For older student to adult English-speakers who want to be able to learn French through English, you will need to take the time to learn French grammar.
You probably don’t want to hear this, but brushing up on your English grammar first will help you get the basic concepts of grammar in French down better and more quickly.
There are a few quirks, but fortunately French grammar rules don’t differ from English in any truly dramatic ways. For example, here is what is the same between English and French:
- In French simple sentence is still in subject-verb-object order (subject of the sentence followed by the action, followed by what the action is done to, if any).
- French uses articles before nouns (the/a) just like English does.
- You can ask questions using the inverted verb-subject order, though just like in English, you can also raise your pitch at the end of a sentence to indicate a question as well.
- All the basic sentence elements, including adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, exclamations, exist in French in much the same way they do in English.
However, here are the most important differences in French grammar compared to English grammar that you should be aware of.
Other important differences in French vs. English
- Adjectives (usually) go after the noun, not before. So, it’s a green car in English, but une voiture verte in French. The only exception is a handful of very common adjectives, such as bon, nouveau, or grand.
- Nouns have gender and are singular or plural, which alters the adjectives and articles that describe them. As in the example above, voiture is feminine, so it gets the feminine indefinite article (une instead of un) and the feminine version of vert, verte. If you were describing deux voitures, the adjectives would be bonnes or vertes or grandes.
- A plural “you” exists – vous – which also functions as a formal “you,” as in to someone higher than you in an organization or someone you don’t know well.
- French has different conjugations for nearly every verb tense, which means that instead of using the verb “will + verb” or “would + verb” in English, for example, to indicate that an action will be performed in the future, in French every verb has its own form to indicate this tense. So, there’s j’irai (I will go) and j’irais (I would go) and il irait (he would go), etc. Luckily, the verb forms are usually regular and easy to memorize.
- Do you remember direct objects and indirect objects from grammar lessons in school? Take a sentence like “I brought the books [direct object] to my friend [indirect object].” This sentence, when translated to French, is in exactly the same order. “J’ai apporté les livres à mon ami.” All is well, and shouldn’t even have to think about direct objects versus indirect. The difference comes in when you use pronouns to replace the nouns – e.g., “I took them to him.” In that instance, the two pronouns that replace “the books” and “my friend” actually go before the verb. So, “Je les lui ai apporté”
- Recognizing verb tenses that don’t exist in English – the two biggest are the two types of basic past tense (passé composé versus imparfait) when English speakers only use one, and the subjonctif, which French teachers will tell you is a mood and not a tense, but since it has its own conjugation rules, the difference is essentially an academic exercise. You can get away without using the subjunctive tense yourself fairly easily (just recognize it), but you will need to learn how to use the two types of past – basically, passé composé is for specific, singular actions that occurred, while imparfait is for mood setting and on-going actions.