Stand Tall! The Guide to Confidence with French Word Order
Is your French still in pieces?
Learning French can be like drawing up plans for a new building.
And what would a building be like without structure?
It probably would not be very safe.
It probably would not serve its intended function.
It probably would not make much sense.
It might not even be able to stand.
Language is the same way.
We can’t just throw words around and expect to be understood.
Even if we chose all the right words, we might very well just be sputtering nonsense if they are not in the right order.
And French has a lot of rules about word order.
It may seem tedious, but these rules, like the laws of physics, ensure that all the elements of your sentence are in the right place to remain standing.
In this post, we are going to go through the basic elements of French word order, so you can build a strong foundation for your French sentences.
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Cornerstone to Capstone: Your Guide to French Word Order
Structuring a Sentence: The Blueprint
We know there is a lot of information to cover when it comes to French word order, so we are going to start by taking a look at the “big picture,” or blueprint, of a French sentence. This will give you a basic idea of word order without overwhelming you with details and exceptions (that will come later!).
- Subject. Good news! As with English, the subject — for example, je (I), tu (you), il/elle/on (he/she/one or we), nous (we), vous (you) and ils/elles (they) — usually goes at the beginning of a sentence.
- Direct and indirect object pronouns, y and en. We will explain these words more in-depth later on, but for now just know that they are helpful because they keep you from having to repeat words/phrases that are understood in context.
- Verb. Next is the verb, or “action word,” like voyager (travel) or simply être (to be).
- Direct object. A direct object is something the verb acts on. For instance, in the sentence “J’ai lavé ma voiture” (I washed my car), voiture (car) is the direct object because it is what is being washed.
- Indirect object. An indirect object, as the name implies, is “indirectly” affected by the verb. In the sentence “J’ai parlé avec ma soeur” (I talked with my sister), the indirect object is mon soeur (my sister).
- Adjective. Sorry, here is a big point of difference between English and French! In French, adjectives normally go after the noun they modify (of course there are exceptions, which we will deal with later).
- Modifiers/additional details. Finally, any more details generally go at the end of the sentence.
So to sum up:
- Direct and indirect object pronouns, y and en.
- Direct object.
- Indirect object.
- Modifiers/additional details.
Of course, not every sentence will include all of these components, but it gives you a good idea of what to expect.
For example, this sentence includes several of the above components:
Je vous ai envoyé un email important ce soir. (I sent you an important email this evening.)
Je (subject) vous (indirect object pronoun) ai envoyé (verb) un email (direct object) important (adjective) ce soir (additional detail).
Note that vous, while it technically functions as an indirect object as the person the email was written to, is considered a pronoun and is therefore placed before the verb (we will talk more about word order with direct and indirect object pronouns later).
This is because the word vous is itself a pronoun. That is, if we replaced vous with a name, such as “Paul,” it would act as an indirect object and go after the direct object, un email, like so:
J’ai envoyé un email important à Paul ce soir. (I sent an important email to Paul this evening.)
Below, we will go into more detail about different elements of sentences you need to understand in order to get all of your French in order. We have included links to resources to help introduce you to these concepts.
Getting Curious: Questions
If you are learning French, you probably have a lot of questions on your mind. And since conversation is based on a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, you need to be able to ask questions (for clarification, getting more information, changing the subject, etc.).
One of the simplest ways to form a question in French is by inversion. This means the subject and the verb switch places and are hyphenated.
For example, to make “Vous voulez du chocolat” (You want some chocolate) a question, vous (you) and voulez (want) switch places, so that we get:
Voulez-vous du chocolat ? (Do you want some chocolate?)
Inversion is not just for “yes-or-no” questions, though. You may employ a “question word” such as quel (what/which — add “le” for the feminine form and “-s” for the plural) at the beginning of the sentence.
So to ask someone their age, we would say:
Quel âge as-tu ? (Literally, “What age do you have?”)
Since quel calls for a noun, âge follows directly after and the inversion comes last.
Here are some more “question words” you might want to ask:
- Pourquoi (why)
- Comment (how)
- Qui (who)
- Quand (when)
- Oú (where)
- Combien (how many)
Quand allez-vous au musée ? (When are you going to the museum?)
Here, the inversion comes right after the “question word,” because it describes location and is not directly linked to quand.
If you are asking a basic yes-or-no question, you can simply place est-ce que (literally, “is it that”) in front of the phrase you want to confirm.
Thus, “Elle est allée à l’épicerie” (She went to the grocery store), in question form, is:
Est-ce qu‘elle est allée à l’épicerie ? (Did she go to the grocery store?)
Or, if you want to really make things easy for yourself, when you want to ask a yes-or-no question, you don’t have to change the sentence structure at all.
Simply say the phrase you are looking to confirm and raise your intonation at the end. We do the same thing in English all the time.
