12 Basic French Grammar Rules for Beginners

September 26, 2023
10 min read
Contents

Learning any foreign language begins with the basics! Read on to learn the top 12 basic French grammar rules to begin mastering this language!

French flag blowing in the wind

Despite popular belief, French is not considered a romantic language because of how melodiously “je t’aime” rolls off the tongue. It is considered a romantic language because of its connections to Rome. The term “Romance” comes from the word “Romanicus,” which  means “of the Roman style.” 

Nonetheless, there’s no arguing that French is one of the most beautiful languages  highly sought after by students hoping to diversify their linguistics or become bilingual. 

If you’ve already begun your French journey or are just starting it,  you must learn basic French grammar to increase your proficiency. This guide will cover essential French grammar for beginners, so bon voyage! 

12 Basic French Grammar Rules You Need to Know

Here are the basic French grammar concepts you should grasp to understand this language better and formulate correct sentences!

1. Sentence Structure

Before delving into a sentence’s specific components, you must understand how French sentences are constructed. Despite the breadth of your French vocab, your intended meaning will be lost if you don’t know how to order these words. Use the acronym SVO to remember how to structure your French sentences:

  • S: Subject
  • V: Verb
  • O: Object

While sentences can have additional components, the SVO structure is the most basic! As a quick refresher, the subject of your sentence is the noun or pronoun that acts as the verb. This is commonly your je, tu, il/elle, nous, vous, ils/elles pronouns or names. The object is the recipient of this action. 

In case you’re still confused, here is an example breaking down the SVO structure:

In this example, Pam is the subject because she does the action, which is the verb (to drink), and du café (coffee) is the object because it is the recipient of the action.

2. Nouns 

Unlike in English, nouns in French are numbered and gendered. Nouns are either masculine or feminine and either singular or plural. While some nouns’ genders  have to be memorized, the good news is you can decipher the majority of nouns’ gender by looking at their endings.

The majority of feminine words will end in -e or -ion. However, this does not apply to words that end in -age, -ege, -é, or -isme, as these are typically masculine words. Words that have any other ending are generally masculine. 

3. Articles

All nouns in French require articles that agree in both the gender and number of the noun being used. This is why  you must know the gender of the nouns you’re using so that you also use the correct articles!

There are three main types of articles to know:

Indefinite articles 

Indefinite articles are non-specific; they typically mean the equivalent of “a” or “an” in English and are gendered as follows:

  • Un: masculine
  • Une: feminine
  • Des: plural 

For example, you would say “un chat” (a cat) rather than “chat.”

Definite Articles

Definite articles are specific and are used as the equivalent of “the” in English. They include the following:

  • Le: masculine
  • La: feminine
  • Les: plural

It’s important to note with these articles; you must conjugate le and la if they are followed by nouns that begin with vowels. For instance, instead of saying “le œuf,” you would say “l’œuf” (the egg).

Partitive Articles

Partitive articles tend to be trickier for students, but knowing if they mean “some” or a “certain amount” is a good way to recognize when to use these. For instance, if you are talking about cheese, the assumption is you will only be using some of the cheese in question so that you would say “du fromage.” Here’s how all of these articles are gendered:

  • Du: masculine
  • De la: feminine
  • Des: plural

You’ll notice that for indefinite and partitive nouns, the word “des” is used for plurals, making knowing which article to use easier!

4. Subject Pronouns

For all verbs in French, you will conjugate them according to their subject pronouns. Here is a breakdown of all of the subject pronouns used:

  • Je: the first-person singular pronoun, meaning “I.”
  • Tu: the second-person singular pronoun, meaning “you.”
  • Il/elle: the third-person singular pronoun, meaning “he/she.”
  • Nous: the first-person plural pronoun, meaning “we.”
  • Vous: the second-person plural pronoun, meaning “you.” 
  • Ils/elles: the third-person plural pronoun, meaning “they.” 

Since “tu” and “vous”  mean you, these pronouns often confuse students. The main difference between these pronouns is “vous” refers to more than one person, whereas “tu” refers to only one. However, “vous” is also used as a term of respect and is more polite  when talking to strangers, teachers, or other authority figures. 

Additionally, when addressing a group of males, they are “ils.” A group of females is “elles,” but a mixed group will always be “ils.” 

Group of French students

4. Avoir and Être

Two of the most important verbs in French are avoir (to have) and être (to be). These verbs are considered irregular, as they do not follow conjugation rules. As a beginner, these are the two verbs you’ll want to memorize first, as they are not only common but required for different tenses, which we’ll discuss further in this guide.

For your aid, here are the conjugations of these verbs:

Subject Pronouns Avoir Être
Je ‘ai suis
Tu as es
Il/Elle a est
Nous avons sommes
Vous avez êtes
Ils/Elles ont sont

Source: FrenchPod101

Knowing these conjugations is key to mastering French!

6. Verbs

A vital but basic French grammar concept to know is how to conjugate verbs properly. There are irregular and regular verbs in French. Regular verbs will all follow the same rules and are thus easy to conjugate, whereas irregular verbs will not follow specific rules and must be memorized.

