You’ve probably noticed a fairly standard sentence form in French, as many basic sentences begin with il est… or c’est… Both phrases generally mean “it is”, “he is”, “she is”, or “they are,” but there are distinct rules for which structure to use in each circumstance.
Since the translation into English is usually identical (or nearly) in either case, it can take some effort to discriminate the different circumstances and learn which phrase applies to which sentence structure in French. Over time, however, the usage should become more intuitive as you begin to recognize sentence patterns.
When to use c’est…
C’est (or ce sont, the plural form) is generally used for:
- Names (C’est Maurice.) “It’s Maurice.”
- Stressed object pronouns (Ce sont eux; c’est lui.) “It’s them; it’s him.”
- Dates (C’est lundi; c’est le onze octobre.) “It’s Monday, it’s the eleventh of October.”
- Modified nouns (C’est une fille; c’est une tasse.) “It’s a girl; it’s a cup.”
- Superlatives (C’est le plus grand garçon.) “He is the biggest boy.”
- Adjective + à + infinitive constructions (C’est difficile à faire.) “That’s difficult to do.”
- Adjectives when referring to a previous action or idea (Je veux dormir. C’est évident.) “I want to sleep. That’s obvious.”
When to use il est…
Il/elle est and ils/elles sont are used for other sentence structures, including the following:
- Professions (Elle est chanteuse.) “She is a singer.” Note that un/une are not used with professions in French.
- Time (Il est deux heures et demi; Il est midi.) “It’s two-thirty; it’s noon.”
- Adjective + de + infinitive constructions (Il est difficile d’être calme maintenant; il est facile de rire.) “It is difficult to be calm now; it is easy to laugh.”
- When the subject pronoun refers to a previously mentioned noun (J’aime cette montre. Elle est très vieille.) “I like this watch. It is very old.”
- Adjective + que constructions (these also set up subjunctive structures) (Il est nécessaire que vous soyez à l’heure.) “It is necessary that you be on time.”
Note that “general” statements always use il as the subject pronoun; elle is only used when the sentence refers to a specific object or person that is also of the feminine gender.
Using either form
There are certain instances where either form is correct, but each implies a different meaning. The two structures where this can occur are:
- Il est + adjective + de, and
- C’est + adjective + à
For example, note the different implications of these two sentences:
- Il est ennuyeux de peindre. (“It is boring, in general, to paint.”)
- C’est ennuyeux à peindre (“It (or this) is boring to paint.”)
In these circumstances where both structures are grammatically correct but have different meanings, il est reflects a more general statement, while c’est represents a specific comment on the subject at hand.
Applying these rules
Though some of these grammar rules will take time and experience to learn, a good general rule to follow when you’re uncertain about which structure to use is to use il est for broad-level statements, the time, professions, and when referring to a subject that was just mentioned. In most other cases, use c’est.
See the chart below for a quick overview of these rules.
Y and en are pronouns. Generally, y (pronounced like the letter “e” in English) means “there” and en means “some”, but they have many alternate translations as well. They are often taught later in textbooks than direct and indirect object pronouns, though their purpose conceptually is similar.
These pronouns, just like direct and indirect object pronouns, 1) replace something and 2) take “unusual” places in sentences compared to how the word would be positioned in the equivalent sentence in English.
Using Y and En with Verbs
Using y and en with verbs can be confusing because using them requires thinking about which prepositions various verbs in French “take” (if any).
What this means: just as in English, prepositions often follow verbs, and the sentence won’t make sense without the preposition being included.
Sometimes there is only one preposition that normally follows a specific verb in English.
I searched for her purse.
Sometimes different prepositions give different meanings for the verb.
He looks at the dog.
We are looking forward to tomorrow.
And some sentences do not take prepositions at all.
She runs and plays tennis.
French is the same way, with certain verbs taking certain prepositions, but it is critical to note that they aren’t the same verbs in French as they are in English.
- For example, in English, you look for something (“look” + “for” + direct object) but in French you chercher quelque chose (there is no pour (“for”) in the construction).
- On the other hand, in English you “use” + direct object, but in French the construction is se servir de + direct object.
When using pronouns with these verbs, the verbs that are followed by à will use the pronoun y. Verbs that take de will use the pronoun en.
Je m’intéresse au tennis. (“I am interested in tennis.”) → Je m’y intéresse. (“I am interested in it.”)
Elles se servent de l‘information sur l’examen rarement. (“They use the information on the exam rarely.”) → Elles s’en servent rarement. (“They rarely use it.”)
Other uses of y in sentences
There are several other circumstances in which y is used in sentences, thankfully in ways that require a little less mental effort than having to think about specific verb constructions.
Y in set phrases
In a few common phrases in French, there is no good direct translation for what y means in the sentence.
Il y a (“There is”, “There exists”, “There are”)
Pensez-y (“Think about it”)
Y as “there”
Y can also specifically mean “there”. It precedes the verb just as other pronouns do in French.