To continue from the previous example, you can ask “Elle est allée à l’épicerie ?” just as you might say “She went to the grocery store?” in English by emphasizing the last syllable.
If you are still a bit confused (I was when I first learned this), you can hear an example here.
Getting the Details: Adjectives
Remember how I said that French adjectives can seem kind of weird because they usually go after the noun they modify, not before? To give a simple example, one would say une maison bleue (a blue house).
Do you also remember how I said that there are exceptions to this? Aaaah, yes. The infamous exceptions to the French grammar rules.
Fortunately, we do have a handy acronym to help remember what these exceptions are, so don’t panic yet! This acronym is BAGS:
- Beauty. Words like joli (pretty) and beau (handsome): un joli tableau (a pretty painting)
- Age. Words such as vieux (old) and jeune (young): un jeune homme (a young man)
- Goodness. Words such as bon (good) and mauvais (bad): un bon livre (a good book)
- Size. Words such as petit (small) and grand (big): une grande ville (a big city)
Since an adjective may come either before or after the noun, it is possible for a noun to have an adjective both before and after it, such as in ma nouvelle robe rouge (my new red dress). Since “new” describe age, it precedes the noun.
How Is That Done? Adverbs
Adverbs describe how something is done. Just as adjectives modify nouns, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.
J’ai marché lentement au parc. (I slowly walked to the park.)
As in the sentence above, adverbs usually go after the verb (or other word) they modify.
But, as always, there are exceptions! Some adverbs go at the beginning of the sentence. These are generally adverbs that describe time or affect the sentence as a whole.
Hier, j’ai fait le linge. (Yesterday, I did the laundry.)
Heureusement, elle a reçu une bonne note. (Fortunately, she got a good grade.)
Some short, common adverbs like bien (well) and jamais (never), when used with the passé composé (perfect tense), actually go between the participe passé (past participle) and verbe auxiliare (auxiliary verb):
Il était un bon étudiant parce qu’il a souvent étudié. (He was a good student because he studied often.)
To get some practice with all of these patterns, try out this quiz, which tests where to properly place adverbs in a sentence.
Why So Negative? Ne…Pas
Sometimes you should just say no. One of the peculiar things about French is that they use the double negative (meaning you have to, in essence, say “not” twice), which is technically grammatically incorrect in English (e.g., “I don’t have no money”).
So, in order to effectively negate a French sentence, we must include both ne and pas (though often in slang/informal French, ne is omitted). Ne goes before the verb and pas comes after (ne + verbe + pas):
Vous ne pouvez pas me laisser tout seul ! (You cannot leave me all alone!)
In the passé composé, ne comes before the verbe auxiliare and pas goes before the participe passé (ne + verbe auxiliare + pas + participe passé):
Nous n’avons pas compris la leçon. (We did not understand the lesson.)
Need a bit of practice to fully understand this lesson? This quiz tests how to make a French sentence negative using ne…pas and other forms of negation.
I Object! Direct and Indirect Objects
Good news! We have a few more similarities to English.
The direct object goes after the verb it is being acted on:
As-tu lu ce merveilleux livre ? (Have you read this wonderful book?)
Note that merveilleux goes before the noun because it is considered a “goodness” adjective. Plus, you get another example of using inversion to ask a question!
Next comes the indirect object, which, as the name implies, is “indirectly” acted upon by the verb. This may seem a bit confusing at first, but it makes sense once you see what these look like in context:
Il écrit une lettre à son frère. (He wrote a letter to his brother.)
Une lettre (a letter) is the direct object; this is what was written. Son frère (his brother) is the indirect object because he is whom the letter was written for.
On a parlé avec elle ce soir. (We talked with her this evening.)
Here, there is no direct object. But elle (her) is an indirect object because we didn’t talk her; we talked with her.
Note that, sometimes, we must use a preposition such as à (to) or avec (with). As you can see, these prepositions usually correspond to their English counterparts.
Right to the Point: Direct Object Pronouns
Direct object pronouns might seem a bit complicated at first, but in the long run, they do make things easier for you.
Let’s say you are talking with someone about a movie. No one wants to say “Parc Jurassique” (“Jurassic Park”) twenty times. Most likely, you will quickly switch to “it” instead of saying the whole name every time.
That is exactly what direct object pronouns do in French. They replace a previously established direct object with a pronoun.
These include le, la, l’ and les, depending on the object’s gender and number (use l’ if the pronoun goes right before a vowel). Or, if the direct object is a first or second person (me, you, us), you would employ me, te, vous or nous.
J’adore le “Parc Jurassique” ! Je l’ai vu cent fois ! (I love “Jurassic Park”! I’ve seen it a hundred times!)
Since un film (a movie) is masculine, we would use le to replace “Parc Jurassique,” but since the next word begins with a vowel, we make it l’.
