally, it’s best practice to memorize the gender of the French word when learning it.
Like in English, French nouns change when they become plural (more than one). The most basic form of this is by adding an -s as in English.
There are plenty of nouns that don’t follow that rule, however. Lucky for us, a lot of these nouns follow regular patterns. Once learned, they can be applied to most nouns with those endings with only a few exceptions.
Every noun in French needs an article. This article is determined by its gender, its number, and whether you’re talking about a specific instance of that noun.
There are three indefinite articles in French that do not specify a particular noun. The three indefinite articles are un (a/an (masculine)) and une (a/an (feminine)) for singular nouns and the indefinite article des for plural nouns that means “some.”
Definite articles do specify the noun being spoken about. The three definite articles are le (the (masculine)), la (the (feminine)) and the plural les (the).
Noun case lets us know what a noun’s specific function is. Look at the following sentence:
Le garçon donne le livre à sa mère.
The boy gives the book to his mother.
In this sentence, le garçon is le sujet (the subject) of the sentence and in the nominative case. Le livre is the complément d’objet direct (the direct object) and in the accusative case. Lastly, sa mère is the complément d’objet indirect (the indirect object) and in the dative case. All of these nouns have different functions in the sentence.
Unlike in other languages like German or Russian, the noun and its article do not change depending on its case (its function).
Verbs, verbs, verbs! These are perhaps the most intricate part of French grammar. Let’s check out why.
The most common function of a verb in a sentence is that it is an action word. That means it shows what the sujet (the subject) of the sentence is doing.
These action word verbs can also take objects. For example, in the sentence le chien mange la pomme (the dog eats the apple), la pomme is the complément d’objet direct (the direct object). This shows that the action of manger is being done to la pomme.
Verbs can also have a complément d’object indirect (the indirect object). These words are “receivers” of the verbs. For example, the sentence je téléphone à la police (I’m calling the police) has the noun la police in the complément d’objet indirect position. This is shown with the preposition à (to).
Unlike action verbs, stative verbs do not determine an action. Instead, they denote a “state.” Stative verbs do not take complément d’objet direct or complément d’objet indirect nouns.
The most common of the stative verbs in French is the verb être (to be). Other common stative verbs include devenir (to become), sembler (to seem) and avoir l’air (to seem).
The infinitive of the verb is the unconjugated form, also known as the dictionary form. This is because you will see this form of the verb in the dictionary.
Often, the infinitive form of the verb is used when it follows a conjugated verb, as well as modal verbs, such as in je veux danser ce soir (I want to dance this evening).
The infinitive form of the verb can also be used with impersonal expressions. You can see that in the sentence il est facile à décider (it is easy to decide).
In French, we often talk about regular and irregular verbs.
Regular verbs follow a pattern. These regular verbs can be put into three distinct groups based on the verb ending pattern.
The first group of regular verbs are verbs that end in -er. The second group of regular verbs are verbs that end in -ir. The last group of verbs includes those that end in -re.
The third group also includes verbs that do not follow a pattern based on their ending. These are known as irregular verbs.
Conjugation describes how a verb changes in order to agree with the subject and the tense of the verb. Verb conjugation often follows simple formation rules.
Each verb contains two things: a root and an ending. The root can also be called the “radical” or the “stem,” but it is the unchanging part of the verb.
The ending is where verb conjugation occurs. These change depending on the subject and tense of the verb.
A verb tense anchors a verb in time. In other words, it lets us know when a certain verb is happening.
French has around 20 verb tenses. This number, however, uses the word “tense” liberally, choosing to mean all the ways a verb can change. However, if we take the word “tense” to only talk about a verb in time, there are far fewer tenses.
For now, let’s look at the eight “true” basic and compound tenses.
- Le présent is the present tense in French. This is the tense that lets us know that an action is happening right now. It is important to note that the French present tense encompasses different present tenses from English. For example, the sentence nous chantons means “we sing,” “we are singing” and “we do sing” in English.
- Le passé composé is a compound tense that is used to talk about the perfect past in French. It is a compound tense because it has two verb pieces: an auxiliary verb, être (to be) or avoir (to have), and the main verb with a changed ending. For example, the sentence j’ai parlé translates to the simple past “I spoke” in English.
