When you learn French, you’re going to spend a lot of time getting familiar with French grammar rules. For many people, the thought of learning grammar isn’t necessarily a pleasant one, and we can’t blame you if you think that way. But French grammar doesn’t have to be a chore to learn; in fact, with the right tools and teachers, it can be a low-friction endeavor and even a fun one!
All languages have grammar, or rules that tell us how to use their individual elements (words) to build longer structures that convey meaning (sentences). Learning grammar is an essential part of learning any new language, and French is no exception! Luckily, once you start to learn how French grammar works, you’ll find out it’s not all that intimidating after all.
Keep reading to learn more about French grammar rules!
How Difficult Is French Grammar?
Is French Grammar Easy?
Many people choose to learn French over other languages because they’ve heard that French grammar is relatively easy to learn. While it’s true that French grammar rules aren’t necessarily hard, they do take patience and practice to master, just like with any new skill.
Some elements of French grammar are known to be more difficult for learners than others are — especially those elements that are more unfamiliar to native English speakers, like complex verb conjugations, a tricky concept many French learners have trouble mastering.
You might struggle with some aspects of French grammar and breeze through others. A lot of what you’ll find easy depends on the language or languages you already speak and how similar they are to French. And you can’t forget that everyone learns differently, so the parts of French grammar that give you trouble might be a piece of cake for someone else, and vice versa.
Is French Grammar Similar To English?
French grammar is similar to English grammar in many ways that make it fairly easy to make connections between the two languages. Both French and English have the same parts of speech — like verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives and prepositions, for example — and the two languages often treat these parts of speech in the same ways.
But there are certain ways French grammar rules differ from those of English. You might have heard that unlike English, French is a gendered language, meaning each noun — not just every person — has an associated gender classification that shows up in the language. (More on that below.) And gender in French affects French adjectives, which change their endings to match the gender and number of the nouns they refer to.
As mentioned above, there’s also the topic of French verbs, which require a bit more manipulation to use correctly than English verbs do. French verbs are conjugated, which means they change their verb endings according to specific rules, Conjugation is somewhat of a foreign concept to many English speakers, making it a major point of difference between the two languages.
If all of this sounds a little confusing, don’t fret! Part of getting better at French is practicing French grammar rules that might not make much sense at first. But you’ll soon get the hang of them with just a little effort.
Introduction To French Grammar: What Are French Grammar Rules?
Along with French vocabulary, you’ve got to know French grammar to be able to use the language. In order to express ideas and form sentences in French, you need to understand and follow French grammar rules.
Basic French Sentence Structure
The primary parts of the French sentence are the subject, the verb and the object(s). For the most part, French grammar follows the subject-verb-object word order as English does. For example, in a sentence like Nous aimons nos voisins (“We like our neighbors”), the pronoun nous (“we”) is the subject, aimons (“like” or “love”) is the verb and nos voisins (“our neighbors”) is the object of that verb.
The order of other words in a French is generally the same as in an English sentence, with some exceptions. In French grammar, for example, adjectives usually follow the nouns they describe instead of coming before them, like they do in English. And object and reflexive pronouns like “him,” “themselves” and “us” must come before the verb in many cases.
But French can be a little more flexible, too, than English in the order of words in the sentence. In many cases you can even leave out the subject if the context and the ending of the verb make it clear who’s doing the action. And forming questions doesn’t often require moving around words and adding auxiliary words like “do” or “does” like English requires, though there are specific rules that must be learned.
French Verbs And French Verb Tenses
Perhaps one of the most important parts of French grammar is knowing how to use French verbs — and that means knowing how to deal with French verb conjugations. While verb conjugations technically exist in English as well, there aren’t nearly as many, so learning them (and how and when to use them) takes time and discipline in French.
For many students who are just learning about conjugations, this infamous system of changing French verb endings is the legend of ghost stories, the stuff of scary dreams. But don’t worry; every French student who’s ever been overwhelmed by the prospect of learning French verb conjugations has made it out alive!
