French Grammar For Dummies
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This list assumes that you’re going to make French grammar mistakes. You know it’s true. In fact, the best way to learn a language is to try it out and get corrected when necessary! And the more chances you get to try out a language, the faster you’ll learn. Here are ten common mistakes made in French grammar and how to avoid them.

Using definite articles incorrectly

Le, la, and les (the) aren’t the default articles in French. The indefinite and partitive articles are. Article usage is quite different between French and English, and this is one area where you need to be careful. The following table highlights major differences in usage between French and English definite articles.

French English Usage
Definite article (no equivalent) Naming a category
Definite article (no equivalent) Naming a preference
Definite article (no equivalent) Referring to an entire category
Definite article Definite article Referring to something previously mentioned

Confusing indefinite and partitive articles

French uses different articles for nouns that can be counted, such as un livre (a book), and nouns that can’t be counted, like de l’eau (some water).

  • Use indefinite articles to introduce a noun that can be counted. For example, you can say une maison (a/one house) or cinq maisons (five houses).

  • Use partitive articles to introduce a noun that can’t be counted. For example, you can say du sable (some sand), but you can’t say trois sables (three sands).

Using the wrong word for “time”

Le temps is a singular word always spelled with an -s that has a narrower meaning in French than in English.

  • Temps is the French equivalent of the word weather, as in Quel temps fait-il? (What’s the weather like?)

  • Temps is also the French equivalent of the word time, as in Je n’ai pas le temps. (I don’t have time.)

If you need to translate the word time into French in any other context, here are some examples:

English French
What time is it? Quelle heure est-il?
three times trois fois
in the times of à l’époque de
at the time of au moment de
many times souvent

Incorrectly translating means of transportation

When they refer to means of transportation, verbs like to fly, to drive, to swim, and to walk can’t be translated directly into French. You can say j’aime marcher (I like to walk) referring to the action of walking per se, as opposed to running for instance. But to say that you walked to work, indicating how you went to work, you need a sentence with the verb aller (to go) plus the means of transportation. This is how to do it: Aller + à or en + means of transportation.

Here are some examples:

  • To fly: aller en avion (literally to go in a plane)

  • To drive: aller en voiture (literally to go in a car)

  • To swim: aller à la nage (literally to go by swimming)

  • To walk: aller à pied (literally to go by foot)

Trying to find an equivalent for the -ing verb form in French

English uses two different verb forms to express present tense; you can say I talk to the postman or I am talking to the postman. In French, however, don’t look for the -ing form of a verb in the present tense because it doesn’t exist! French has only one form of the present tense, and it is a simple tense: Je parle au facteur. (I’m talking to the postman.) Don’t say Je suis parler, which literally means I am to speak but has no meaning in French because you can’t have an infinitive after être. Here are a few examples:

  • We are having lunch. (Nous déjeunons.)

  • He’s waiting for you. (Il t’attend.)

With an -ing form in the past tense, use the imparfait (imperfect). The imparfait can indicate an ongoing past activity (that you were doing something). Here are a few examples:

  • He was thinking about the problem. (Il pensait au problème.)

  • They were sleeping when the phone rang. (Ils dormaient quand le téléphone a sonné.)

In English, the -ing form of a verb is called the gerund. French has a gerund, but it has different uses from those in English.

Using possessives with pronominal verbs to refer to body parts

In expressions that involve body parts, like les mains (the hands) and les cheveux (the hair), French uses a pronominal verb, like se laver (to wash) or se brosser (to brush). A pronominal verb indicates that the subject is doing whatever the action is to him- or herself. So if you want to say I wash my hands in French, you can’t use both the pronominal verb je me lave and the possessive mes mains (my hands)! It would be redundant: I am washing myself’s hands. Instead, you use a definite article like le, la, or les. The correct way to say I wash my hands is Je me lave les mains. Here are a few more examples:

  • Il s’est cassé la jambe. (He broke his leg.)

  • Elles se brossent les cheveux. (They’re brushing their hair.)

Putting the wrong verb form after avoir or être

The verbs avoir (to have) and être (to be) are helper verbs; as that name implies, these two verbs often help to form a new tense. The tenses formed with the help of avoir and être are called compound, and they usually indicate a past tense. For example:

  • The phrase nous avons fini (we finished) is made of the auxiliary avoir followed by a past participle; the combination of the two is a compound tense, the passé composé (present perfect) in this case.

  • In tu étais déjà parti (you had already left), the auxiliary is être, followed by a past participle to form the plus-que-parfait (pluperfect) this time.

English often expresses obligation by using to have plus an infinitive, as in we have to listen. French, however, never uses avoir or être with an infinitive. To express obligation in French, use devoir (to have to) as the helper verb: nous devons écouter (we have to listen). Use only a past participle like arrivé (arrived), dansé (danced), fini (finished), or vendu (sold) after être or avoir used as auxiliaries.

Mixing up similar verbs

Dire (to say/tell) and parler (to talk) have to do with producing sounds, but like in English the two verbs have different usage.

  • Use dire alone when quoting someone’s words, as in Il a dit “allons-y”! (He said “let’s go”!); or to report speech, as in Il a dit que nous partirions demain. (He said that we would leave tomorrow.) You can also use dire followed by a noun (its direct object), as in tu dis un mensonge. (You’re telling a lie.)

  • Use parler alone (no direct object) to say to talk, as in Vous parlez trop! (You talk too much), or followed by the preposition à to indicate an indirect object to whom the subject speaks as in Le prof parle à ses étudiants. (The teacher talks to his/her students.) Parler is never followed by que + another clause, or by a direct object.

Voir and regarder each have an English equivalent: to see and to watch.

  • Use voir (to see) alone to express that you understand: je vois (I see), or most commonly, use it with a direct object to say that you see something: Nous avons vu des choses surprenantes. (We saw some surprising things.)

  • Use regarder (to watch) when you are actively looking at something, as in Il regarde la télé. (He watches TV.)

Entendre and écouter also have English equivalents: to hear and to listen to. The difference between them is the same as between voir and regarder: entendre (to hear) is accidental, as in Tu as entendu ce bruit? (Did you hear that noise?), whereas écouter (to listen to) is intentional, as in Nous écoutons le prof. (We are listening to the teacher.)

Confusing connaître and savoir

French has two different verbs for the verb to know, connaître and savoir, but they aren’t interchangeable!

To say that you know a place, a book, or a person, as in being familiar with those, use connaître. Here are some examples:

  • Je connais bien l’endroit où tu es né. (I know very well the place where you were born.)

  • Tu connais les livres? (Are you familiar with the books?)

  • Vous connaissez Pierre? (Do you know Pierre?)

For everything else, use savoir. Here are some examples:

  • Tu sais nager? (Do you know how to swim?)

  • Elle sait que vous arriverez bientôt. (She knows that you will arrive soon.)

Being tricked by false cognates

A cognate is a word that looks and means the same in French and in English. For example, an animal is un animal in French. The English adjective patient is patient in French also. However, some tricky words look the same in both languages but don’t mean the same! They are called false cognates and are often refered to as “false friends” for obvious reasons. The following table gives you a sampling of some common such words.

English Word French Cognate Meaning of the French Word
actually actuellement currently
a demand une demande a request
assist assister to attend
college collège junior high
commode commode (adj) practical
deception déception disappointment
entrée entrée appetizer/starter
eventually éventuellement possibly
gross gros fat
location location rental
to pass (an exam) passer (un examen) to take an exam
patron patron boss
to rest rester to stay
rude rude harsh

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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