- L’imparfait is actually both a tense and an aspect of French, and it is commonly taught alongside the passé composé. That is because it also talks about the past. Rather than talking about a single past action, however, the imparfait talks about an action that is repetitive or continuous in the past. For example, the sentence elles marchaient means “they were walking” in English, showing the action is not completed in the past.
- Le passé simple is a third past tense in French, but it is rather archaic and not really used in spoken French. It is, however, used extensively in French books, old and new. Rather than being a compound tense like the passé composé, le passé simple changes a verb’s ending to show its tense, but it has the same meaning as the passé composé.
- Le plus-que-parfait translates to the “more than perfect” tense in English. It uses the imparfait of an auxiliary verb (être or avoir) as well as the past participle. It shows past actions that have happened before other past actions. For example, the sentence j’avais lu le livre avant qu’elle est arrivée (I had read the book before she came) shows the plus-que-parfait in action.
- Le passé antérieur is another past tense in French that is no longer used. It’s not even really used in books. Rather, it can be found in older French literature, and some French speakers even forget this tense exists. In fact, it has the exact same meaning as the plus-que-parfait, but it uses the passé simple of the auxiliary être or avoir with the past participle.
- Le futur simple is the future tense. It is created by adding endings to the infinitive form of the verb. It encompasses the meaning of “will” and “going to” in English. For example, the sentence vous mangerez la pizza means both “you will eat pizza” and “you are going to eat pizza.”
- Le futur proche is a verb construction used to talk about the near future, akin to the English “am/are going to.” It is formed by using the appropriate conjugation of aller in the present tense plus an infinitive. To give an example, on va aller à la plage is “we are going to go to the beach.”
- Le futur antérieur talks about a future action that will have occurred. It uses the future tense of an auxiliary verb, être or avoir, as well as the past participle. This tense can be best seen in the example j’aurai fini mes devoirs à 21h (I will have finished my homework at 9:00 p.m.).
Remember how we said there were eight true verb tenses?
Well, there are four verb aspects. Rather than pinning a verb to a specific moment in time, an aspect lets us know how that verb relates to the passing of time.
The aspect habituel (habitual aspect) is just how it sounds: it describes actions that are a habit. It lets us know that an action occurs regularly. This aspect is not reflected in the verb’s conjugation: the verb conjugates normally as it would for the past, present or future. Instead, additional words let us know that the action happens regularly.
Unlike the aspect habituel, the aspect perfectif (perfective aspect) is reflected in a change in the verb ending. We’ve already met this aspect: it shows an action that is complete, has been completed or will be completed.
In fact, this is the entire idea behind the passé composé. It shows that an action has been completed in the past. The passé composé is perfective because the action has been completed.
Opposite to the aspect perfectif is the aspect imperfectif. This aspect lets us know that an action is not completed. This can occur in any tense, but it is shown in the verb endings of a verb tense that we already know. You guessed it: the imparfait.
The progressive aspect is one that is employed in English but does not have any special verb conjugations in French. This aspect expresses an action that is in the middle of occurring. In English, we might say “the dog is running” or “the boy is jumping,” but in French, we would just use the regular present tense.
If we want to emphasize this aspect, however, we can add supplementary details to the sentence. For example, en train de means “in the middle of,” emphasizing the progressive aspect of a sentence.
Verb mood reflects the speaker’s mood toward what they are saying. Most of the time, it lets us know how factual a sentence is or how confident the speaker is that a certain sentence is the truth.
The indicative mood lets the listener know that the speaker is pretty confident about what they are saying. In fact, the indicative mood lets us know that what is being conveyed to us is fact (or the speaker believes it is fact).
We’ve already reviewed the eight tenses attached to the indicative mood: they are the eight moods listed above in the “Tenses” section.
The imperative mood is also known as the command form: it is the mood used to give commands, requests or instructions.
There are technically two tenses attached to the imperative mood. L’impératif présent (the present imperative) gives simple commands such Mange ! (Eat!)
The second is called the impérative passé (the past imperative) and is literary. It is used to give a command through the past tense.
The conditional mood corresponds to the idea of “would” in English. The speaker is using hypotheticals, often hinging on the idea that if something occurred, something else would also occur.
As in English, this can be expressed in French in two tenses: the present and the past.