First, we start with an infinitive. French verbs exist in what’s known as the infinitive form, what English speakers would think of as a verb in the “to (verb)” form — like “to do,” “to eat” or “to sleep,” for example. All of these French infinitives end in one of three endings: -er (like the verb parler, “to speak”), -ir (like finir, “to finish”) or -re (like attendre, “to wait for”).
Conjugating a verb in French means changing the ending of the verb to match the subject (so, who or what is doing the action of the verb) and the tense (when in time the action is happening). For many French verbs, there are 6 different verb endings in the present tense alone.
Here’s an example for a verb in the present tense: take a regular verb ending in -er, like manger (“to eat”). If the pronoun je (“I”) is the subject, or the one doing the speaking, you drop the -er ending from the verb and add the ending -e, giving je mange, or “I eat.” For the pronoun tu (“you”), manger becomes tu manges, or “you eat.”
Each potential subject has its own special conjugation, or verb ending, associated with it, and this applies for all verbs, whether they end in -er, -ir or re — though the conjugations are slightly different for each ending, and there are many irregular conjugations for so many French verbs that must be learned individually. Daunting, yes, but doable!
Learning French verbs requires practicing verb conjugations for each possible combination of subject — including the pronouns just mentioned — and of the verb tense, which refers to when the action of the verb takes place, like the past, the present or the future (though there are several more French verb tenses than just these three). Add on to that that verbs can also have different “moods” that distinguish among subjective thoughts, objective facts, commands, and conditions and possibilities, among others — and you’ve got dozens of potential verb endings and forms for a single French verb, all depending on how you’re using it in a sentence.
French verbs seem challenging at first, but you’ll get the hang of them in time. It’s all just part of the process of learning French grammar.
French Nouns And French Articles (And French Gender)
Just like in English, one of the key elements of French grammar is the French noun, which describes a thing, person, place, idea, quality or action. French nouns are important because in many cases they indicate who or what is doing the action of the verb (the subject) — or who or what is having that action done to it (the object). They are fundamental parts of a French sentence!
According to French grammar, all French nouns have a number (singular or plural, a concept which also exists in English) and a gender (masculine or feminine).
Talking about number and gender of French nouns isn’t too complicated. To start, the fact that nouns in French grammar can be singular or plural is a familiar idea to English speakers. In most cases, to form a plural noun French speakers add an -s to the end of a singular noun, just like in English. So the word meaning “book,” livre, becomes livres, and the word pomme, meaning “apple,” becomes pommes. This also applies for many words ending in a consonant like couleur (“color”) or main (“hand”); you add the ending -s to give couleurs and mains, for example. Not too hard, right?
When we say that French nouns have gender, it doesn’t mean that every person, place, object or idea is inherently male or female; it’s just a system of categorization that exists in French grammar (and in that of many other world languages). You can think of gender as a “type” or even “genre” of noun if that’s helpful. Often, French gender maps to words in ways that align with biological sex; femme (“woman”) is a feminine noun, whereas homme (“man”) is a masculine noun. But sometimes these gender assignments can be pretty arbitrary; why is le soutien-gorge (“bra”) masculine while la masculinité (“masculinity”) is feminine? Why is la chaise (“chair”) feminine while le canapé (“sofa”) is masculine? There is no straightforward answer. A major part of learning French nouns involves memorizing their gender classifications, so it’s important to practice this concept.
There are patterns of certain word endings that can clue you in to which gender they might be assigned; for example, nouns that end in -eau and -eur are often masculine (like le couteau, “the knife,” or le moteur “the motor”), while nouns that end in -ée or in the pattern e-double-consonant-e are often feminine (like la fusée, “the rocket,” or la serviette, “the towel”). But be wary of words that defy this pattern, like the masculine words le musée (“the museum”) and le squelette (“the skeleton”) or the feminine words la chaleur (“the heat”) and la peau (“the skin”). French gender can be a tricky concept to master for this reason!
