General Grammar Concepts for Elementary and Intermediate Students of French

One big stumbling block for many people when learning a foreign language is not understanding basic grammar concepts (which are common in one form or another to nearly all languages).  Below you will find a brief lexicon of the most common grammatical concepts you are likely to encounter in studying French.  The examples are given in English simply to get the point across.  Often the exact mechanics of how these things work in French will be very different.  But at least once you have the general concept down, the mechanics of how that concept works in French should be easier to handle.

Note:  the grammar points are presented in alphabetical order.

Adjectives (Descriptive Adjectives) -- this is the most common adjective.  An adjective "modifies" a noun.  In other words it indicates some characteristic about a noun.  In "what a big house!" or "That is one ugly baby!" the words "big" and "ugly" are adjectives -- they describe the nouns in question ("house" and "baby").

Adverbs -- an adverb "modifies" a verb, an adjective or another adverb, in other words, it tells how, when or where something is done, or to what extent the adjective or other adverb applies to the word it modifies.  For example, in "I'll always love you," or  "He played brilliantly,"  the words "always" and "brilliantly" are adverbs modifying verbs.  In "His feet are very stinky,"  the word "very" is an adverb modifying the adjective "stinky."  In "They speak terribly quickly,"  the adverb "terribly" modifies another adverb, "quickly."

Affirmative -- as the name implies, this is a statement that affirms something.  In essence it is a "positive" statement as opposed to a "negative" statement.  "I do my homework" is an affirmative.  "I do not do my homework" is negative.

Articles -- see "Definite articles" and "Indefinite articles"

Comparitives --  comparatives do just that:  they compare.  In the sentence "Susan is smarter than John,"  the "er" on a the end of "smarter" indicates that we are comparing two (and only two) things or people (or groups of things or people).  The "er" indicates a relationship of superiority.  Other comparitive examples are "The Red Sox aren't as good as the Yankees" or "My dad is just as strong as your dad" or I have more homework than he does" or "May the better man win!"  (note that we don't say "May the best man win" if we are talking about a competition between only two men -- "the best man" is only for a competition involving three men or more).

Conditional -- this is a form of verb that tells what you would, could, or should do.  "I would study harder if I had more time," "I could study harder if I felt like it," and "I should study harder, but I'd rather party", all involve conditionals.  See also, "tense" "mood" and "conjugation."

Conjugation -- conjugation is the act of changing the spelling (and often the pronunciation) of a verb according to the subject of the sentence and according to other factors such as when an action takes place.  In the sentence  "I talk to my friends," the verb is spelled "talk," with no "s" at the end.  This is appropriate for a regular present-tense verb in English.  On the other hand, in the sentence "He talks to his friends," the verb is spelled "talks" with an "s."  This change in spelling (no "s" for "I talk" but "s" for "he talks") is conjugation.  "I talked to my friends" is another conjugation.  The "ed" on the end of "talked" says that the action occured in the past, as opposed to the present (which is indicated by "I talk").  Conjugation indicates "tense" and "mood."

Definite articles -- refers to "the" in English.  In "The radio is too loud," the definite article "the" is used to indicate that I am talking about a specific or "definite" radio -- you know to which one I am referring.

Demonstrative Adjectives -- An adjective "modifies" a noun.  In other words it indicates some characteristic about a noun.  In the case of demonstrative adjectives the characteristic is one of "designation" or "Which item?  The one I'm 'verbally' pointing at."  For example, in the sentences "Follow that car!"  or "These pretzels are making me thirsty,"  the words "that" and "these" are demonstrative adjectives.

Demonstrative Pronouns -- a pronoun is a small word that takes the place of a noun.  In the case of demonstrative pronouns we are also "designating" something, or answering the question "Which something are we talking about?  The one I'm 'verbally' pointing at."  For example, in the sentences "I don't follow that!"  or "These are strange,"  the words "that" and "these" are demonstrative pronouns.  As you see, a demonstrative pronoun can be a subject or an object in a sentence.

