French All-in-One For Dummies
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Like any new language, learning French can be a challenge. You have to interpret unfamiliar sounds, decipher idioms, conjugate verbs in multiple tenses, dot your is, cross your ts, and link your œs. Nouns have both number and gender, and adjectives and articles have to agree with them.

Here are a few French fundamentals to give your speaking, listening, reading, and writing a boost.

Choosing French verb tenses

To use the correct form of a French verb, you have to use the right tense. The indicative mood, which deals with objectivity — things really happening — includes many time aspects called tenses. A tense defines the time frame in which the action of the verb takes place: past, present, or future.

The following French verb tenses chart explains when to use each tense. It shows how compound tenses build off simpler ones and conjugate verbs for each tense: chanter (to sing) and se laver (to wash oneself).

Time Frame French Tense How to Build from Other Tenses Examples
What happens, is happening, or does happen Present indicative/présent de
je chante
je me lave
What just happened Near past/passé récent Present venir + de + infinitive je viens de chanter
je viens de me laver
What is going to happen Near future/futur proche Present aller + infinitive je vais chanter
je vais me laver
What [has] happened precisely and completely Passé composé Present avoir/être + past
j’ai chanté
je me suis lavé(e)
What was happening or used to happen or just was a certain
Imperfect/Imparfait je chantais
je me lavais
What had happened Pluperfect/plus-que-parfait Imparfait avoir/être + past
j’avais chanté
je m’étais lavé(e)
What will happen Simple future/futur simple je chanterai
je me laverai
What will have happened Future perfect/futur antérieur Simple future avoir/être + past
j’aurai chanté
je me serai lavé(e)

Spelling and letter combinations: Understanding spoken French

Interpreting French speech can be hard for English speakers — and not only because the sounds are unfamiliar. French has a lot of letter combinations that produce the same sounds. When you hear nah-syohN, realizing that the word is likely spelled nation rather than nassion allows you to quickly understand the meaning of the word.

Remember these patterns as you try to figure out which words you’re hearing, and try another spelling if what you’re hearing doesn’t make sense:

  • é, ée, és, ées: When you add a mute e, an s, or an es after é, the sound doesn’t change. In the following examples, the past participle of the verb arriver is always pronounced the same: Il est arrivé (eel ey tah-ree-vey) (He arrived); Elle est arrivée (ehl ey tah-ree-vey) (She arrived); Ils sont arrivés (eel soN tah-ree-vey) (They arrived); Elles sont arrivées (ehl soN tah-ree-vey) (They [feminine] arrived).

  • é, er, ez: These same-sounding letters are often found in verb forms: Il a parlé (eel ah pahr-ley) (He spoke/has spoken); Il va parler (ehl ah pahr-ley) (He’s going to speak); Vous parlez (vooh pahr-ley) (you [formal singular or any plural] speak/are speaking).

  • ô, ot, eau: In the following words, the vowel sound is the same: tôt (toh) (early), lot (loh) (prize, batch), eau (oh) (water).

  • Beware that the vowel o followed by a double consonant plus mute e becomes a softer sound (as in the following feminine adjectives) than when it stands alone or is followed by a mute consonant: sotte (suhht) (silly), grosse (gruhhs) (big, fat), bonne (buhhn) (good).

  • en, em, an, am: These letters are pronounced the same when found in isolation (like en) or before a consonant. Before a b or a p, expect to find an m instead of an n: en France (ahN frahNs) (in France); remplir (rahN-pleer) (to fill); ambassade (ahN-bah-sahd) (embassy).

  • on, om: These letter combinations are pronounced the same before a consonant. Note that before a b or p, m appears instead of n: on tombe (ohN tohNb) (one falls); ronfler (rohN-fley) (to snore).

  • tion, (s)sion: These combinations found in feminine nouns are pronounced the same in French: ration (rah-syohN) (ration), tension (tahN-syohN) (tension), sécession (sey-sey-syohN) (secession).

Articles and adjectives: Short words before French nouns

In French, you almost always use an article or short adjective before a noun or noun phrase. These words translate as the, a/an, some, this, that, these, those, which, what, my, your, his, her, and so on.

The following tables show these common little words in all their forms — masculine and feminine, singular and plural, before a consonant and before a vowel or mute h, and sometimes in various grammatical persons. Definite articles refer to something specific, indefinite articles refer to something unspecific, and partitive articles refer to a part of something. Demonstrative adjectives differentiate and compare things, interrogative adjectives ask for information, and possessive adjectives identify the owner of something.

Articles and Demonstrative and Interrogative Adjectives
Gender and Number Definite Articles (the) Indefinite Articles (a/an, some) Partitive Articles (some) Demonstrative Adj. (this/that, these/those) Interrogative Adj. (which/what)
Masc. singular le, l’ (before vowel or mute h) un du, de l’ (before vowel or mute h) ce, cet (before vowel or mute h) quel
Fem. singular la, l’ (before vowel or mute h) une de la, de l’ (before vowel or mute h) cette quelle
Plural les des des ces quels (masc.), quelles (fem.)
Possessive Adjectives
Meaning Singular Masc. Object Singular Fem. Object Plural Object
my mon ma, mon (before vowel or mute h) mes
your (singular familiar) ton ta, ton (before vowel or mute h) tes
his/her son sa, son (before vowel or mute h) ses
our notre notre nos
your (plural or singular formal) votre votre vos
their leur leur leurs

Common idiomatic avoir expressions

Many common French expressions use the verb avoir (to have), whereas their English translation is the verb to be. Here are some avoir expressions you should know:

  • avoir l’air (to appear)

  • avoir . . . ans (to be . . . years old)

  • avoir besoin de (to need)

  • avoir de la chance (to be lucky)

  • avoir la chance de (to be lucky to)

  • avoir chaud (to be hot)

  • avoir envie (to feel like)

  • avoir faim (to be hungry)

  • avoir froid (to be cold)

  • avoir l’habitude de (to be accustomed to)

  • avoir l’intention de (to intend to)

  • avoir mal (to hurt/be in pain)

  • avoir peur (to be afraid)

  • avoir raison (to be right)

  • avoir soif (to be thirsty)

  • avoir sommeil (to be sleepy)

  • avoir tort (to be wrong)

Common idiomatic faire expressions

Many common French expressions use the verb faire (to make/do), whereas their English translation is another verb, often to be or to go. Here are some faire expressions you should know:

  • faire des achats (to go shopping)

  • faire du basket/foot (to play basketball/soccer)

  • faire beau/mauvais (to be nice/bad [weather])

  • faire la bise (to give a kiss on each cheek as a greeting)

  • faire chaud/froid (to be hot/cold [weather])

  • faire la cuisine (to do the cooking)

  • faire . . . jour/nuit (to be daytime/nighttime)

  • faire mal à (to hurt [someone])

  • faire le ménage (to do the housekeeping)

  • faire peur à (to scare/frighten [someone])

  • faire une promenade (to go for a walk)

  • faire du vélo/de la moto (to ride a bike/motorcycle)

  • faire un voyage (to go on a trip)

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