A noun’s gender and number classifications help us understand which French articles — the words we’d call “the,” “a,” “an” and “some” in English — to use before that noun. The three French definite articles (meaning “the”) are:
- le (singular, masculine)
- la (singular, feminine)
- les (plural)
That means if we’re talking about a feminine noun like femme (“woman”) or robe (“dress”), and we want to describe a specific woman or a particular dress, we’d say la femme (“the woman”) or la robe (“the idea”). If we’re talking about more than one specific woman or idea, we’d get les femmes (“the women”) and les robes (“the ideas”). The same goes for masculine nouns; le livre (“the book”) and le diamant (“the diamond”) become les livres (“the books”) and les diamants (“the diamonds”) in the plural.
On top of all this, you must remember that the French articles le and la become l’ and combine with the beginning of a noun when that noun begins with a vowel sound, regardless of the noun’s gender. Take l’orange (“the orange,” a feminine noun) or l’hôpital (“the hospital,” a masculine noun), for example.
If you’re referring to an unspecified noun or group of countable nouns, you’d use an indefinite article instead. The French indefinite articles (meaning “a,” “an” or “some”) are
- un (singular, masculine)
- une (singular, feminine)
- des (plural)
So, we’d say une femme to talk about “a woman” (not any one woman in particular) and des femmes for “women” or “some women.” And similarly, un livre would mean “a book,” whereas des livres would refer to “books” or “some books.”
Figuring out how to use French nouns is vital to learning French grammar rules, so stick with it even the concept takes some getting used to.
Just like in English, French pronouns stand in for French nouns. They come in handy when you’re talking about yourself (“I am happy!”) or about someone you’re talking to (“Who are you?”).
They’re particularly useful when a speaker doesn’t want to keep repeating the same noun over and over. For example, assume you say a sentence like La femme est mon amie, or “The woman is my friend.” If you want to keep talking about the same woman, without reusing the noun la femme, you can use a French pronoun — in this case, elle, or “she.” Thus, you could say something like La femme est mon amie. Elle a deux frères. (“The woman is my friend. She has two brothers.”)
French pronouns are extremely common in the French language, just as they are in English. They often exist as subjects of sentences — like in the sentence Elle a deux frères. The subject pronouns in French are:
- je — “I”
- tu — “you” (singular, informal)
- il — “he”
- elle — “she”
- on — “one”/”we”
- nous — “we”
- vous —“you” (singular, formal) or (plural)
- ils/elles — “they”
As mentioned above, each French pronoun or group of pronouns has its own associated verb conjugation for each French verb, so it’s important to learn them all.
You might have noticed that there are multiple ways to say “you.” French grammar rules require you to make a distinction between the informal and formal versions of the pronoun “you,” depending on whom and how many people you’re talking to. The informal tu is reserved for singular people you have a familiar, personal relationship with, like a friend, a sibling or someone younger than you. The more formal vous is appropriate when speaking to a boss, an elder or someone in a position of authority, for example. The form vous is also used to refer to a group of multiple people.
When French pronouns serve as the object of a sentence, they take different forms and in most cases come before the verb. In a sentence like Le chien me mord, or “The dog bites me,” the direct object pronoun me (“me”) comes before the verb mord (“bites”).
French pronouns in this pre-verb position sometimes even refer back to the subject and are called reflexive pronouns. In the sentence Je me douche, or “I shower (myself),” the reflexive pronoun me refers to the same person as the subject je and comes before the verb douche, or “shower.”
Pronouns can even be possessive, telling us who is the owner of a certain noun. Instead of saying le livre de nous (literally, “the book of us” or “the book of ours”), you can say notre livre (“our book”). If you’re talking about l’idée de Pierre (“the idea of Pierre”), you could opt for son idée (“his idea”), as long as the context makes clear whom you’re talking about.
