One of my earliest memories is sitting on a swing in a French campsite and saying ‘bonjour’ to the girl next to me. We had a short conversation consisting of my very basic French. I learnt her name, I learnt her age, and that’s about it. And no, I don’t remember who she was now.
Although it was obviously pretty special because the memory has stuck with me, my French didn’t advance much further beyond that for years. It wasn’t until I started to be taught some basic grammar that things really began to take off. With that in mind, let’s talk about some basic French grammar to get you started.
Oh, and just like the Spanish equivalent of this post a few months back, we’re not even going to touch verbs today. We’ll save that for another day.
Your Free Guide + Worksheet!
To help you make the most of this blog post, I’ve made you a little guide focusing on gender in French, which includes a worksheet to help get you comfortable with the whole thing. Click the button below to download your guide.
We’ll start with nouns because the stuff here also changes things later on in the post.
Masculine / Feminine
Nouns in French have a gender. They can be masculine or feminine. If you’ve studied something like Spanish, German, or even Arabic, you’ll know that gender is very much a thing.
But if you’re a native English, Japanese, or Thai speaker, for example, then the whole idea of giving each noun a gender may have you scratching your head. It’s not as complicated as it sounds at first.
With French, you have 2 genders: masculine and feminine.
The gender of a word in French can sometimes be identified by its ending. The best place to start with this “rule” is that feminine nouns in French end in -‘e’.
Buuuut…be aware that this is language and language means exceptions. Please don’t stress too much about this. You just need to know there’s some weird words waiting for you.
If you’re ready to take it one step further, there’s a detailed list of which gender most noun endings are in the free download.
I also made a video explaining the key points about gender in a bit more detail!
Singular / Plural
As well as being masculine or feminine, a French noun will also be singular or plural. This is perhaps a little more relatable than gender depending on which languages you already know.
We even have this in English. This is the difference between pen and pens. Or, for a slightly more complicated example to prove that English has weird words too, woman and women.
The nouns you see in your French dictionary are normally singular unless it’s a word like “United States”, which is “les États Unis”, a plural noun by default. Because a State can’t be United on its own.
The United State of America. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?
Singular nouns are pretty simple as (as we mentioned already) they just end in what they end with in the dictionary. Boom. Done.
Plurals in French though took me ages to learn properly – and I still have to think about it from time to time, especially when I’m writing.
So, let’s try and simplify this.
Most French plurals end in ‘s’.
As for the rest of them? Here’s a table to help you out.
The & A
Did you notice the ‘les’ in front of ‘États Unis’? That’s an article.
Articles are words such as ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’. They’re sometimes taught as a bigger group of words known as ‘determiners’. But hey now, let’s stick to what we’re working with here: articles only, please.
In English, we use the word ‘the’ when we know what we’re talking about. I don’t just mean we’re smart cookies, I mean when we’re talking about something specific.
If I say to you, “Pass me the pen, please”, chances are there’s only one pen on the table and that’s the one I’m talking about. But if there is a collection of pens and it looks like quite the rainbow on the table, I would have to be even more specific. For example, “Pass me the blue pen next to your left arm, please”. Both of these use ‘the’, which is known as the definite article. I definitely know which pen that I want.
However, if I just need a pen and I couldn’t care less about the colour, I might say, “Pass me a pen, please” and you know that you can give me any pen from the selection on the table. ‘A’, and also ‘an’, are indefinite articles. I’m not being specific, or “definite”.
What happens in French is that before we ask that question and say the article, we have to know if a noun is masculine or feminine and singular or plural. (I told you that stuff would come back later on). This will change the word we use for ‘the’ and ‘a’.
How many are there? Technically there’s three words for ‘the’ and three for ‘a’ in French. However, there’s also l’, which is used when a noun begins with a vowel. Here are those words…
Where do they go?
Adjectives are used to describe things. This means that you’ll want to start using them to make your French a bit more jazzy rather than just “I like turtles” or “The car”.
Do you like all turtles? Me too. But sometimes you might want to be more specific.
I like the turtles with long wiggly snake-like necks. The appropriately named ‘snake-necked turtles’. I also like Galapagos tortoises. But I’m not so keen on snapping turtles.
But to keep things simple, let’s just say I like green turtles.
J’aime les tortues vertes.
Right then. A few things to notice here.
We’ve got ‘les’ in front of ‘tortues’ and we’ve got ‘vertes’ after ‘tortues’.
Woah woah woah. The adjective is AFTER the noun?
Yup. That’s normally (are you bored of exceptions yet?) how adjectives work in French. Think of that famous poster with the black cat to help you remember this one.
But what about those exceptions then?
Well, some adjectives in French always go before the noun. The crazy rebels.
And some (get this) can even go in front of the noun or behind the noun and change their meaning depending on where they are. Uh huh. These guys are the adjectives that swung back on their chairs at the back of French class whilst sticking their gum underneath the table. True rebels.
Changed by gender or number of nouns
As I mention in the video above, the spelling and sometimes pronunciation of adjectives is affected by gender. However, number of a noun also changes this.
What do I mean by number? Singular or plural. How many turtles do you like?
Going back to our example, we said that we like green turtles in general, so we’re talking about multiple turtles, which means…? Plural.
That’s why the word ‘vertes’ looks the way it does.
You’ve probably already had colour vocabulary thrust at you, and if you have, you’ve probably learnt that green = vert.
Well, ‘tortue’ is a feminine word, which is why there’s an extra ‘e’ there. AND it’s plural here, which is 1) why the article is ‘les’ and 2) why there’s an ‘s’ at the end of ‘vert’ after that extra ‘e’.
Adjectives are really worthy of a blog post all to themselves so we’ll leave it here for today.
Key takeaway points about adjectives?
They normally go after the noun and the spelling and sometimes pronunciation change depending on whether or not a noun is masculine or feminine and singular or plural.
Other key point?
Sometimes those changes are weird. Learn the weirdos as you go.
You did it!
Phew. Well done.
Getting used to a grammar in a new language isn’t always easy. But having a basic understanding of the things we’ve looked at in this post will really give you a leg up as you go on learning French.
Like I said, so much of my early years learning French was going over the same stuff again and again…and again. It wasn’t until I started to learn some grammar than things began to make sense rather than just being told and expected to learn stuff rote style.
So yeah, grammar is good.
Your Free Guide + Worksheet!
A little reminder if you missed it up top. I’ve made a Quick Start Guide to French Gender for you to study alongside this post and the video. There’s also a few activities to give you the chance to put your new-found knowledge into practise. Woohoo! Click below to download it.
What would you like to see me explain next time? Do you have any questions about the grammar we’ve looked at today? Share in the comments!