As in the previous example, the direct object pronoun goes before the verb. In the passe composé, this means it precedes the verbe auxiliare.
In the present tense, the pronoun will similarly go right before the conjugated verb:
Aimez-vous le français ? (Do you like French?)
Oui, je le trouve merveilleux ! (Yes, I think it is wonderful!)
Now, the futur proche (near future) is a bit different. The pronoun goes after, not before, the conjugated verb:
Avez-vous lu “Notre-Dame de Paris” ? (Have you read “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”?)
Note: The original French title is literally “Notre Dame of Paris,” but for whatever reason, when it was translated, the title was changed.
Pas encore. Je vais le commencer ce week-end. (Not yet. I am going to start it this weekend.)
One more weird thing (I warned you it would seem complicated). When using a direct object pronoun in the passé composé, the participe passé must agree in gender and number with the pronoun. This means adding an “-e” for feminine and/or “-s” for plural.
Comment as-tu trouvé tes nouveaux professeurs ? (What did you think of your new teachers?)
Je les ai trouvés absolument ennuyeux ! (I thought they were absolutely boring!)
Check out this quiz to practice replacing a direct object with a direct object pronoun and properly placing it in a sentence.
Beating Around the Bush: Indirect Object Pronouns
Just as direct object pronouns stand in for a previously established direct object, indirect object pronouns work the same way for indirect objects. Remember, these are objects that are “indirectly” acted upon by the verb.
A simple (English!) example is “I wrote him a letter.” Him is an indirect object because “him” is not what is being written, but “him” nevertheless receives the action because the letter is being written to “him.”
So what makes indirect object pronouns different from direct ones? First, we use different words. The most common include lui for the singular, and leur for the plural.
But if the indirect object is in the first or second person, it becomes me, te, vous or nous, as with direct object pronouns.
The second major difference is that we don’t have to worry about agreement in the passé composé because, again, it receives the action indirectly:
Est-ce qu’il a téléphoné à ses amis ? (Did he call his friends?)
Oui, il leur a téléphoné hier soir. (Yes, he called them last night.)
As you may have noticed in the above example, indirect object pronouns follow the same rules as direct object pronouns when it comes to order.
Qu’est-ce que tu fais pour l’anniversaire de ton père ? (What are you doing for your dad’s birthday?)
Je lui donne une nouvelle montre. (I am giving him a new watch.)
If we want to use both a direct object pronoun and an indirect object pronoun in the same sentence, we will put the direct object pronoun first.
“Elle a acheté ce sac à sa meilleure amie” (She bought this bag from her best friend) would become:
Elle le lui a acheté. (She bought it from her.)
“Nous envoyons un cadeau à nos professeurs favoris” (We are sending a gift to our favorite teachers) would become:
Nous le leur envoyons. (We are sending it to them.)
To try your hand at this, take a look at this quiz, which has you identify the sentence with an indirect object pronoun that could replace the sentence they give you.
Last, But Not Least: En and Y
En and y are similar to direct and indirect objects in that they replace an understood phrase (meaning you don’t have to repeat the same few words over and over).
En replaces phrases beginning with a partitive article (de, du, de la, d’), which is used to, in essence, denote an indeterminate “part” of something, like in du chocolat (some chocolate).
En may also replace most phrases beginning with some form of de, such as when it is employed with an infinitive.
“J’ai décidé de passer mes vacances en France” (I decided to spend my vacation in France) could become simply:
J’en ai décidé. (I have decided on it.)
Finally, en stands in for phrases expressing number or quantity.
For instance, if a specific number is given, as in “Il a lu cinq livres ce mois” (He read five books this month), then we replace the noun with en and retain the number itself at the end of the sentence:
Il en a lu cinq ce mois. (He read five of them this month.)
Y, on the other hand, will replace most phrases beginning with à, au or aux and phrases specifying location.
For example, “J’habite à Chicago depuis six mois” (I have lived in Chicago for six months) might become:
J’y habite depuis six mois. (I have lived there for six months.)
As you have probably noticed, both en and y go before the verb, just like direct and indirect object pronouns do.
If we were to use en and y in the same sentence, y would go first.
I know this is a lot to remember, and it understandably takes time and practice to get it down. Even then, review is always helpful. A good first step (or refresher!) is this short quiz that tests use of en and y, as well as some of the object pronouns we covered earlier.
Direct objects. Indirect objects. En. Y. If your head is spinning, take a few deep breaths and take a look at this list, a simple review of the proper order for all these helpful (and perhaps a bit confusing) words:
- Me, te, nous, vous
- Le, le, les, l’
- Lui, leur
It is understandable if you still feel overwhelmed by all there is to know about French word order.
But remember that skyscrapers aren’t erected overnight; they take detailed planning and careful construction.
In fact, it may take years to go from idea to reality.
Similarly, learning a new language does take time and work, but the view from the top is worth it!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)