TechnomadicsVagabonding Europe

I’ve been keeping my notes on French in the note-keeping software Evernote, but in the interests of flexibility, persistence and avoiding Evernote’s nasty editor bugs, I’m going to start keeping them here.

So far, we’ve been learning in a fairly ad-hoc fashion, using the Pimsleur French audio book series, which doesn’t really contain a written component, and takes a very informal approach. My plan now is to get a little more technical and try to get a solid grammar foundation. Then, lots of vocab learning, and listening practice.


Grammar basics

  • Adjective – indicates quality of noun/pronoun (eg slow, lent, new, nouveau)
  • Adverb – modifies verb/adjective/another adverb (eg. slowly, lentement, never, often, etc); French adverbs often end in -ment
    • Comparatives – comparison (eg more than, plus que, less than, moins que, equality aussi que)
    • Superlatives – ultimate comparison (eg the most, le plus, the least, le moins)
  • Article – indicates noun’s application (eg. the, some)
  • Conjunction – joining word (eg and, that – I think that we should talk)
  • Noun – represents person/place/thing/idea
  • Preposition – indicates relationships (eg on, under, beside, to, from, in, about, at)
  • Pronoun – substitution for a noun (I, je, he, il)
  • Verb – action

English verb tenses

  • Simple presentI study every day
  • Simple pastI studied at school
  • Simple futureI will study/am going to study next year
  • Present continuousI am studying now
  • Past continuousI was studying when you called
  • Future continuousI will be studying/am going to be studying when you arrive
  • Present perfectI have studied many languages
  • Past perfectI had studied a little French
  • Future perfectI will have studied/am going to have studied by next year
  • Present perfect continuousI have been studying for seven years
  • Past perfect continuousI had been studying before I gave it up
  • Future perfect continuousI will have been studying/am going to have been studying for eight years

That is,

  • Simple – Basically just the verb on its own
  • Continuous-ing suffix, with the verb to be, etc
  • Perfect – With the verb to have, and past-tense form of verb
  • Perfect continuous – Combination of above to – use to have, as well as -ing with past tense of to be

French verbs have five aspects (inflections):

  • Tense (temps)
  • Subject
    • Number (nombre)
    • Person (personne)
  • Mood (mode)
  • Voice (voix)

Verb inflections



Two categories:

  • Simple
  • Compound


Made up of one part (eg. je vais)


Upcoming events, usually translated as will; eg

J’irai au magasin demain – I will go to the store tomorrow

When used with constructs like aprés que (after), future tense is used, as opposed to present tense as in English. Eg:

Quand il arrivera, nous magerons – When he arrives, we will eat

If the event occurs in the near future, use the futur proche form (proche means ‘close’), usually translated as going to. Eg:

Je vais aller au magasin – I’m going to go to the store

That is, the combination of the present form of aller (to go), plus the infinitive of the verb.


Used to express

  • Current actions/situations

Je suis fatigué – I am tired

  • Habitual actions

Il va à l’école tous les jours – He goes to school every day

  • Absolute/general truths

La terre est ronde – The earth is round

  • Actions which will occur immediately

Il part tout de suite – He is leaving right away

  • Conditions in si clauses

Si je peux, j’irai avec toi – If I can, I will go with you

The three English equivalents (I eat, I am eating, I do eat), are all represented by the present, Je mange.

To emphasise immediacy, use être + en train de + infinitive (am in the process of); Eg:

Je suis en train de manger – I am eating right now


Descriptive past tense – indicates ongoing state of being, or a repeated/incomplete action. Often translated as was/was ___-ing.

Can also be used to describe actions/states with an unspecified duration, and wishes/suggestions.

Je faisais la queue parce que j’avais besoin de billets – I stood in line because I needed tickets
Si nous sortions ce soir – How about going out tonight? (Literally, If we went out tonight)

And can be used as conditions in si clauses

Si j’avais de l’argent, j’irais avec toi – If I had some money, I’d go with you

Passé simple (literary)

Literary equivalent of passé composé; used only in formal writing. Indicates an action that is complete, with no relationship to the present, vs. the passé composé, which indicates a relationship with the present

Il choisit – He chose

Versus, in the passé composé:

Il a choisi – He has chosen


Made up from two parts – an auxiliary verb such as être or avoir, and the past participle of the verb itself. Eg

je suis allé – I went

Future perfect/Futur antérieur

Describes an action that will have happened/will be finished by a specific future point.