It follows sentences set up with many prepositions of location, including sur, dans, à, en (when referring to a place), sous, and similar prepositions. However, it only applies to inanimate objects and cannot be used to apply to people (instead you would use the equivalent indirect object pronoun).
Vous avez habité dans cette ville. (“You lived in this city”) → Vous y avez habité. (“He lived there”)
Nous habitons en France. (“We live in France.”) → Nous y habitons. (“We live there.”)
Other uses of en in sentences
Like y, en is used in many ways in French (including en in terms of being located in feminine countries, such as the phrase en France). Below is just a discussion of how it is used as a pronoun.
En as part of a de construction
En is used in sentences that contain de + direct object. When the pronoun refers to a person, en can be used, but in spoken French, speakers often use de + indirect object pronoun after the first part of the sentence.
Il est fier de son succès. (“He is proud of his success.”) → Il en est fier. (“He is proud of it.”)
Il est fier de son fils. (“He is proud of his son.”) → Il en est fier. / Il est fier de lui. (“He is proud of him.”)
En as “some” of a number or quantity
En is also used to replace “some” of a number, referring to a number + de + noun phrase. In English, the “of” + something is frequently left off when using a pronoun, but in French it must always be present.
Il a trois des affiches (“He has three of the posters.”) → Il en a trois (“He has three of them.”)
J’ai cinq chats. (“I have five cats.” Notice that the word de is not present.) → J’en ai cinq (“I have five (of them).”)
In a similar way, en is used to replace words that quantify in general terms the amount of something. Words this applies to include beaucoup, certains, plusieurs, and trop. These words are always followed by de + noun, which means en should always be used when replacing the noun with a pronoun. Again, the “of” is frequently omitted in English but is required in French.
Tu as plusieurs de peintures. (“You have several paintings”; also notice that de is not present in the equivalent phrase in English.) → Tu en as plusieurs. (“You have several of them.”)
Nous avons acheté trop de vêtements (“We bought too many clothes.”) → Nous en avons acheté trop. (“We bought too many of them”; note that both parts of the passé composé construction follow en.)
Set phrases with en
Like many other common words in any language, there are set phrases that develop over time with these words to have a meaning that does not match a direct translation and instead means something specific as a complete phrase. Here are some of the more common en phrases.
S’en aller (“to go away”)
En voilà un (“there is someone”)
C’en est fait (“that’s the end of”)
Using y and en
In summary: 1) remember that if you’re going to use a pronoun as applying to a verb, you need to keep the verb structure in mind so you can use the correct pronoun, if either is necessary; 2) only use y for inanimate objects, and 3) in the rare occasions that you use both within a sentence, the order is y followed by en.
The various structures to use for talking about time in French can be very different from how time-related sentence structures are framed in English. The differences are usually very simple, but in many cases they aren’t necessarily intuitive for English speakers and must be learned intentionally.
Talking about Dates
Below are the vocabulary words for the days of the week, the seasons, and the months. Notice the lack of capitalization for all of these words in French.
Days of the Week
Grammatical Structure of Dates
When writing dates, unlike English, you use cardinal numbers except for prémier (“first”). The other days will be expressed as the literal number (for example, deux instead of deuxième).
The day goes before the month, unlike how it is often written and said in English, with the month first (compare to saying “December 5th” in English). However, like in many other French to English structure differences, the conceptual gap is larger in North American English; in the U.K. and other countries, “5 December” is a common way to phrase dates.
Further, dates begin with le (and there is no contraction to l’ before vowel sounds).
le prémier juin (“The first day of June”)
le onze décembre (“The eleventh of December”; “11 December”)
le 2 mai, 2017 (“The second of May, 2017”; “2 May, 2017”)
The only exception to the requirement to begin dates with le is if they are expressing an event that takes place on a certain date.
Je chante le lundi. (“I sing on Mondays.”)
Je chanterai lundi. (“I will sing on Monday”, meaning this specific Monday)
When expressing years, you must include the cent in years for “one hundred”; you can’t leave it off like you can in English (saying “nineteen forty-five”, for example, for 1945).
Dix-neuf cents quarante-cinq (Literally: “nineteen hundreds forty-five”)
Talking about Time
||early (literally “in advance”)
Grammatical Structure of Time
Reporting the time always begins with il est, never c’est or any other subject-verb setup, before saying the time. French uses demi, which means “half”; instead of saying “two-thirty”, the phrase is literally “two hours and half”.
Il est quatre heures et demi. (“It is four-thirty.”)
Similarly, quart is used for quarter.
Il est deux heures et quart. (“It is two hours and a quarter”; it is 2:15.)
When you want to say a certain time until an hour, such as fifteen minutes until seven, you say moins before the number of minutes.
Il est sept heures moins le quart (“It is a quarter until seven.”)
Il est dix heures moins vingt (“It is twenty minutes until ten.”)
The French often use “military time” (24 hour time), especially in cases like train schedules, where it’s important to be precise.