Descriptive Adjectives -- this is the most common adjective.  An adjective "modifies" a noun.  In other words it indicates some characteristic about a noun.  In "what a big house!" or "That is one ugly baby!" the words "big" and "ugly" are adjectives -- they describe the nouns in question ("house" and "baby").

Direct Object (Pronouns) -- a direct object is the person, place or thing "receiving" the action in the sentence.  For example, in "Austin Powers:  the Spy Who Shagged Me," the pronoun "me" is the direct object.  In the sentence "If you build it, they will come," the pronoun "it" is the direct object.

First Person -- all pronouns come in three varieties, first, second and third person.  First person pronouns indicate that the person referred to is the speaker(s). In the sentences "I am ill," or "We are happy," "I" and "we" are first person pronouns.  In "Give it to us," the word "us" is a first-person pronoun as well.

Future -- a form of verb which, simply put, this tells what will happen, as opposed to what has happened or what is happening.  "I will go to the zoo tomorrow", or "Oh, no, he is going to kill me!" are future statements.

Future Perfect -- a form of verb which expresses an action that, in some future time, will be "past".  For example, in "I will have finished my homework before Mary arrives", the phrase "I will have finished" indicates that upon Mary's arrival, the action of finishing my homework will already be completed and a thing of the past.

Future Tenses -- any verb forms such as "future" and "future perfect" that express actions that will happen, as opposed to what has happened or what is happening.

Imperative -- any form of verb indicating a command.  For example "Shut up!"  "Get lost!"  "Give me that!"  "Put that down before you put an eye out" are all imperatives.

Imperfect -- the imperfect is a past tense that gives backround descriptions and goings on that set the stage for a past event.  For example "It was a dark and stormy night..." is imperfect.  Or in the sentence  "I was showering when the phone rang," the verb "showering" is imperfect since it is setting the stage for the event "the phone rang."

Indefinite articles -- refers to "a" or "an" in English.  In "A good man is hard to find," the word "a" is an indefinite article, since I am not referring to any specific man in particular.

Indicative -- this is a "mood", and can be defined as any form of verb past, present, or future, that does what its name implies -- it "indicates".  For example, if we say:  "John is on time."  The sentence simply indicates a fact (that John is on time).  Duh.  However, compare it to this:  "It is important that John be on time."  This sentence is not indicative.  Is John on time?  This is not indicated.  We do however express an opinion about the act of being on time for John -- that it is important.  This is what is known in many languages as "subjunctive" -- a mood different from the indicative because is implies some degree of emotion, opinion, doubt, etc. rather than a mere indication of fact.  English has very little subjunctive left in it.  The above example however, is one of the rare subjunctive uses we still have.  Notice that we say "It is important that John BE on time" rather than "It is important that John IS on time".  The phrase "that John be on time" is a subjunctive, rather than indicative form.

Indirect Object (Pronouns) -- an indirect object is a person to whom the action is being performed.   For example, in the sentences "I sent the book to John" or "Mary gave her mother a present", the nouns "John" and "mother" are indirect objects.  In "Tell me what you know," the pronoun "me" is an indirect object.

Interrogative -- just as the name suggests, ("to interrogate" = "to question"), this is a sentence which...asks a question, as opposed to making a statement.  "Did you lock the door behind you?" is interrogative.  "Yes, I locked it." would be an affirmative statement, while "Oops! No, I did not lock it!" would be a negative statement.

Interrogative Adverbs --  these are basically just adverbs used to ask questions.  In "When did the aliens abduct you?"  "Where did they take you?"  "How did they treat you?"  "How many eyes did they have?"  "Why did they choose you?"  the words "when," "where," "how," "how many," "why" are interrogative adverbs.

Interrogative Pronouns -- these are basically just pronouns used to ask questions.  In the questions "Who goes there?"  "What is your business?"  "For whom does the bell toll?", the words "who,"  "what," and "whom" are all interrogative pronouns.  (Note that "who" is a subject, whereas "whom" is an object).

Mood -- mood is a verb form that indicates what might best be called the "flavor" of the verb, indicating something about the perspective of the speaker.  Unlike "tenses", moods don't really indicate time as such.  For more on moods, see specific moods such as "subjunctive," "conditional," "imperative", "indicative".

