Grammar ♥︎ Practice en Français: 3 Sweet Grammar Tricks for Learning French

Get out the macaroons for some sweet sweet grammaire française. Yes, I've got a treat for those of you wanting to take grammar ♥︎ to the next level with a dip into the grammar of a language I've learnt for 20 years: French!

In this post, you're going to learn the essentials of the French language, explained in simple terms that will have you creating your own sentences in minutes. It is a collaboration with Shannon from Eurolinguiste, who is covering how to use the past, present and future tenses in French on Monday.

I have selected 2 topics for beginners and 1 bonus for improvers, meaning that you can study French and crack on with this post at any level.

Beginner Step 1: Using French Nouns

Sentences are made up of different components, but only two of them are absolutely essential:

  • the verbs, telling you about an action
  • the nouns, telling you who is acting and what they're acting with

French nouns come in two gender variations, feminine and masculine. The gender isn't really visible in a word itself, but it has an impact on the kinds of words you have to use around it.

Firstly, make sure you use the right article with your noun. There are definite articles (like the English the) and indefinite articles (like a or an). You have to choose the right one according to the gender, so here it matters if your noun is feminine or masculine.

 Quick Guide to French Articles

Quick Guide to French Articles

New French learners find themselves frustrated when they realize that the gender of a noun is impossible to predict. I agree - it's tricky! There are a few good rules, however, that you can use to spot helpful patterns. For example, words ending in -ment are always masculine, words ending in -tion are always feminine, and according to my French teacher in secretary school "all the bad things are masculine" (divorce being her example!).

What If You Get The Gender Wrong?

There is no big penalty for getting the gender of a French noun wrong as you are learning the language. In fact, it happens all the time! Native speakers will not think that you are bad at speaking French because even after decades it's still difficult to assign every gender correctly.

###Easiest "language hack"?

Just ask: ...c'est féminin où masculin, s'il vous plaît?" (is that feminine or masculine, please?).

Beginner Step 2: Using French Adjectives

Adjectives are descriptive words (for example grand meaning big), and you can just pick those out of the dictionary...and then you've got to change them according to the gender of the noun. So in other words, the adjective will always be looking to its big noun brother.

A bit like that kid who hangs out with the stronger kid in the playground and shouts "yeah right!" every time the big kid does some thing. The agreement also covers if the words are in singular and plural

Here is a Quick Reference List of the Rules

  • When the adjective usually ends in a consonant, the feminine version will take an extra -e at the end. For example, grand and grande.
  • When the adjective ends in -eux, the feminine version will be -euse. For example, heureux and heureuse.
  • When it ends in -ien, the feminine version is -ienne, like in ancien and ancienne.
  • When the adjective already ends in an -e, it doesn't change. Bonus! For example, jeune stays the same.

Here are a few helpful words that you can use to describe yourself. The French for "I am" is Je suis. Try it!

Quelle est ta nationalité? - Je suis..

  • anglais, -e - English
  • allemand, -e - German
  • américain, -e - American
  • canadien, -ne - Canadian
  • autrichien, -ne - Austrian

French Grammar for Improvers: Contracted Articles

Shortly after learning the essentials such as nouns, verbs and adjectives, it's time to get into details. French has so many little details that make it sound prettier!

In fact, I have a French textbook from 1948 at home which was owned by my grandfather during the French occupation of Germany. And this book starts with some ground rules of French. Rule number one: Wohlklang, the principle that everything in French has to sound nice. Hah!

Here's what that has to do with French articles. You already know how to say articles from the table above. But here's something you might not realize. Every time the article connects with the words de (of/from) or à (at/to), the two little words try to connect and form a contracted article.

French Contracted Articles in 7 Minutes

Learn the details of how this works in the following video, featuring Kerstin in the summer!

So as you can see, the French grammar really strongly revolves around this idea of sounding nice...well no, actually it's all about your noun being feminine and masculine and this concept determines how the words around it are arranged. Check out Shannon's partner post to learn about the other essential in a French sentence: the verb!

How to Know if You Should Use à or de with a verb

While grammar has many rules that help us avoid memorizing, the case of "how the verb connects to the next word" has to be learnt with a good verb list or table. Those little connecting words are called prepositions, and they cannot be translated directly. When you look up one of the little ones in the dictionary, you're likely to find about 5 meanings.

So for example, "be interested in" is s'intéresser à but "look forward to" is s'attendre à, giving the French word à two different meanings. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

I was lucky to have a teacher who put a lot of stress on learning the verbs with their connectors right from the start, so that I never developed a big gap. The verbs that connect directly to the next verb are called "pure infinitive", and the other groups are "infinitive with de" and "infinitive with à". If you're a self-teaching French learner at an early stage, do yourself a favour and study them too.

My go-to reference for everything about French verbs is the Bescherelle L'Art de Conjuguer. In my version (the German one), the relevant lists are in section 164 of the grammar part. Very handy!

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