Il est seize heures moins vingt. (Literally: “It is sixteen hours minus twenty”; It is 15:40, or 3:40pm)
Il est vingt heures et demi. (“It is 20:30”, or 8:30pm)
There are a couple of distinct ways to express the length of time something will take.
Dans une heure means that starting in an hour something will happen.
En une heure means something will happen within an hour, or it will take an hour to do something.
Discussing Time with Verbs
French has a specific future tense (the equivalent of saying someone “will” do something in the future has a distinct tense in French). You can also say you are “going” to do something, just like you can in English, with aller.
Il achètera un stylo. (“He will buy a pen.”)
Il va acheter un stylo. (“He is going to buy a pen.”)
There are three major forms of the past tense to know: passé composé, imparfait, and plus-que parfait.
Passé composé (read the linked posts for each tense for much more detail) generally applies to specific past events that are now over. Imparfait represents ongoing or habitual tasks in the past, and plus-que parfait represents events that took place even further in the past (before the passé composé and/or imparfait actions).
There are also a couple present tense expressions that apply to the future or past. Venir de + [infinitive] is used to express something that “just” happened.
Je viens de partir quand il m’a trouvé. (“I had just left when he found me”)
En train de + [infinitive] means that an action is “in the middle” of happening.
J’étais en train de faire mes devoirs quand ma sœur a commencé à chanter. (“I was in the middle of doing my homework when my sister began to sing.”)
Talking about time and dates in French is not necessarily intuitive, there are frequently idiomatic and fixed expressions, and the different verb tenses can trip non-native speakers up. However, it will be necessary as you become a more advanced speaker to learn these structures so that you can at least recognize them when you hear or see them. These concepts can definitely be learned, it just may take some time and practice.
Present participles are a very easy concept to master. In French, they are the forms of verbs that correspond with when you use “-ing” in verbs in English. Instead of “-ing”, however, the suffix becomes –ant after taking off the first person plural (the nous form) verb ending.
Forming the Present Participle
Most forms of the present participle are regular, based on using the nous form of the verb, removing the –ons ending, and adding on –ant. For example:
Attendre (infinitive form) →Attendant (present participle)
Regarder → Regardant
Aller → Allant
Avoir and être, perhaps unsurprisingly, have irregular forms.
Avoir → Ayant
Être → Étant
Present Participle Examples
Present participles are used in subordinate clauses, meaning they are parts of sentences which are not complete sentences on their own.
Sachant qu’ils seraient en retard, elle apportait un livre avec elle. (“Knowing that they would be late, she brought a book with her.”)
Elle a acheté un manteau, croyant que le temps ferait froid. (“She bought a coat, believing the weather would be cold.”)
They are often preceded by en, which generally means, “while” doing the present participle or “by” doing the present participle. This is also called the gerund form.
J’ai bu du café en étudiant pour mon examen. (“I drank coffee while studying for my exam.”)
En attendant le bus, il a fait une sieste. (“While waiting for the bus, he took a nap.”)
Present participles are invariable, meaning there is no singular/plural or masculine/feminine agreement in their endings.
Compound Forms with Past Tense
Present participles can also be used in compound past verb structures using the present participle forms of être and avoir, depending on whether the main verb is conjugated normally, with avoir, or is one of the être verbs.
The present participle is followed by the corresponding past participle form (the form used in passé composé). For example:
Étant arrivée tôt, elle a eu le temps de manger. (“Having arrived early, she had time to eat.”)
Ayant perdu son sac, elle a appelé la police. (“Having lost her purse, she called the police.”)
As you can see above, the être verbs use gender and singular/plural ending agreement just as they do in other uses of the French past participles.
Present Participles as Adjectives
Finally, present participles can directly modify nouns as adjectives. As with other adjectives, they will need to agree in gender and plurality with the noun they are modifying.
Les livres passionnants (“The fascinating books”)
La femme dansante (“The dancing woman“)
French present participles are a grammatical concept that is relatively simple to learn, with few irregular forms and translating almost directly from the present participle structure in English. They will be useful as you learn to form more complex sentences and imply cause and effect or simultaneous actions within the same sentence, as well as expand your vocabulary of French adjectives.
In English, you may have seen a debate or wondered yourself on whether a certain adjective should be used with an “er” or “est” ending, or should it be “more” + [adjective] or “most” + [adjective]. For example, is it “handsomer” or “more handsome”? (Technically, “handsomer” is correct. One and two-syllable words are generally used with the superlative endings in English.)
In French, as in most grammatical concepts, things are a little more straightforward.
First, we need to distinguish between the two types of comparisons you can make: comparatives and superlatives.
Comparatives versus Superlatives
Comparatives involve saying what is more or less “something” than the other.
She sings better than me. / The chair is closer to the door. / Zeke is a more graceful dancer than Sara.
Superlatives say who or what is the very most or very least “something”.
She sings the best in her class / The chair is closest to the door / Zeke is the most graceful dancer in the class.