Negative -- as the name implies, this is a statement that negates or denies something.   "I do not do my homework" is negative. On the other hand, "I do my homework" is an affirmative.

Nouns -- "a noun," to quote a famous song, "is a person, place or thing."  In the sentences "That is a beautiful painting,", "I dislike this song," or "She is a nice woman," or "I love Paris in the springtime," the words "painting," "song," "woman," "Paris," and "springtime" are all nouns.  Note that "Paris" is a proper noun -- an actual name --  as opposed to "painting," or "woman."  Other examples of proper nouns are words like "Bill Clinton," "The Yankees," "The Beatles."

Object -- there are two basic types of nouns or pronouns:  subjects and objects.  A subject is the person, place or thing that is "preforming" the action in a sentence.  The object is the person, place or thing that is "receiving" the action, or the person, place or thing to whom, for whom,  to which or for which the action is being performed.  In the sentences, "Goober pumps the gas" or "Gomer never listens to Sgt Carter", or "I work for Mr. Douglas", "Goober", "Gomer" and "I" are subjects.  "Sgt Carter", "gas" and "Mr. Douglas" are objects.  Objects come in a variety of flavors, to explore them, take a look at "direct objects," "indirect objects" and "objects of prepositions."

Object of a Preposition -- an object of a preposition is a noun for whom or to or for which an action happens.  For example, in "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee", the words "whom" and "thee" are the object of the preposition "for."  In "This book is wonderful.  I attribute all my success to it"  the word "it" is the object of the preposition "to."

Passť composť -- this is a French term for "preterite."  See "past tenses."

Past tenses -- there are many past tenses.  Three common ones are the the "preterite," the "imperfect," and the "pluperfect."

Person -- see "First Person", "Second Person" and "Third Person".

Pluperfect -- the pluperfect is a past tense that expresses an action or situation in the pas that had taken place prior to another event.  For example, in "The criminal had already left when the police arrived,"  the verb "had left" is pluperfect -- since this action was already over and done with when the second past event "the police arrived" occurred.  See also "past tenses."

Plural -- this is a noun form indicating that there is more than one of the thing in question.  Generally, in English, this is indicated by adding an "s" to the end of the noun.  For example, "boy" singular, becomes "boys" when in the plural (when there is more than one boy.  However, some plural forms are "irregular" even in English.  "Man" becomes "men" when there is more than one.

Possessive Adjectives -- An adjective "modifies" a noun.  In other words it indicates some characteristic about a noun.  In the case of  possessive adjectives, the characteristic indicated is "who owns this item?"  In "This is my book," and "Where is your brain today?", the words "my" and "your" are possessive adjectives.

Possessive Pronouns -- a pronoun is a small word that takes the place of a noun.   In the case of possessive pronouns the pronoun also indicates possession.   In "This is mine" or "Give me yours" or "His is new," the words "mine", "yours" and "his" are possessive pronouns.  As you can see, a possessive pronoun can be a subject or an object in a sentence.

Preposition -- a preposition tells where or when a thing is relative to another thing.  In "the book is on the table,"  "my change fell between the seat cushions," "he came in after me,"  the words "on," "between," and "after" are all prepositions.

Present Participle -- this is a present-tense form that lets you know that an action is happening either RIGHT now or else while something else is happening.  For example, "You are reading this sentence" -- means that you are currently in the process of doing it (as opposed to "you read the sentence", which could mean that you are doing it now, or else that you happen to read it from time to time -- not necessarily at the present instant).  Or for example "Simple Simon met a pie-man going to the fair."  Simon is not going at the present moment (after all, the verb "met" lets you know that the whole thing took place in the past) but the action of meeting the pie-man occurred while the action of going to the fair was in progress.

Present tense -- the present tense is a conjugated form of a verb that lets you know that the action is happening now, as opposed to the past or the future.  For example, in the sentence "I am going to the store," or "I want some tomatoes," the form of the verb lets you know that these things are current, not past or future events or conditions.

