6 essential grammar rules you need to know about French grammar

6 essential grammar rules you need to know about French grammar

by Audrey Sivadier

Updated November 9, 2022

Learning French means learning vocabulary, verbs and notions of Francophone culture. It also means learning grammar. But make no mistake, it’s not as boring as you might think! Some essential rules will allow you to build a solid base in your initiatory journey towards the mastery of French!

French words and gender – masculine or feminine?

When you first enter the wonderful world of French, and your first language is English, French can seem incredibly complicated. Like any Latin language, French has divided its world into two: the feminine and the masculine. Any object, concept, idea, or person is either masculine or feminine. Be thankful that some languages like German have more than two genders.

It is often said that feminine words end with an -e and that masculine words have all other endings… Well, this is not true! It would be so much simpler indeed! But alas, there are no rules:

  • Un livre (a book) = masculine word ending in -e
  • Une odeur (a smell) = female word not ending in –e

There is no secret to learning the gender of words: as soon as you learn a word, learn its gender (feminine or masculine) at the same time.

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The plural of French words

This is usually what we learn just after the difference between masculine and feminine. How do you mark the plural in French? And on which words is it marked? In English, it is only marked on nouns: 

  • “In my street, cats are all black”. 

Well, in French we would say:

  • « Dans ma rue, les chats sont tous noirs » ! 

The plural is therefore marked on the noun (the idea, object, place, animal or person) and on everything that relates to it: determiners and adjectives. While in English there is only one -s added to “cat”, in French there are four -s in the sentence to convey the plural. 

But the letter -s is not the only plural mark in French. Sometimes it can also be -x. Generally, nouns and adjectives ending in -al in the singular make their plural in -aux:

  • un animal > des animaux (animals)
  • un journal > des journaux (newspapers)
  • un cheval > des chevaux (horses)

And on the contrary, other words should end in -s but end in -x. This is the famous list that French children have to learn at school: bijoux, choux, cailloux, genoux, poux, joujoux, hiboux… (jewels, cabbages, pebbles, knees, lice, toys, owls… )

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Negation in French

To form the negation in French you need to know two small adverbs: “ne” and “pas”. You simply need to place one before the verb and the other just after.

  • Je suis française. (I’m French)
  • Je ne suis pas américaine. (I’m not Americain)

Now, an essential rule for the negation of possession. Imagine the scene, you are in a restaurant in France and the waiter has forgotten to bring you a fork.

  • Excusez-moi, je n’ai pas de fourchette. (Excuse me, I don’t have a fork.)

It doesn’t matter if « fourchette » (“fork”) is feminine, masculine or plural! Here’s the good news: when you’re missing something, just say « je n’ai pas de… + l’objet » (“I don’t have a… + the object”).

Possessives in French

In English, possessives “his/her…” are agreed according to the “owner of the object”. If I’m talking about my friend Pierre (a man)’s mother (a woman), it would be “his mother”, even if his mother is a feminine “object”.

Well, in French, it’s the other way around! The possessives “ma/mon/ta/ton/sa/son” will agree according to the “object” possessed. If we take the previous example, my friend Peter’s mother, it will be “sa mère” and not “son mère”. 

It’s gymnastics for the brain, but it’s not insurmountable!

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Using grammar to talk about countries and cities in French

This is another well-known puzzle for beginners who are learning French. Which prepositions should you use with each of the countries? In French, each country has a gender. This means that the countries are either feminine or masculine. How do you know this? You have to look at how the word ends:

  • Countries ending with an “e” are feminine.
  • The others are masculine.

Well, not always… There are exceptions:  le Mexique, le Cambodge… 

And some are plural: les États-Unis, les Pays-Bas… (United States, Netherlands…).

In the following table, the left-hand column is to be used with verbs of displacement or to be/live and the right-hand column with verbs speaking about the origin.

Feminine countriesMasculine countries
Je suis / Je vais / J’habite…Je viens Je suis / Je vais / J’habite…Je viens
En France
En Italie
En Colombie
En Australie
De France
De Colombie
Au Cameroun
Au Brésil
Au Mexique
Au Canada
Du Cameroun
Du Brésil
Du Mexique
Du Canada

With cities, it’s simpler, you should always use the preposition ” à “.

  • J’habite à Paris. (I live in Paris).

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C’est / il est

This is a common grammatical error because the nuance is subtle and your mother tongue sometimes does not make this difference. It is the distinction between two notions: identification and description.

Imagine a conversation about your Lingoda teacher. If you want to give an indication of who he is you will say:

  • C’est un homme. (He is a man.)
  • C’est une femme. (She is a woman.)

But if you want to describe him/her, you would say it like this:

  • Il est grand / français / jeune… (he is tall, French, young…)
  • Elle est blonde / belge / intelligente… (She is blonde / Belgian / intelligent…)

As you have read above, even the French make mistakes! So don’t be afraid to make some. In fact, it is thanks to them that we make progress! 

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