To compare two nouns to each other, for most adjectives the form is to use plus for “more” and moins for “less”, followed by que, which in this instance means “than”. For example:
Zeke est plus gracieuse que Sara. (“Zeke is more graceful than Sara.”)
La chaise est moins lourde que la table. (“The chair is less heavy than the table.”)
When the noun that the subject of the sentence is being compared against isn’t mentioned in the sentence, there is no que.
La chaise est plus près de la porte. (“The chair is closer to the door.”)
When using superlatives, if the adjective is one that normally goes before the noun, the superlative will go before the noun as well.
La plus belle montagne dans le monde entier. (“The most beautiful mountain in the whole world.”)
However, there’s a slightly unusual rule if the adjective is supposed to go after the noun: you repeat the article of the noun in French.
“The most important thing.” → La chose la plus importante. (NOT la plus importante chose or la chose plus importante)
“The most graceful dancers.” → Les danseurs les plus gracieux.
Talking about Bad and Good
There are few exceptions to the plus and moins patterns. Just like in English, you don’t say “gooder/goodest” or “more good/most good”. Similarly, we don’t say “badder”, “most bad”, or any variation of this.
English has distinct words for these comparatives and superlatives forms: “better”, “best”, “worse”, and “worst”. So does French.
The word for “better” as an adjective is meilleur, and it can be used in direct comparisons as with other adjectives with que, as well as an adjective on its own.
It has four separate forms for singular/plural and masculine/feminine (meilleur, meilleure, meilleurs, and meilleures for singular masculine, singular feminine, plural masculine, and plural feminine, respectively).
Je suis meilleur que toi. (“I am better than you.”)
Ces robes sont meilleures. (‘These dresses are better.”)
The word for “better” when it refers to an adverb is mieux (which has no additional endings).
Elle chante mieux que moi (“She sings better than me.”)
There are two ways to say “worse than”: plus mauvais que and pire que. Plus mauvais is a little more common, except when the sentence is comparing two bad things, then pire que is usually used. If the noun is plural, the spelling becomes pires.
Le film est plus mauvais que le livre. (“The film is worse than the book.”)
La tricherie est pire que le mensonge. (“Cheating is worse than lying.”)
There are four irregular forms of superlatives to learn.
- Meilleur or le/la/les meilleur(e)(s) means “best” when it’s an adjective and it’s not part of a comparison. It still gets agreement with the noun of the sentence like most other adjectives.
- Mieux or le mieux means “best” when it’s functioning as an adverb.
- Pire means “worst” when it’s not part of a comparison (and becomes pires if the noun is plural).
- Finally, moindre means “least” when it refers to abstract nouns and not the physical size of objects (which would follow the regular pattern of plus petit(e)(s)).
Je choisis les meilleurs restaurants. (“I choose the best restaurants.”)
Il s’habille le mieux parmi nos amis. (“He dresses the best among our friends.”)
Ç’était la pire idée que j’ai entendue aujourd’hui. (“That was the worst idea that I heard today.”)
Venez à moi si vous avez la moindre question. (“Come to me if you have the slightest question.”)
In conclusion, if you remember the few unique forms of superlatives and comparatives that French uses you can use the rest with the regular plus que and moins que patterns without having to think about it. Finally, don’t forget that you need to use the appropriate singular/plural and masculine/feminine endings in comparative and superlative statements, just as with other adjectives.
Pronouns replace nouns in sentences, which makes it easier than saying the same noun repeatedly.
Many of them refer to “I”, “you”, “he”, “she”, “it”, “we”, and “them”, but they come in different forms depending on their place in the sentence and the exact meaning of the sentence (just like “he” has “him” as another form).
Note that mixed gender groups, whether of people or objects, always take the masculine plural form unless you know they only consist of females.
Below is an overview of the various types of pronouns used in French, with links to their full grammar lessons on this site, if applicable.
Subject pronouns replace the subject of the sentence and drive the action of what’s occurring in the sentence.
Ils conduisent ma nouvelle voiture. (“They are driving my new car.”)
|tu (“you” familiar)
||vous (“you” formal or plural)
Read our full lesson on subject pronouns here →
Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns
Object pronouns are located before the verb in sentences, unlike in English. They explain what the subject and verb are doing to a pronoun.
Elle ferme la porte. (“She closes the door.”)
La porte is the direct object noun; transforming it into its direct object pronoun form would make it la, and it would precede the verb.)
Elle la ferme.
|Direct Object Pronouns
Some sentences can have indirect objects as well as direct objects.
Je leur ai écrit une lettre. (“I wrote them a letter.”)
|Indirect Object Pronouns
Read our full lesson on direct and indirect object pronouns here →
These pronouns mean, generally, “which” or “which one”. They have four distinct forms for each combination of noun gender and plurality, and their specific form depends on which noun they are replacing.
J’ai deux pommes. Laquelle préfères-tu? (Une pomme (“apple”) is feminine, so the feminine singular form is used.)
There are also special forms to indicate “at which” or “to which” or any other translation that à + [noun] would refer to in French.
