French Grammar For Dummies
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French grammar is all about using French words in the correct way so people can understand your meaning. You can learn a lot of French words by browsing an English-French dictionary, but to make sense, you need to know the rules of French grammar.

Some of the basics include making nouns plural, adding description by pairing adjectives correctly to nouns, and using pronominal verbs to talk about actions done to you or someone else.

How to make French nouns plural

Create plural nouns in French by adding an s or x, or by substituting aux for –al. Making French nouns plural, however, takes a different tack when it comes to family names and nouns that end in –s, x, or z. In French grammar, here’s how you turn a singular noun into a plural noun:

  • For most nouns, you add –s to the end. For example: résultat (result) becomes résultats (results); fleur (flower) becomes fleurs (flowers).

  • Nouns that end in –au take –x in the plural. For example: bateau (boat) becomes bateaux (boats), and manteau (overcoat) becomes manteaux (overcoats).

  • Most nouns that end in –ou take –s in the plural, but some take –x. For example: chou (cabbage) becomes choux (cabbages), and bijou (jewel) becomes bijoux (jewels).

  • Nouns that end in –al drop that ending and use –aux in the plural. For example: journal (newspaper) becomes journaux (newspapers); animal (animal) becomes animaux (animals).

  • Nouns that end in –s, –x, or –z when they’re singular don’t change in the plural; you simply change the accompanying article. For example: un Français (a Frenchman) remains des Français (Frenchmen), and un virus (a virus) remains des virus (viruses).

  • Family names aren’t pluralized in French. For example, the Martins lose the –s in French but keep the article: Les Martin.

Matching French adjectives to the nouns they describe

In French grammar, adjectives have to reflect both the gender (masculine or feminine) and the number of the nouns (singular or plural) they modify. Have a look:

  • Gender: All French nouns have a gender. If you want to describe a masculine noun, like le vélo (the bicycle), you need a masculine adjective to match, like le vélo noir (the black bicycle). But if a noun is feminine, like la voiture (the car), the adjective that accompanies the noun must be in its feminine form. For instance, to say the black car, you say la voiture noire. (Notice that the feminine version of noir has an e at the end.)

  • Number: A French noun can be singular or plural, regardless of the gender, and the adjective must match that. For several black bikes, say les vélos noirs. To describe a group of black cars, say les voitures noires. (Notice that both adjectives have an s at the end.) And if you’re talking about the black cars and the black bikes together, the adjective is masculine and plural: les vélos et les voitures noirs.

Following are some general rules on how to modify a masculine singular adjective to make it feminine singular:

  • The most common way to make an adjective feminine is to add an –e to its masculine singular form (which is the default form of the adjective found in a French dictionary).

  • Some masculine singular adjectives already end in –e. For those, don’t add an extra –e to form the feminine singular; they remain as is. For instance, aimable (nice), calme (calm), and utile (useful) have the same form in masculine singular and feminine singular.

  • For most adjectives that end in a vowel + a consonant, double that consonant before adding the –e of the feminine. For example: bon (good) becomes bonne; gros (fat) becomes grosse; mignon (cute) becomes mignonne.

  • For most adjectives that end in –eur or –eux, replace the ending with –euse to form the feminine. For example: amoureux (in love) becomes amoureuse, heureux (fat) becomes heureuse, and affreux (atrocious) becomes affreuse.

  • For adjectives that end in –teur, replace that ending with –trice to form the feminine. Protecteur (protective) becomes protectrice, conservateur (conservative) becomes conservatrice, and so on.

  • For adjectives that end in –er, replace the ending with –ère to form the feminine, like dernier (last) to dernière, premier (first) to première, and cher (expensive) to chère.

  • For most adjectives that end in –et, replace –et with –ète to form the feminine. For example, discret (discreet) becomes discrète, complet (complete) becomes complète, and secret (secret) becomes secrète.

  • For adjectives that end in –f, replace –f with –ve to form the feminine, like neuf (new) becomes neuve, and sportif (athletic) becomes sportive.

  • Adjectives of nationality that end in –ain, like américain (American) and mexicain (Mexican) don’t double the –n. They just add the –e.

  • Some adjectives have a completely irregular form that doesn’t follow any pattern. Here are the most common ones:

    Masculine Singular Feminine Singular English Translation
    beau belle handsome/beautiful
    blanc blanche white
    faux fausse untrue
    long longue long
    nouveau nouvelle new
    roux rousse red-haired
    vieux vieille old

Here are some general rules on how to modify an adjective to make it plural:

  • The regular way of marking the plural of an adjective is by adding an –s to the masculine form or the feminine form. For example, the masculine singular adjective vert (green) becomes verts in plural, and the feminine singular verte (green) becomes vertes in plural.

  • If the adjective already ends in an –s or an –x in masculine singular, it doesn’t take another –s to form the plural. It remains as is and has the same form in masculine singular and plural. A few adjectives of this type are épais (thick), gris (gray), and curieux (curious).

  • For masculine singular adjectives that end in –al, drop the –al and replace it with –aux to form the plural. For example, normal (normal) becomes normaux in plural.

  • Masculine singular adjectives that end in –eau add an –x instead of an –s. For instance, beau (handsome) becomes beaux in the plural, and nouveau (new) becomes nouveaux.

  • The masculine singular adjective tout (all) becomes tous in the masculine plural.

Understanding French pronominal verbs

In French grammar, verbs called pronominal verbs use an extra pronoun. The extra pronouns are reflexive, meaning they typically reflect the subject of the verb, like (to) oneself does to a verb in English. The verbs fall into three categories:

  • Reflexive verbs: Express an action done by the subject to itself, such as Je me regarde (I look at myself).

  • Reciprocal verbs: Indicate that two subjects are doing something to one another, as in Ils se parlent (They talk to each other).

  • Idiomatic pronominal verbs: The extra pronoun indicates neither to oneself nor to one another, like tu te souviens (you remember).

You can identify a pronominal verb by its infinitive; it always has the pronoun se right before the infinitive, like in se préparer (to get oneself ready). These verbs are otherwise conjugated as if they didn’t have a reflexive pronoun. The only difference is that you also conjugate the added pronoun.

Here’s how to match the reflexive pronouns to the subjects.

Subject Reflexive Pronoun English Translation
je me (m’ before a vowel or a mute -h) myself
tu te (t’ before a vowel or a mute -h) yourself
il/elle/on se (s’ before a vowel or a mute -h) himself/herself/oneself
nous nous ourselves
vous vous yourselves
ils/elles se (s’ before a vowel or a mute -h) themselves

To form the present tense of a pronominal verb, conjugate the verb in the present tense to match your subject; then change the reflexive pronoun to match the subject and place it immediately before the verb. Here’s a present tense conjugation of se laver (to wash oneself) as an example:

  • je me lave (I wash)

  • tu te laves (you [singular informal] wash)

  • il/elle/on se lave (he/she/one washes)

  • nous nous lavons (we wash)

  • vous vous lavez (you [plural and singular formal] wash)

  • ils/elles se lavent (they [masculine and feminine] wash)

If a sentence has two verbs (one conjugated, the other in the infinitive), as in I want to wash myself or Im going to wash myself, place the correct form of the reflexive pronoun before the infinitive like so: Je vais me laver.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Véronique Mazet has a doctorate in French from the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of two successful grammar books. She currently teaches French at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas.

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