J’aurai mangé à midi – I will have eaten by noon
Dans un mois, nous serons partis – In a month, we will have left

This uses the futur form of the auxiliary verb.

In French, the futur antérieur also used:

  • To express a future action which comes before a main clause (in English, this is usually present/past instead)

Quand je serai descendu, tu pourras me le montrer – When I have come down, you can show it to me (Literally, When I will have come down…)

  • To imply assumptions about past events, without requiring must

Pierre n’ect pas ici; il aura oublié – Pierre isn’t here; he must have forgotten

Pluperfect (past perfect)/Plus-que-parfait

Indicates an action in the past that occurred before another action, as in English

J’étais déjà sorti (quand tu as téléphoné) – I had already left (when you called)
Nous ne t’avions pas vu hier – We didn’t see you yesterday

Also used in si clauses to express a hypothetical past situation

Si tu m’avais demandé, j’aurais répondu – If you had asked me, I would have answered

This uses the imperfect of the auxiliary verb.

Passé composé

Most common past tense form.

Has three possible English equivalents. J’ai parléI spoke, I have spoken, or I did speak.

This uses the present tense of the auxiliary verb.

Past anterior/Passé antérieur (literary)

Literary equivalent of plus-que-parfait: Indicates an action in the past that occurred before another action.

Uses the passé simple of the auxiliary verb.


Person – one of three groups of personal pronouns that, together with number, indicate who/what performs the action of a verb.
Number – whether singular or plural

  • First person singular (Première singulier): Je
  • Second person singular (Deuxième singulier): Vous, Tu
  • Third person singular (Troisième singulier): Il, Elle, On
  • First person plural (Première pluriel): Nous
  • Second person plural (Deuxième pluriel): Vous, Tu
  • Third person plural (Troisième pluriel): Ils, Elles


Indicates attitude of the speaker towards the action/state of the verb.


Personal moods distinguish between grammatical persons (conjugated)


Indicates a fact – the most common mood.

All of the forms described above are indicative.


Expresses subjectivity, doubt, unlikelihood. Almost always found in dependent clauses introduced by que/qui.

Je veux que tu le fasses – I want you to do it
Il faut que nous partions – It is necessary that we leave

Used with expressions of:

  • Will/want
  • Emotion or feeling (to fear that…, to be amazed that…)
  • Doubt, possibility, supposition and opinion (to doubt that…, it is possible that…)
  • Conjunctions that express uncertainty (unless, provided that, until, without, before, etc)

Mangeons avant que nous ne partions – Let’s eat before we leave (note use of the ne explétif, which is used when the main clause has a negative meaning, in this case, not leaving without eating)

…But not conjunctions that express certainty, such as while, after, when, since, because, etc.

  • In an expression with a negative/indefinite pronoun, such as anyone, someone, nobody (ne … personne, ne … rien)

Je ne connais personne que veuille le faire – I don’t know anyone who wants to do it

  • Optionally after only/seul, unique, first/premier, last/dernier, or any superlative. This depends on the certainty of the speaker.

C’est la seule personne que je connaisse – That’s the only person I know


Describes a condition, or possibility – events not guaranteed to occur (like would in English), mostly used in si clauses.

Il mangerait s’il avait faim – He would eat if he were hungry Je voudrais aller avec vous – I would like to go with you

Note: si cannot be followed by the conditional as in si vous voudriez (If you would like). Instead, si vou voulez.

Conditional forms of vouloir and aimer used to express polite request and desire, respectively.

Je voudrais une pomme – I would like an apple
J’aimerais bien le voir – I would really like to see it


Gives a command, expresses a desire, offers advice, recommends something, or makes a request.

Fermez la porte – Close the door
Mangeons maintenant – Lets eat now
Ayez la bonté de m’attendre – Please wait for me (literally, have the kindness to wait for me)
Veuillez m’excuser – Please excuse me (this is a common polite way to make a request; pronounced vu-yay)

Note the last two – ayez (from avoir) and veuillez (from vouloir) are identical to the subjunctive forms


Impersonal moods are invariable, do not distinguish between grammatical persons and are not conjugated.