Tu as acheté beaucoup de jeux auxquels je veux jouer. (Les jeux (“games”) are masculine plural.)
|Relative Pronouns with À
Finally, there are four forms that represent “from which” or “of which”, or any other translation that takes the de + [noun] structure in French.
J’organise un atelier pour les artistes au cours duquel je donne le conseil. (Un atelier, (“workshop”) is masculine singular.)
|Relative Pronouns with De
Reflexive pronouns come before certain verbs to show that the subject is doing the action to itself. For example:
Ils se couchent. (“They are going to bed.”)
Read our full lesson on reflexive pronouns here →
Demonstrative pronouns mean “this one”, “that one”, and “those”. They are commonly used for making a distinction between two different objects in a sentence, such as:
Celle-ci est plus jolie que celle-là. (“This one (dress) is prettier than that one.”)
The pronoun with the –ci suffix means “this one” and the –là suffix means “that one”.
|| celui-ci, celui-là
|| celle-ci, celle-là
The adverbial pronouns y and en replace a quantity, a place, or an object of the preposition, making them adverbs as well as pronouns.
Generally speaking, y refers to a place, en refers to a quantity or other de + object of the preposition phrase, and y and en are both used to replace objects of the preposition when French verb structures are followed by an à (replaced with y) or de (replaced with en).
Read our full lesson on adverbial pronouns here →
Pronoun order in sentences
You may occasionally encounter or need to use two pronouns as direct and indirect objects in a single sentence. French has a logical order for this construction; please see the chart below.
Prepositions are a long word for a really simple concept. They’re the (usually) short words that explain how two other words share a relationship, and they usually refer to a location or position of some sort.
Common French prepositions include words like dans (“in”), à, (“to”), and de (“from”).
Prepositions with Verbs
Clearly, the concept of prepositions is very straightforward, which is good news. What is slightly more annoying is that French verbs and English verbs don’t always use the same preposition.
There is no pattern to the differences; you’ll just have to learn them. It will happen fairly naturally as you gain experience reading French text and learn their correct use in context, or of course you can intentionally memorize the relevant verbs.
On the bright side, while you may temporarily confuse your listener or reader if you accidentally use the wrong preposition or one you don’t need, this is a small mistake and shouldn’t impede your communication too much.
Verbs + Direct Objects
When they are followed by direct objects, the French version of the verb often doesn’t need a preposition, while the English often version does (though for certain verbs, the reverse is true).
“I am waiting for the bus.” → J’attends le bus.
Why isn’t there a pour in the French version for “for”? Essentially, it’s because attendre doesn’t mean “wait” in English, it means “wait for“. In other words, the “for” is already built in to the French version. Similarly:
“I am looking for my cell phone.” → Je cherche mon portable.
This one’s a little easier to make sense of, since the word “look” in English could also mean you were looking at something if you didn’t have a preposition there to clarify your meaning, while in French looking for and looking at are two entirely separate verbs.
Another common verb that loses its preposition in French is:
“I am listening to the song.” → J’écoute la chanson.
There aren’t a huge number of verbs that follow this pattern, but the ones that do are relatively common verbs, so you should try to remember at least these three.
Verbs + Infinitives
A much longer list of verbs that have different preposition rules applies to the particular issue of forming verb + infinitive combinations. French verbs will often take either the preposition à or de before an infinitive, where the same verb in English does not take any preposition (though again, the pattern is occasionally reversed).
“I am learning to dance.” → J’apprends à danser.
This one might not seem so obvious, but compare it to:
“I like to dance.” → J’aime danser.
Do you see the difference? An à was used with the first verb, apprendre, but not with aimer. (If you get confused, since the first sentence in English does have a “to” in it, note that this “to” forms the infinitive “to dance”, which corresponds with danser, not the preposition “to” that we’re talking about.)
Other French verbs commonly take de where the same verb in English would not use any preposition.
“I try to smile.” → J’essaie de sourire.
“I finished doing my homework.” → J’ai fini de faire mes devoirs.
“I choose to leave this town.” → Je choisis de quitter cette ville.
The number of verbs like this may seem overwhelming at first, but you will learn them naturally over time. When you use a verb with an infinitive, get in the habit of asking yourself if there is a preposition you should use before the infinitive.
Prepositions as Prepositions
On to a much easier use of prepositions… prepositions in relationship to nouns or pronouns (in other words, their “normal” use)!
Here are the most common ones:,
||in, out of
|in front of
These prepositions work just the same way as their English counterparts do. For example:
“George is on the boat.” → George est sur le bateau.
“They are standing behind the door.” → Ils sont debout derrière la porte.
“We are running against the wind.” → Nous courons contre le vent.
Finally, let’s note a few of the prepositions that either work differently in French or work in a way that doesn’t exist in English.
Chez refers to a home or place of business, in a prepositional structure that doesn’t exist in English (but is very succinct!).
“I am at home.” → Je suis chez moi.
