Get Intimate with French Sentence Structure
Want to know the secret to speaking perfect French?
Start with building blocks!
Once you have learned French sentence structure, the rest will follow easily.
We like structure so much that we have divided French sentences into four basic structures.
This will help keep the overarching rules and patterns of French sentence structure neat and well-organized in your mind.
Of course, once you start speaking French full-time you will discover that there are exceptions to any rule.
While out strolling the avenues of Paris, dating your new French love interest or reading a piece of classic French literature, you will gradually start coming across all kinds of places where grammar rules are broken and twisted around. Regardless, any French learner can benefit from learning these basic structures and mastering them.
We have highlighted some of the most notable exceptions to these four structures so that you can familiarize yourself with them as you go.
Get Intimate with French Sentence Structure
Basic French Sentence Structure
Learning sentence structures can make French sound formulaic. To strike a balance between those sentence formulas and natural French speech, watch authentic French videos on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
By watching these subtitled videos, you can see the subtle differences between spoken and written French. Eventually, you’ll be able to master those skills so you sound like a native when you speak and when you write.
But naturally, we have to start at the beginning with basic French sentence structure. Like English, French is a SVO language, or Subject-Verb-Object. Unlike other romance languages, French does not drop the subject in most cases. In order to build even the simplest French sentence, you will need two or three elements.
If a sentence uses an intransitive verb, it will be a SV sentence:
Je suis. — I am.
Je in this sentence is the subject, and suis is the intransitive verb. Since intransitive verbs do not need to take objects (verbs like aller (to go), courir (to run), sauter (to jump) or danser (to dance), there is no O in this sentence. Just plain old S and V. This is one of the simplest French sentences you can build.
If a sentence uses a transitive verb, it will be a SVO sentence:
Tu as un chat. –– You have a cat.
Tu in this sentence is the subject, as is the transitive verb and un chat is the object. Remember that all nouns require an article in French, so even though this sentence has three parts, it actually has four words.
Va ! Allons-y ! Sois sage ! — Go! Let’s go! Be good!
These sentences have implied subjects, something that usually isn’t permitted in French (though Spanish and Italian speakers will be familiar with this concept of dropping the subject pronoun). Whereas in some languages this is allowed in a variety of cases, the only time that one can use an implied subject in French is if the sentence is in the imperative mood.
The imperative mood is used to give a command and can only be used with tu, nous or vous. Tu and vous are used to give basic commands, while nous is inclusive and includes the idea of “Let’s,” as you can see from the example above.
It is important to note that these sentences do have subjects; they are just implied. There is no exception to the rule that all sentences in French need at least a subject and a verb.
Structuring Questions in French
Once you have the basic French sentence structure down, it is time to move on to more complicated things, like questions. There are three basic question forms in French, each with its own rules.
Inversion Questions in French
One of the easiest sorts of questions to ask in French is called an inversion question. It is so named because of the way in which the question is formed: by inverting the subject and the verb of the sentence:
As-tu un chat ? — Do you have a cat?
Oui, j’ai un chat. –– Yes, I have a cat.
The question form of the sentence puts the verb before the subject, with a hyphen to show that the two have been inverted. These questions can only be answered by yes or no.
Question Tags in French: Est-ce que (and Qu’est-ce que)
The basic question tag in French is “Est-ce que.” It marks the beginning of a yes/no question, much in the same way that inversion does. The difference here is that the sentence that follows will retain the basic French sentence structure.
Est-ce que tu veux venir ? — Do you want to come?
Qu’est-ce que is a variation on this question tag. By putting que or “what” at the beginning, you can ask a question requiring a more elaborate answer.
Qu’est-ce que tu veux manger ? — What do you want to eat?
Question Words in French: Qui, Quand, Où, Pourquoi, Comment
If you want to ask an even wider variety of questions, you can use French question words alongside the est-ce que structure. French question words include qui (who), quand (when), où (where), pourquoi (why) and comment (how). These words are simply tacked on to the beginning of an est-ce que question in order to have the desired meaning.
Qui est-ce que tu appelles ? — Who are you calling?
Quand est-ce qu’on part ? –– When are we leaving?
Où est-ce qu’on va ? — Where are we going?
Pourquoi est-ce que tu pleures ? — Why are you crying?
Comment est-ce que ça marche ? — How does it work?
You will often hear questions like these asked in French:
On va voir un film ? Tu veux manger un truc ?
But look closely. They do not follow the question structure!
These sorts of sentences are allowed in spoken French. You will hear these little differences the minute you start conversing with native French speakers. All that is required is a question intonation at the end of a declarative sentence to turn it into a question.
On va voir un film ? — Should we go see a movie?
Tu veux manger un truc ? — Want to get something to eat?
This sort of structure is acceptable in casual, spoken French, but not in written or formal French. If you want to sound like a native, you’ll have to learn to pick up on these various sentence structures and incorporate them into your casual French.
Where to Put Pronouns in French
One of the most difficult French sentence structure ideas for French language learners to grasp is undoubtedly where to put the pronouns. Endless exercises are devoted to this idea when you are learning French in school. The reality is that it is actually much simpler than teachers would have you believe…but first you need to know the difference between a direct and indirect object.
If you didn’t learn this in elementary school English — or you learned but you have since forgotten — a direct object is the object of a transitive verb, while an indirect object is not. For example:
I gave him the ball.
The ball is the direct object. You know because the sentence cannot exist without it. Him is the indirect object. Another way to be sure is that the question you need to ask in order to get the indirect object is more complex. I gave what? The ball. I gave the ball to whom? To him.
With the difference in mind, let’s bring it back to French.
J’ai donné le ballon à Jacques. — I gave Jacques the ball.
In French, if you want to replace these words with pronouns, the sentence would be written like this:
Je le lui ai donné. — I gave it to him.
But how do you know?
Object pronouns in French are preposed, so they appear before the verb. Direct object pronouns such as le (it; him), la (it; her) and les (them) always appear before the indirect object pronouns lui (to him; to her) and leur (to them).
This rule is also applicable for more complex pronoun sentences.
This isn’t so much an exception as it is a general guideline for use. When you are practicing these sentences in French class, you may find yourself creating some fairly incomprehensible ones! Je le lui y ai envoyé (I sent it to him there) doesn’t really mean all that much. While it is good to learn where to place pronouns, you will usually only use one or two per sentence in real life.
Tu as donné le livre à Kévin ? (Did you give the book to Kevin?)
Oui, je le lui ai donné tout à l’heure dans la cuisine. (Yes I gave it to him a while ago in the kitchen.)