The subjunctive mood is used to express doubt, desire or even fear. It can be used for proposals and demands. There are also set expressions which trigger the subjunctive, notably in subordinate clauses following que.
Je doute que tu saches la réponse.
I doubt that you know the answer.
Sais (you know) becomes saches in the subjunctive mood reflecting that doubt.
The subjunctive is most commonly used in the present and past perfect tenses, though you may spot it elsewhere.
Like in English, adjectives in French describe a noun.
Adjective endings in French can change depending on the gender of the noun that the adjective is modifying. It can change further depending on whether or not the noun is plural.
L’homme est européen.
The man is European.
La femme est européenne.
The woman is European.
Les garçons sont européens.
The boys are European.
Adjective endings follow regular patterns, but some are irregular.
The majority of adjectives in French come after the noun that they describe. This is true for all of les adjectifs attributs (attributive adjectives).
For les adjectifs épithètes (epithetic adjectives), most are placed after the noun, but there is a selection of shorter adjectives that are placed before the noun.
Some adjectifs épithètes also have the option to be placed before and after the noun. The placement of these adjectives changes their meaning slightly.
Les adjectifs attributs
An adjectif attribut is separated from the noun with a verb. Most commonly, this verb is être (to be).
La fille est adorable.
The girl is cute.
Les adjectifs épithètes
An adjectif épithète is one that emphasizes a certain characteristic of a noun. As such, the adjective is placed right beside the noun, either before or after depending on which adjective it is and the meaning of the adjective.
La jeune fille danse.
The young girl dances.
Comparative adjectives compare two nouns. These adjectives are introduced by the adverb phrases plus… que (more than), moins… que (less than) and aussi… que (as… as).
Le chien est plus grand que le chat.
The dog is bigger than the cat.
There are some comparative adjectives that are irregular and do not follow the patterns above.
Technically, determiners are adjectives, and they indicate which noun is being talked about. Definite and indefinite articles are determiners, and other common determiners include ce (this/that) and quel (which) as well as possessive adjectives such as mon (my), which show who owns the noun in question.
As expected, determiners change to reflect the gender and number of the following noun.
Unlike adjectives, adverbs describe verbs. They are most commonly used to describe how an action verb is being performed.
Adverbs can also modify adjectives or other adverbs.
Adverb placement is very strict in French. They always go after the verb that they modify. If the verb is a compound verb (using an auxiliary), they go after the first verb.
If an adverb is modifying an adjective or another adverb, they precede the adjective.
Many adverbs are words of their own that do not have a specific ending. There is a selection of adverbs that end in -ment. These are generally derived from adjectives, as in the example of rapidement (quickly).
Types of Adverbs
There are categories of adverbs that are grouped together based on their function.
- Les adverbes de temps (adverbs of time) describe when a certain action is occurring. Examples include demain (tomorrow) and bientôt (soon).
- Les adverbes de manière (adverbs of manner) describe how a certain action is happening. Examples include lentement (slowly) and prudemment (carefully).
- Les adverbes de lieu (adverbs of place) describe the location where an action is occurring. Examples include dehors (outside) and ici (here).
- Les adverbes de quantité (adverbs of quantity) describe how much or how many of something there is. Examples include beaucoup (a lot) and peu (a little).
- Les adverbes de fréquence (adverbs of frequency) describe how often an action occurs. Examples include souvent (often) and parfois (sometimes).
- Les adverbes d’affirmation (adverbs of affirmation) let us know how credible an action is. Examples include certainement (certainly) and évidemment (evidently).
- Les adverbes de négation (adverbs of negation) are used to create the negative in a sentence. These are often used in combination with ne such as in ne… pas (not) and ne… jamais (never).
- Les adverbes de doute (adverbs of doubt) let us know that there is a degree of doubt in the sentence. Examples include peut-être (maybe) and possiblement (possibly).
- Les adverbes de question et d’exclamation (adverbs of question and exclamation) are a set of adverbs that can be used to ask an indirect question as well as to express an extreme emotion. Examples include quel (which) and comment (how).
- Les adverbes relatifs et comparatifs (relative and comparative adverbs) are used to compare two nouns using an adjective. These include plus… que (more than), moins… que (less than) and aussi… que (as… as).
Pronouns are used to replace nouns. There are different groups of pronouns used for a variety of reasons.