Regular verbs end in -er, -ir, and -re. There is a stem for regular verbs, so the part of the word before the -er, -ir, or -re ending does not change, and the ending changes depending on the subject pronoun. The way regular verbs are conjugated will follow these rules:

Subject Pronoun -er endings
(ex. commander)
-ir endings
(ex. finir)
-re endings
(ex. vendre)
Je Stem + e
commande
Stem + is
finis
Stem + s
vends
Tu Stem + es
commandes
Stem + is
finis
Stem + s
vends
Il/elle Stem + e
commande
Stem + it
finit
Stem
vend
Nous Stem + ons
commandons
Stem + issons
finissons
Stem + ons
vendons
Vous Stem + ez
commandez
Stem + issez
finissez
Stem + ez
vendez
Ils/elles Stem + ent
commandent
Stem + issent
finissent
Stem + ent
vendent

Sources: ER Verbs, IR Verbs, RE Verbs

Remember, these conjugations will apply to most verbs with these endings, but some exceptions  will come with practice!

7. Adjectives

Placement is tricky in French! We’d say “red car” in English, whereas in French, the adjectives generally come after the noun they describe. So, instead, we’d say “la voiture rouge.”

Adjectives must also always agree in gender and number with the noun they are describing - if the noun is feminine, the adjective must be too. Most adjectives differ based on their gender, although some remain the same. 

Some adjectives go before the noun. The best way to remember these is to ask if the adjective describes preference, such as good or bad, beauty, size, or age, such as new or old - these will generally go before the noun. Here’s a list of common adjectives that are placed before nouns:

  • Beau/belle (beautiful/handsome)
  • Bon/bonne (good)
  • Grand/grande (big/tall)
  • Petit/petite (small)
  • Joli/jolie (pretty)
  • Mauvais/mauvaise (bad)
  • Nouveau/nouvelle (new)
  • Vieux/vieille (old)
  • Jeune (young)

Understanding this basic French grammar rule will ensure you articulate your thoughts effectively. 

8. Possessive Adjectives

When speaking about nouns that belong to someone, possessive adjectives, or les adjectifs possessifs, come into play. These define whom the noun being spoken about belongs to. These must also agree in gender and number with the noun they refer to. 

Here’s a comprehensive list of the French possessive adjectives:

English French (masc/fem) French Plurals
My Mon/ma Mes
Your (like tu) Ton/ta Tes
His, hers, its Son/sa Ses
Our Notre Nos
Your (like vous) Votre Vos
Their Leur Leurs

Source: French Possessive Adjectives

Remember, these agree with the noun, not the person spoken about! So, even if it is a female that the object belongs to, if the object itself is masculine, it will be “son,” not “sa.”

9. Adverbs 

Fortunately, adverbs are a little easier! These words are invariable and describe a verb, adjective, or other adverb. This means they do not agree with the gender or number of the noun being discussed. 

Here are some examples of adverbs used in sentences:

  • Je marche lentement (I walk slowly)
  • Je suis vraiment intéressé par l’art moderne (I am very interested in modern art)
  • Il fait trop froid dehors (it is too cold outside)
  • Elle lit beaucoup de livres (she reads a lot of books)
  • C’était une mauvaise journée (It was a bad day)

While there are some exceptions to the placement of certain adverbs, you can generally place them where you normally would in English. 

10. Negation

Knowing how to negate sentences is equally as important as knowing how to say them in the positive. To negate any sentence, the structure is simple: 

Subject + ne + verb + pas

Let’s see this in action:

Whenever the ne is followed by a verb that begins with a vowel, you must conjugate it as an n’. 

11. Tenses

There are several tenses in any language, with the past, present, and future being the most common in English. French has various tenses that you will learn as you develop your skills. Thus far, we’ve focused on the simple present tense, but the other basic tense you should know is the past tense or passé composé.

The passé composé is a tense that relies heavily on avoir and être, which is another reason you must have these verbs down! The passé composé involves what is known as an auxiliary verb and the past participle of the verb that needs to be put in the past tense. The structure is as follows: 

Subject + auxiliary verb + past participle

Let’s start with the auxiliary verb. Your auxiliary word will be the appropriately conjugated form of avoir or être. While the majority of verbs use avoir, there are specific ones that use être. 