“You are at the dentist’s office.” → Tu es chez le dentiste.
Selon refers to someone’s opinion on something or to mean “according to” a person.
“In my mother’s opinion, I should become a lawyer.” → Selon ma mère, je devrais devenir avocat.
“According to them, he never called.” → Selon eux , il n’a jamais appelé.
En versus dans
Both en and dans translate to “in” in English, but they have distinct usages in French. En encompasses a more general concept of “in”, while dans is more specific, literal, and immediate. In addition, en is used without a definite or indefinite article, while dans uses an article.
“He has a fear of flying (of being in an airplane).” → Il a peur en avion.
“He is afraid because he is in an airplane.” → Il a peur parce qu’il est dans un avion.
These two prepositions also are used when discussing time. Dans refers to something that will happen in the future, while en refers to the time that encompasses an event occurring.
“The girls are going to read a book in five minutes.” → Les filles vont lire un livre dans cinq minutes.
“The girls can read a book in five minutes.” → Les filles peuvent lire un livre en cinq minutes.
Prepositions are very simple, but until you are confident with their usage, take the time to consider which you are about to use to make sure you’re using the correct one and not just the most literal translation from English. You’ll learn common usages quickly with exposure, but question yourself (within reason!) with your preposition choices until then, particularly with verb and infinitive combinations.
Learning how to ask questions is a vital grammar skill to acquire, especially if you plan on traveling to a French-speaking country. You will likely be asking questions of various people much more often than you will be supplying information to them. If you are staying at a hotel, the desk clerk will probably speak at least some English (unless you are staying in a small town or one not frequented by tourists), but what about ordering lunch at a small cafe or buying tickets to a museum?
No matter what your skill level is, it will be useful to have a good command of the most common question structures and vocabulary. Below we provide a comprehensive review of what you need to know about interrogatives in French.
These adverbs are what most people think of traditionally when they think of forming questions. They often start sentences, though they can also be inserted almost anywhere within a sentence, as well.
|| How much
Many of these words are used very similarly to how they are used in English. For example:
“Where do you live?”→ Où habitez-vous?
“Why are you here?” → Pourquoi es-tu ici?
When placed in front of the est-ce que question formation, quoi becomes qu’.
Qu’est-ce que vous faites? (“What are you doing?”)
Note that qui does not become qu’ before est-ce que, because then you would not be able to tell which of the two words (quoi or qui) the shortened form was referring to.
Qui est-ce que tu aimes? (“Whom do you like?”)
Broadly, interrogative adjectives mean “which” or “what” noun one is referring to. They agree with the gender and number of the noun, just as other adjectives do. Their four forms are below.
Quelle heure est-il? (“What time is it?”)
À quelle heure… (“At what time…”)
Quel jour… (“What day…”)
Quel (and its variants) can also be used as a subject instead of as an adjective when the verb of the sentence is être. It means “which” or “what”.
Quelle est la date? (“What is the date?”)
Quels sont vos plans futurs? (“What are your future plans?”)
Variable Interrogative Pronouns
Just as normal subject pronouns have a gender and number, so do the variable interrogative pronouns. They are used in French in almost exactly the same way as in English, except that there are four forms of each pronoun for each of the four combinations of gender and number.
Lequel, Laquelle, Lesquels, Lesquelles
To ask the question “which” or “which one” of a group of nouns given multiple options for that noun, a variant of the quel structure is used: lequel and its variants.
Lesquels de ces livres préférez-vous? (“Which of these books do you prefer?”)
Or with context that the relevant topic of conversation is livres: Lesquels préférez-vous? (“Which ones do you prefer?”)
Compare this sentence to a similar one using quel:
Quels livres préférez-vous? (“Which books do you prefer?”)
Note the subtle difference in using quel versus lequel. Quel is an adjective. It refers to a specific noun (in this case, livres), while lequel is a pronoun. It can be (and often is) the subject of a sentence.
Other Variants: Duquel and Auquel
There are two pronoun variants on the lequel structure that are capable of being used in questions but usually are not, so we will only mention them briefly here for the sake of completeness.
These pronouns would apply to phrases translated as “to/at which” or “from which”, such as “the town to which I moved” or “the college from which I graduated”.
Their forms look very similar to the normal lequel forms, just with new prefixes added.
Duquel and Variants
Auquel and Variants
La ville à laquelle j’ai déménagé est petite. (“The town to which I moved is small.”)
Il y a un grand jardin, au centre duquel poussent beaucoup de fleurs. (“There is a big garden, in the center of which grow many flowers.”)
Note that in these structures you also have to be aware that the prepositions that follow certain verbs aren’t necessarily the same in French as they are in English. (For example, in English you think of something, but in French the structure is penser à.)
There are several ways to structure questions in French. In addition to just using intonation to raise the pitch of your voice at the end of a sentence, just like in English, there are also the options of using est-ce que and inverting subject-verb order.
Est-ce que formation
There is no need to remember a new formation for this structure. Just add est-ce que to the front of the sentence and construct the rest of the sentence as if you were making a statement.