Though French verbs and French nouns and pronouns are perhaps the most important part of French grammar rules to get to know, you can’t forget about French adjectives! These are words that describe the properties and characteristics of nouns — properties like color (jaune, or “yellow”), size (petit, or “small”), shape (rond, or “round”) or someone’s personality (amical, or “friendly”), to name just a few.
Adjectives in French must “agree” with the nouns they modify. This means that French adjective endings must reflect the gender (so, masculine or feminine) and the number (singular or plural) of the noun to which they refer. Unlike in English, many French adjectives come after the noun it is describing.
For example, an adjective like vert (“green”) can describe a singular, masculine noun like le livre (“the book”) to give us le livre vert (“the green book”). But if the noun is feminine, like la table (“the table”), we get the expression la table verte (“the green table”). If the nouns are plural, the adjective endings change to reflect that, and we get expressions like les livres verts (“the green books”) and les tables vertes (“the green tables”).
You'll soon get the hang of how to use French adjectives and French nouns with repeated exposure. It's one of the earliest skills you'll practice as you start learning French!
Adverbs in French modify adjectives, verbs or other adverbs. They usually tell us how, in what way or by what means an action is completed or the degree of intensity of a given adjective. You can recognize French adverbs because they often end in the suffix -ment, sort of like the English ending -ly. For example, the adjective facile means “easy,” and facilement means “easily.” Similarly, sérieuse means “serious,” and sérieusement means “seriously.”
Some other common French adverbs and adverb phrases include:
- maintenant (“now”)
- plus tard (“later”)
- jamais (“never”)
- souvent (“often”)
- toujours (“always”)
- bien (“well”)
- mal (“badly,” “poorly”)
- très (“very”)
- ici (“here”)
- là (“there”)
- seulement (“only”)
Of course, there are many more French adverbs than these, and being able to use them will carry you a long way and add flavor to your language when you’re learning to speak French.
Prepositions are words that describe relationships in time and space between two or more ideas, people, or things (so, nouns). It’s important to learn French prepositions when you’re getting the grasp on French grammar rules. Luckily, they have no gender or number, so you don’t have to learn as many different forms!
To describe spatial relationships, there are several common French prepositions you’ll want to know. Here are just a few examples:
- sur (“on”)
- dans (“in,” “into”)
- derrière (“behind”)
- devant (“in front of”)
- par (“by,” “through”)
- à côté de (“next to,” “beside”)
- contre (“against,” “versus”)
- entre (“between”)
There are also French prepositions to help you talk about relationships in time:
- avant (“before”)
- après (“after”)
- jusque (“until”)
- depuis (“since,” “for”)
And then there are plenty of other useful French prepositions you’ll want to know as well:
- avec (“with”)
- sans (“without”)
- de (“of," “from”)
- selon (“according to”)
- à (“to,” “at” or “in”)
- pour (“for”)
When it comes to French prepositions, you’ll want to learn as many as possible to help you expand your language skills and capabilities. Their meanings can be slightly different from their English translations, so it’s important to practice using them in the right contexts.
Practicing French Grammar With Babbel
Learning French with French grammar exercises doesn’t have to be boring or anxiety-inducing at all. In fact, Babbel makes mastering French grammar interactive, engaging and much more fun!
Babbel is designed to help guide you through all the elements of French grammar, from the simplest to the most complex.
Our courses help you deepen your understanding of French grammar using in-depth lessons created by language experts and teachers.
Babbel’s French grammar exercises are designed to strengthen your skills in the four areas of language learning — reading, writing, speaking and listening — and make sure the content you’re learning is committed to your long-term memory. Helpful tips along the way help you reinforce what you’re learning by making connections in new ways.
And almost every lesson features a simulated real-life dialogue to help you put what you’re learning about French grammar into context in the sorts of conversations you’d be having with native speakers.
Try getting a handle on French grammar with a free Babbel French lesson!