Constructing Simple Sentences in French
Although the word “grammar” may make you as nervous now as it did when you were in grammar school, you can relax your grip on that number 2 pencil: Grammar is merely the school glue that holds your French sentences together. In fact, grammar is simply a word for ways of combining nouns (to name things), adjectives (to qualify these nouns), verbs (to show action or a state of being), and adverbs (to describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs). This combination of words makes possible the expression of our needs, desires, likes, dislikes; our present, past, and future actions; and the ways and means of these actions.
A simple sentence construction (in French or in English) consists of a noun, an adjective, a verb, and, possibly an adverb.
All French nouns have a sex instead of being just neutral like nouns in English: They are either masculine or feminine. But, instead of calling it sex, grammarian-types talk about the gender of a noun (perhaps to avoid giggling too much).
Also in French, as in English, nouns are either singular or plural. The French say they have a number.
French nouns are almost always preceded by articles — small words like “the” or “a/an” in English — which mark the gender and the number of nouns. The best way to get used to knowing the right gender of a noun in French is to try to remember the article with the noun. In other words, never memorize a noun without its marker. Instead of table (tahbl) (table), say to yourself la table (lah tahbl) (the table) or une table (ewn tahbl) (a table). Instead of livre (leevr) (book), think le livre (luh leevr) (the book) or un livre (aN leevr) (a book).
Whereas in English the plural of nouns is not always marked by an article, for example, “a table” becomes plural “tables,” in French, the masculine article for “the,” le (luh) and the feminine la (lah) both become les (lay) in the plural. The masculine article for “a,” un (aN), and the feminine une (ewn) both become des (day). Le livre (luh leevr) (the book) becomes les livres (lay leevr) (the books), and une table (ewn tahbl) (a table) becomes des tables (day tahbl) (tables).
Adjectives describe nouns. Because French nouns have both gender and number, any adjectives have to match the nouns they qualify in gender and number. Remember, too, that in French, some adjectives are placed before the noun while others follow the noun. For example:
- le papier blanc (luh pah-pyay blahN) (the white paper)
- la grande maison (lah grahNd meh-zohN) (the big house)
- les feuilles vertes (lay fewy vehrt) (the green leaves)
- les petits oiseaux (lay puh-tee-zwah-zo) (the little birds)
A verb expresses an action or a state of being. This action has a subject (such as the person who acts or the thing or idea that exists). This subject may be a noun (as in, “The leaf falls”) or a pronoun (as in, “They sing”).
Just as in English, you make the verb match the subject (you don’t say, of course, “the leaf fall”), so, in French, the verb has a special ending for each subject (I, you, we, she, and so on).
Here’s what a simple sentence looks like:
Les petits oiseaux chantent.
lay puh-tee zwah-zo shahNt
The little birds sing (or are singing).
An adverb is a word which modifies (describes) a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. In English, most adverbs end with –ly, as in, “Please, speak slowly.” In French, the adverbs end in -ment. So the same sentence would be: “Parlez lentement, s’il vous plaît” (pahr-lay lahNt-mahN seel-voo-pleh).
The sample sentence is now complete and reads like this:
Les petits oiseaux chantent joyeusement.
lay puh-tee-zwah-zo shahNt zhwah-yewz-mahN
The little birds sing happily.