Est-ce que les médecins sont intelligents? (“Are doctors intelligent?”)
Est-ce que ton chien est mignon? (“Is your dog cute?”)
If est-ce que is followed by a vowel sound, it becomes est-ce qu’.
Est-ce qu’elle chante? (“Does she sing?”)
Inversion with pronouns as subjects
Inversion means switching subject-verb order to form a question, in the same way you would in English, so that the verb precedes the subject.
For example, in English the statement:
“They are going to buy us tickets.”
Would become the question:
“Are they going to buy us tickets?”
The only thing that changed was the subject and the verb switching places in the sentence.
Sont-ils intelligents? (“Are they intelligent?”)
Est-t-il mignon? (“Is it cute?”)
Notice that for inversion with est, a hyphen-t-hyphen is added between est and the pronoun. This is to provide a signal that a hard “t” sound should be pronounced. )
Inversion with nouns as subjects
Inversion can only occur with pronouns (meaning a sentence with English inversion like, “Is Ellen leaving?” cannot be translated directly into French).
However, if you want to use inversion in a question where the context for the noun you are referring to is not clear, you can include the specific noun at the beginning of the sentence, and then use inversion on the subject pronoun form of it. This method is a little redundant, but it is a structure that is commonly used in French.
Les médecins sont-ils intelligents? (Literally, “Doctors, are they intelligent?”)
Ton chien est-t-il mignon? (Literally, “Your dog, is it cute?”)
Inversion with reflexive verbs
With the est-ce que question structure, reflexive verbs do not need to be treated any differently from regular verbs to form the sentence. For example:
Est-ce que tu te réveilles tôt le matin? (“Do you wake up early in the morning?”)
However, using inversion, the same sentence would be:
Te réveilles-tu tôt le matin?
This structure may look a little odd, but it makes sense when you remember that inversion only occurs for subject pronouns and verbs. This rule trumps the normal position of reflexive pronouns, which is to follow the subject and precede the verb.
Here are a couple more examples:
Se prépare-t-elle pour la fin du semestre? (“Is she preparing for the end of the semester?”)
Vous trompez-vous? (“Are you mistaken?”)
There are even more complex variations of the sentence structure and formation concepts listed here, but having the foundation of forming questions in this lesson will be sufficient the vast majority of the time. We will discuss more nuances in a future lesson. For now, you may want to check our our other grammar lessons.
Both articles and determiners, or determiner adjectives, modify nouns and give further information on the noun being modified. They have distinct forms according to the gender and number of the noun being modified.
Remember, as with other adjectives in French, these articles and adjectives match the gender and number of the noun they are modifying, not the gender or number of the person or object who owns the noun.
The definite articles mean “the”, and refer to specific nouns, just as in English. They are:
- Le (masculine singular), la (feminine singular), and les (masculine or feminine plural)
Both le and la become l’ in front of words that begin with a vowel or most h’s.
EXAMPLE: L’avion a atterri très tard et les passagers étaient malheureux. (“The plane landed very late, and the passengers were unhappy.”)
The indefinite articles refer to nouns without specifying which of multiple potential nouns they are applying to.
- Un (masculine singular), une (feminine singular), and des (masculine or feminine plural)
Un and une can mean either “a” or “an”, or literally, “one”. The plural form des means “some”.
EXAMPLE: Margot a trouvé une ferme abandonnée et des voitures délabrées. (“Margot found an abandoned farm and some run down cars.”)
Partitive articles refer to a piece, or part, being discussed in context of a whole.
- Du (masculine singular), de la (feminine singular), and des (masculine or feminine plural)
De la becomes de l’ in front of feminine nouns that begin with a vowel sound. Note that du is never shortened to d’ (this is how de is shortened, so du needs to remain distinct to be able to tell the two words apart).
EXAMPLE: Pour mon petit déjeuner, je mange du beurre et de la confiture avec mon croissant. (“For my breakfast, I eat butter and jam with my croissant.”)
Demonstratives are even more specific than definite articles and mean “this” or “these”. They are:
- Ce and cet (masculine singular), cette (feminine singular), and ces (masculine or feminine plural).
Cet is used for masculine nouns that begin with a vowel sound.
EXAMPLE: Cet homme est aimable, mais ces autres sont méchants. (“This man is friendly, but these others are mean.”)
It’s also possible to convey “this” versus “that” noun using the suffix -ci after the “this” object and -là after the “that” object.
EXAMPLE: Il a acheté cette montre-ci et elle a acheté cette montre-là. (“He bought this watch, and she bought that watch.”)
Possessive adjectives refer to which pronouns have ownership over another noun.
Possessives come in three forms on the singular side: 1) masculine singular, 2) feminine singular, and 3) masculine or feminine plural. On the plural side they only have two forms: 1) singular of either gender and 2) plural of either gender.