The mnemonic device DR. MRS. VANDERTRAMPP is used to remember these être verbs. These verbs also must agree in gender and number with the subject, but those using avoir as the auxiliary do not at the basic level: 

Acronym Verb Past Participle
D Devenir (to become) Devenu(e)(s)
R Revenir (to come back) Revenu(e)(s)
M Monter (to climb) Monté(e)(s)
R Rester (to stay) Resté(e)(s)
S Sortir (to leave) Sorti(e)(s)
V Venir (to come) Venu(e)(s)
A Aller (to go) Allé(e)(s)
N Naître (to be born) Né(e)(s)
D Descendre (to descend) Descendu(e)(s)
E Entrer (to enter) Entré(e)(s)
R Rentrer (to re-enter) Rentré(e)(s)
T Tomber (to fall) Tombé(e)(s)
R Retourner (to return) Retourné(e)(s)
A Arriver (to arrive) Arrivé(e)(s)
M Mourir (to die) Mort(e)(s)
P Passer (to pass) Passé(e)(s)
P Partir (to leave) Parti(e)(s)

Source:ThoughtCo

In case you’re still confused about how to use être as an auxiliary, here are some examples:

  • Elle est allée dans son bureau (she went to her office)
  • Elle est retournée en France (she returned to France)
  • Ils sont passés par le parc (they passed by the park)
  • Il est tombé (he fell)
  • Elles sont nées en mai (they were born in May)

In terms of figuring out the past participles of the avoir verbs, for all -er verbs, you simply replace where the conjugation endings would be as é. For all -ir verbs, the ending turns into i; for all -re verbs, the ending after the stem becomes u. Here are some examples to aid your understanding:

  • Commande, commandes, commande, commandons, commandez, commandent = commandé
  • Finis, finis, finit, finissons, finissez, finissent = fini
  • Vends, vends, vend, vendons, vendez, vendent = vendu

These ending changes only apply to regular verbs. There are several irregular verbs whose past participles must be memorized.

12. Questions

The last basic French grammar rule is that there are two proper ways to ask a question in French. The first involves an inversion of the verb and subject pronoun. So, if you were asking someone, “Do you have a pen?” instead of simply adding a question mark to the end of “tu as un stylo,” you would say “as-tu un stylo?” The inversion is always hyphenated as well. 

Another way to ask is to add “est-ce que” before the regular sentence. So, with our previous example, it would turn into “est-ce que tu as un stylo?”

An informal way to ask questions is to add “N’est-ce pas?” at the end of a declarative sentence, which translates to “Is it not?”. So, if you were talking to a friend, you might say, “Tu as un stylo, n’est-ce pas?” However, this is typically only asked to confirm a statement rather than to ask one. 

FAQs: French Grammar for Beginners

Hopefully, this guide has answered most of your questions about basic French grammar. But, for any remaining questions, read on to find your answers!

1. How Can I Learn French By Myself?

Learning French by yourself will be challenging. It will involve a lot of self-discipline and dedication! You must look for quality resources that suit your learning style. Whether it be online textbooks, audiobooks, podcasts, courses, apps, or joining French extracurriculars, try to experiment and figure out what works best for you.

Immerse yourself into the language as much as possible! Practice makes perfect, so seek ways to practice your French with others and  add French to your environment. 

An excellent way to do this is to listen to French podcasts in your free time, watch your favorite shows in French, or even listen to French music. This will also help you learn the French accent. Dedicate several hours a week to your language studies, as you must remain consistent to make progress!

2. What Are the Rules of French Grammar?

There are countless basic rules for French grammar, but the ones we’ve covered in this guide include the following:

  • The SVO structure for sentences
  • Nouns are gendered and numbered
  • All nouns require articles (indefinite, definite, and partitive)
  • All verbs use subject pronouns 
  • Avoir and etre have irregular conjugations but are fundamental verbs to know
  • Verbs are conjugated according to specific rules for regular verbs
  • Adjectives are placed after the noun except for certain ones. Their gender and number also correspond to the noun they describe
  • Possessive adjectives denote whom nouns belong to and agree in gender and number with the noun they describe rather than the subject pronoun 
  • Adverbs are invariable and do not agree in gender or number with the word they describe
  • The structure to negate sentences is subject + ne + verb + pas
  • Passé composé is structured using the subject + auxiliary verb + past participle; verbs using être as their auxiliary verb must be gendered and numbered according to the subject pronoun
  • The only ways to ask questions in French are to either invert and hyphenate the subject pronoun and verb, add “est-ce que” in front of a declarative sentence, or informally add a “n’est-ce pas?” at the end of a declarative sentence

A good grasp of these basic French grammar concepts will give you a solid foundation to learn French!

3. What Is the Basic Sentence Pattern In French?

The basic sentence pattern in French is subject + verb + object (SVO).

4. What Is the Most Important Rule In French?

While there isn’t only one important rule in French, the rule that differs the most from English is that certain types of words must agree in number and gender with others. For instance, verbs must agree with their subjects, adjectives with the noun, and certain past participles with their subject pronouns. 

5. How Long Will It Take for Me to Learn French?

The time it takes to learn French can vary depending on several factors, including your prior language-learning experience, your dedication to studying, the amount of time you can allocate to learning each day, and your overall language-learning aptitude. 

It's important to note that learning any language is a continuous process, and fluency is a long journey! It may only take a few months to gain a basic understanding of French, but it typically takes at least a couple of years to become completely fluent.  

Final Thoughts

Learning French will be a highly rewarding journey! Although it may take some time to get used to its different grammar rules, once you’ve learned the basics, you can learn more complex structures and increase your proficiency in one of the most beautiful languages in the world! Bonne chance!

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