Personal pronouns take the place of an animate (mostly a person) noun in French. For example, you can replace the noun le garçon (the boy) with the pronoun il (he).
There is a set of personal pronouns for multiple functions in the sentence. While personal pronouns replace nouns in the subject position, some pronouns are used in place of the complément d’objet direct or the complément d’objet indirect.
Possessive pronouns allow us to know who owns a particular noun in question.
C’est mon livre.
It’s my book.
As expected, these possessive pronouns must agree with the gender and number of the following noun.
Reflexive pronouns show that an action reflects back to the subject of the sentence.
Tu te brosses les dents.
You brush your (own) teeth.
Each subject pronoun has its own corresponding reflexive pronoun.
Relative pronouns link together two different clauses in a single sentence. These clauses, when unjoined, would constitute separate sentences.
Le livre que j’ai lu est magnifique.
The book that I read is magnificent.
Interrogative pronouns are used to ask questions in French.
Qui aime les biscuits ?
Who likes cookies?
Demonstrative pronouns refer back to a previously mentioned noun. As expected, these pronouns must agree in gender and number with the noun. The particles -ci and -là can be used to add emphasis.
Regarde la chemise. Celle-ci est rouge.
Look at the shirt. This one is red.
Indefinite pronouns are used to refer to a noun that is unspecified or unknown. These also agree in number and gender with the noun (where possible).
Ceci est petit.
This is small.
There are two adverbial pronouns in French: y and en. Y is used to replace a location in French and en is used to replace a quantity.
I’m staying here.
Il en mange cinq.
He eats five of them.
In short, prepositions are small words that show some sort of relationship between a noun, adjective or verb and the word placed after the preposition.
Je viens de Paris.
I come from Paris.
Some prepositions such as à (to) and de (of, from) combine with the following definite article to change form slightly.
Conjunctions are used to join two separate ideas or clauses within a single sentence.
Coordinating conjunctions are used to connect two clauses that are said to have the same value to the sentence. In general, these separate clauses could function as their own sentences.
La fille a mangé du chocolat et le garçon a bu du café.
The girl ate some chocolate and the boy drank some coffee.
Subordinating conjunctions connect two clauses that do not have the same value. The main clause can stand on its own, but the subordinating clause (or the dependant clause) could not be its own sentence.
Le livre que le garçon a aimé est long.
The book that the boy liked is long.
11. Sentence Structure
Sentence structure in French is very similar to English. French follows a subject-verb-object word order, so English speakers should have no issue creating sentences in French.
There are a few particularities, however. In French, adverbs always follow the verb, and most adjectives follow the noun. Sentence structure also differs when asking a question.
There are two main ways to ask a question in French.
The first is an inversion of the subject and the verb as in the question as-tu un livre ? (do you have a book?). The second is to add the words est-ce que to the declarative sentence as in est-ce que tu as un livre ? (do you have a book?). These are the common forms for yes/no questions.
Question words can be added to yes/no questions for detailed answers.
Que veux-tu ? Qu‘est-ce que tu vas manger ?
What do you want? What are you going to eat?
Exclamations are used to express a strong emotion in French. These can show amazement, shock, anger or disappointment.
Oh là là ! Il fait chaud aujourd’hui.
Oh my! It is hot today.
14. Casual Speech
In casual or informal speech, it is not uncommon for French grammar rules to be broken. In these cases, the sentences may be ungrammatical but still understood.
Check out some commonly broken grammar rules that are used in casual speech.
- Dropping the ne in the negative is one of the most common markers of casual speech. This can be seen in the sentence je sais pas ce que tu veux (I don’t know what you want).
- Using casual personal pronouns also mark casual speech. In most cases, tu is used to mean “you” instead of the formal vous, and on is used for “we” instead of the formal nous.
- Shortening common phrases and words such as tu to t’ and il y a (there is) to y a happens in French casual speech.
- Ça (that) is used in place of all demonstrative and indefinite adverbs in French informal speech.
- Questions use intonation rather than inversion or est-ce que. Instead, the voice raises at the end of the sentence to indicate a question.
And there you have it, all tied together with a pretty little bow. French grammar really can be summarized in a single post, and now you’re ready to make it yours!
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Best of luck on your grammar journey!