- Mon, ma, mes (“my”)
- Ton, ta, tes (“your” familiar)
- Son, sa, ses (“his” or “hers” or “its”)
- Notre, nos (“our”)
- Votre, vos (“your” plural or formal)
- Leur, leurs (“their”)
EXAMPLE: Tes enfants sont polis, mais leurs enfants sont impolis. (“Your children are polite, but their children are impolite.”)
EXAMPLE: Ma mere est partie il y a une heure, mais elle a oublié son sac sur le canapé. (My mother left an hour ago, but she forgot her bag on the couch.”)
EXAMPLE: Notre but est de déménager et mes parents vont nous aider. (“Our goal is to move and my parents are going to help us.”)
We have more on possessive adjectives and ownership in this lesson.
Interrogative determiners mean “which” or “what” noun and are used to request information on the certain noun that is being discussed.
There are four forms of the interrogatives, unlike the other adjectives and articles in this lesson, to agree with both gender and singular/plural forms. They are:
- Quel (masculine singular), quelle (feminine singular), quels (masculine plural), and quelles (feminine plural)
EXAMPLE: Quels profs avaient quelles idées? (“Which professors had which ideas?”)
Quel (including all four forms) can also be used in exclamations in which one would say “what a” or “such a” in English.
EXAMPLE: Quel film d’horreur terrible! (“What a terrible horror movie!”)
EXAMPLE: Quelle élève intelligente! (“What an intelligent student!”)
The three verbs of devoir (“must” or “need to”), pouvoir (“to be capable of”), and vouloir (“to want”) are closely connected concepts in French and also follow the same conjugation patterns. They are often taught together for efficiency, and learning them this ways also allows students to recognize the subtle distinctions between the meanings of each of these verbs.
Devoir generally reflects duties, expectations, obligations of someone (a mnemonic is “d” for “duty and debt”).
Also, notice below that there is no clear distinction between the concepts of “must” versus “should” in French.
Obligation and responsibility
Things one must do or should do.
Je dois finir le ménage. (“I must finish the housework.”)
Events that are “supposed to” happen
Reflects expectations of future events.
Bennet doit revenir bientôt. (“Bennet is supposed to return soon.”)
An active verb reflecting that someone owes another party something.
Il nous doit dix dollars. (“He owes us ten dollars.”)
Pouvoir reflects the concepts of having the capability or permission to do something.
Can and may
As with the concepts of “must” and “should” in devoir, there is also little distinction in pouvoir between saying someone “can” do something and “may” do something.
Vous pouvez chanter merveilleusement. (“You can sing beautifully.”)
Ils peuvent poser une question. (“They may ask a question.”)
To increase the sense of politeness of a request, you use the conditional form of pouvoir.
Est-ce que je pourrais emprunter un manteau? (“Could I borrow a coat?”)
Vouloir generally reflects one’s desires and wishes, both in terms of desired events and in desired people or objects.
The most direct translation of someone “wanting” something is in the present indicative tense.
Je veux des nouveaux talons rouges. (“I want some new red high heels.”)
As with pouvoir, using the conditional tense for vouloir elevates the politeness of the desire.
Il voudrait vous présenter ses excuses. (“He would like to offer you his apologies.”)
Perhaps counterintuitively, adding bien to the construction weakens the desire inherent in the phrase and instead implies that one is willing to or is agreeing to do something.
Je veux bien partir avec lui. (“I am willing to leave with him.”)
An interesting use of vouloir is with the imperative vous form, veuillez, which is a polite way of requesting that someone please do something. It is often used in formal written letters and in correspondence such as event invitations.
Veuillez accepter nos excuses pour cette erreur. (“Please accept our apologies for this mistake.”)
Understanding and applying these verbs in the present and conditional tenses should be the highest priority for most French language learners, as they are semi-irregular. Additionally, learning their past participle forms is quick and will allow you to refer to past events using passé composé.
Present tense conjugations
Using devoir, pouvoir, and vouloir in the present tense conveys the most straightforward and literal translations and is acceptable in most circumstances unless there is a great need for formality or a conditional implication in the message you are trying to convey.
As with many irregular verbs in French, the forms are familiar in the nous and vous forms, and distinct in the “boot” (the je, tu, il/elle, and ils/elles forms). For nous and vous, simply take off the –oir ending and add –ons and –ez.
For each verb the boot has its own base form that you will add –x, -x, -t on the singular side, and the plural third person will have the normal –ent ending.
|devoir (present indicative)
|pouvoir (present indicative)
|vouloir (present indicative)
Conditional tense conjugations
In many instances, using the conditional tense connotes greater politeness and formality demonstrated on the speaker’s part. The conditional conjugations for these three verbs have irregular root forms, but all their verb endings follow the standard conditional tense pattern.
(If you need more guidance on forming the conditional tense, check out our lesson on the conditionnel.)
Finally, all three of these verbs are normal action verbs conjugated with avoir and their past participle form.
- devoir → du
- pouvoir → pu
- vouloir → voulu (remember that the past participle of voir is vu, so vouloir has to be a different past participle from that)