Adjectival form of the verb.

The participe présent, or present participle, is sometimes used as an adjective

un film amusant – An amusing movie
*de l’eau courante – Running water

…And can also sometimes be used as a noun:

assistant – Assistant
étudiant – Student

The participe passé, or past participle, is the French equivalent of the -ed English verb form. It’s used in compound tenses, as described above, for the passive voice, below, used with être, or as an adjective:

Fatigué, je suis rentré à minuit – Tired, I went home at midnight


Name of the verb – the basic, unconjugated form.

Can be used:

  • As a noun

voir, c’est croire – Seeing is believing

  • After a preposition

C’est difficile à croire – It’s hard to believe
Il essaie de te parler – He is trying to talk to you

  • After a conjugated verb

J’aime danser – I like to dance
Nous voulons manger – We want to eat

  • In place of the imperative for impersonal commands (instructions/warnings)

Ajouter les oignons à la sauce – Add the onions to the sauce

  • In place of the subjunctive where the main clause has

    • The same subject as the subordinate clause

      Il est content qu’il le fasseIl est content de le faire – He’s happy to be doing it (from ‘He’s happy that he’s doing it‘)

    • An impersonal subject, if the subject is implied

      Il faut que vous travailliezIl faut travailler – It’s necessary to work

Note: When used with an object/adverbial pronoun, pronoun always precedes the infinitive

Tu dois y aller – You have to go there

When used with a negative adverb, both parts precede the infinitive

Ne pas ouvrir la fenêtre


Indicates relationship between the subject and the verb


Subject performs the action – most common voice

Je lave la voiture – I’m washing the car
Elle est prof de français – She’s a French teacher


The action of the verb is performed on the subject by an agent. As with English, it is preferable to avoid the passive voice.

La voiture est lavée – The car is (being) washed

One construction to avoid the passive voice is the passive impersonal, which involves using a non-reflexive verb (see below) reflexively to demonstrate the passive nature of the action:

Ce livre se lit souvent – This book is often read
Un homme s’est rencontré hier – A man was found yesterday
Ça se voit – That’s obvious


The subject performs the action on itself

Je me lave – I’m washing up

Three types:

  • Reflexive verbs
  • Reciprocal verbs
  • Idiomatic pronominal verbs

Reflexive verbs/Verbes à sans réfléchi

Most common pronominal verbs; Mainly involve parts of the body, clothing, personal circumstance or location. Indicate that one or more subjects are acting on themselves.

  • s’approcher de – To approach
  • s’asseoir – To sit down
  • se souvenir de – To remember
  • Tu te reposes – You’re resting
  • Elle se promène – She’s taking a walk
  • Je me lave les mains – I’m washing my hands (note that the definite article precedes the body part when referring to parts of the body, not the possessive pronoun)

Reciprocal verbs/Verbes à sens réciproque

Indicate that two or more subjects are acting on one another.

  • s’adorer – To adore (one another)
  • se regarder – To look at
  • Nous nous adorons! – We adore one another!
  • Elles se voient le lundi – They see each other on Mondays

Idiomatic Pronominal verbs/Verbes à sens idiomatique

Verbs that take on a different meaning when used with a reflexive pronoun.

  • s’en aller – To go away (originally to go)
  • s’amuser – To have a good time (originally, to amuse)
  • s’attendre – To expect (to wait for)
  • Je m’appelle Sandrine (My name is Sandrine) vs J’appelle Sandrine (I’m calling Sandrine)
  • Tu te trompes (You are mistaken) vs Tu me tromps (You are deceiving me)
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6 Responses to French notes: Grammar basics & Verbs

  1. livre says:

    merci pour cette article il m’interesse bravo !

  2. Michael says:

    Je vous en prie ;-)

  3. Wow! Thank you for the write-up Michael! So complete and well done! This is going to serve as my cheat sheet when I teach my husband french. Merci beaucoup!

  4. Michael says:

    Je vous en prie, Janette! =)

  5. Udari Suraweera says:

    Merci beaucoup.

  6. Ishan Kaushalya says:

    Merci beaucoup pour son article,,,,bon travail..