Preterite --  the preterite is a past tense that identifies an isolated past event or an event in the narration of a sequence of past events.  For example:  "I went to the store and then I came back," or "ET phoned home," or "We started out laughing but we ended up crying," or "Simple Simon met a pie man,"  or "Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet."

Pronoun -- a pronoun is a small word that takes the place of a noun.  It would get very tedious to tell stories without pronouns.  Imagine the following  "The teacher came into class and told the students that the teacher would give the students the test a day early because the teacher thought that the students were ready for the test".  Isn't is much nicer to say "The teacher came into class and told the students that he would give them the test a day early because he thought that they were ready for it"?  Thank goodness for pronouns like "he,"  "them," and "it"!

Relative Pronouns -- a relative pronoun is a pronoun such as "that", "who" or "which", that connects two clauses together, and fuses them into one sentence.  For example.  "This is a book" and "I like the book" are each complete sentences.  However, I can fuse them into a single sentence by saying "This is a book that I like."  The word "that" is a relative pronoun that fuses those two sentences together.  Notice that in English, we can let relative pronouns drop.  "This is a book I like".  However in many languages, such as French, the use of the relative pronoun is always required -- only the "This is a book that I like" version of the sentence exists.

Second Person -- all pronouns come in three varieties, first, second and third person.  Second person pronouns indicate that the person referred to is the person being spoken to.  In the sentences  "You make me smile," or "I hate you," the word "you" is a second-person pronoun.

Singular -- this is a noun form that indicates that there is only one of the item in question.  For example if I use the word "men" you know that I am talking about MORE than one adult male.  If however I say "man," you know that I am talking about ONLY one adult male.

Subject -- there are two basic types of nouns or pronouns:  subjects and objects.  A subject is the person, place or thing that is "performing" the action in the sentence.  In "I feel pretty," or "Jack and Jill went up the hill," or "New York is a wonderful town," or "Honesty is the best policy,"  the pronoun "I" and the nouns "Jack"  "Jill"  "New York" and "honesty" are all subjects.  See also "nouns," "pronouns," "objects."

Subjunctive -- this is a "mood", seldom used in English now, but often used in other languages.  It is best understood as the "opposite" (this is somewhat simplistic, but for our purposes the term is acceptable) of the "indicative" mood.  So let's first define "indicative".  The indicative is a mood that can be defined as any form of verb past, present, or future, that does what its name implies -- it "indicates".  For example, if we say:  "John is on time."  The sentence simply indicates a fact (that John is on time).   However, compare it to this:  "It is important that John be on time."  This sentence is not indicative.  Is John on time?  This is not indicated.  We do however express an opinion about the act of being on time for John -- that it is important.  This is what is known in many languages as "subjunctive" -- a mood different from the indicative because is implies some degree of emotion, opinion, doubt, etc. rather than a mere indication of fact.  English has very little subjunctive left in it.  The above example however, is one of the rare subjunctive uses we still have.  Notice that we say "It is important that John BE on time" rather than "It is important that John IS on time".  The phrase "that John be on time"  with the verb conjugated as "be" instead of "is" is a subjunctive, rather than indicative form.

Superlative -- superlatives are similar to comparatives, but rather than comparing two things or people, superlatives compare AT LEAST THREE people or things, and indicate the highest or lowest degree of the qualities they compare.  Some examples of superlatives are "This is the worst movie I've seen all summer,"  "Sara is the smartest person in the class,"  "This is the most I've ever drunk,"  "May the best man win!" (note that if you had only two men competing, you would need to use the comparative "May the better man win!").

Tense -- tense is a verb form or conjugation that indicates time or when an action occured.  The most common tenses are "past tense," "present tense" and "future tense."

Third Person -- all pronouns come in three varieties, first second and third person.  First person pronouns indicate that the person referred to is the speaker(s).  Third person pronouns indicate that the person or thing referred to is being spoken about.  In the sentences "It has a nice melody but you can't dance to it,"  or "I spoke to them yesterday", or "He gave me a really tough time," the pronouns "it," "them," and "he" are third-person pronouns.

Verb -- a verb is generally the action in the sentence.  It tells what someone or something does, did or will do.  In the sentence "I ate the cake," the word "ate" is the verb.