Grammar points to watch out for in spoken French

French grammar can be stressful for language learners, but in reality it is no big deal

Grammar can be a headache, but learners should take the sting out of it by simply caring less
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French grammar can be difficult and it is often a mental block for language learners who can worry constantly about getting everything correct.

In truth, while grammar plays an important role in communication, it should definitely not be a reason to stop you speaking French.

Think back to your own experiences

Whenever you are worried about your French grammar, you should think back to a time when you have spoken to someone who has English as their second language.

Have you ever judged them for little mistakes here and there? I doubt it. Can you still understand the gist of what they want to say? Almost always.

Do not let grammar stress you out or get to your head - it is simply not worth it.

However, there are a few things that can help you out when you are chatting to someone in French.

Here are some grammar points to keep in mind for your next conversation.

Direct and indirect object pronouns

This is one that can get people in a pickle when they have to think about it on the spot.

The role of direct and indirect object pronouns is to replace the direct and indirect objects in the sentence.

Direct object pronouns are:

  • Me (first person, singular)
  • Te (second person, singular)
  • Le/la (third person, singular)
  • Nous (first person, plural)
  • Vous (second person, plural)
  • Les (third person, plural

Indirect object pronouns are:

  • Me
  • Te
  • Lui
  • Nous
  • Vous
  • Leur

The direct object directly receives the action of the verb. In the sentence je vois mon papa (I see my dad) where the direct object pronoun is mon papa, it becomes je le vois (I see him).

Meanwhile in the phrase elle parle à ses cousins (she talks to her cousins), ses cousins is the indirect object. It then becomes elle leur parle (she talks to them).

If there is no preposition in front of the noun, the noun is a direct object.

Indirect object pronouns are used with verbs followed by à quelqu’un - ie. an animate noun.
For example conseiller à quelqu’un (advise someone); apprendre à quelqu’un (to teach someone); manquer à quelqu’un (to miss someone).

There are some in particular to watch out for:

  • Écouter
    While English people say listen to someone or something, the French écouter is directly followed by the noun. It has to be replaced by a direct object pronoun.
    Example: j’écoute ma maman (I listen to my mum) becomes je l’écoute (I listen to her).

  • Téléphoner à quelqu’un
    There is no preposition in English following the verb to telephone. However, in French, the conjugation is téléphoner à quelqu’un.
    Example: Il a téléphoné à son frère (He phoned his brother) becomes il lui a téléphoné (he phoned him).

Learning to use direct and indirect object pronouns correctly is really a matter of practice and will become more natural the more you hear and speak.

Read also: How to stay motivated with your French language learning

Adjective placement

Like any good French grammar rule, there are some exceptions to this one.

Normally in French, the adjective comes AFTER the noun; for example le vélo rouge (the red bike), la chaise cassée (the broken chair), un esprit ouvert (an open spirit).

However, in some cases the adjective comes before the noun:

  • When describing goodness or badness: C’est un bon ami (he/she is a good friend); la gentille dame (the kind lady); le mauvais restaurant (bad restaurant).

  • When describing size: un grand jardin mais une petite maison (a big garden but a small house).

  • When describing age: une jeune fille (a young girl); un vieux monsieur (an old guy); le nouvel étudiant (the new student).

  • When describing beauty: un beau pays (a beautiful country); les jolies chaussures (the nice shoes).

Verbs that use être

Some verbs take avoir and some take être. Knowing which ones are which is really just a case of learning the list.

However there are some tactics to help you.

Generally speaking, most verbs take avoir and the exceptions take être.

Verbs taking être are reflexive verbs, for example, se laver (to wash); s’abonner (to subscribe); s’adapter (to adapt); s’attendre à (to expect something); se doucher (to shower).

Reflexive verbs are something you will pick up throughout the process of learning French, or you can simply learn them as a list if you prefer.

Other verbs that usually take être are verbs of motion. This is a list of 14 verbs:

  • Aller

  • Venir

  • Revenir

  • Devenir

  • Arriver

  • Partir

  • Sortir

  • Tomber

  • Monter

  • Mourir

  • Naître

  • Passer (although this can take avoir too)

  • Rester

  • Entrer

When conjugating these verbs in the passé composé, they normally take être and agree with the subject. This is not the case for verbs that take avoir.

For example, in elles ont mangé, manger does not agree despite the fact elles is both feminine and plural.

However, in elles sont allées au cinéma (they went to the cinema), aller does agree because the verb takes être.

There are some exceptions to this rule - largely in the instances when these verbs are used with a direct object without a preposition. In this case, they sometimes take avoir.

You may sometimes see sortir used with avoir - this means took something/someone out. For example, j’ai sorti le chien (I took the dog out) or tu as sorti les valises ? (Have you taken out the suitcases?)

With entrer, if the subject of the sentence is entering somewhere, entrer takes être; elle est entrée par la porte (She entered by the door). However if the subject of a sentence is entering something else, avoir is used - j’ai entré mon code de carte bleue (I entered my credit card number).

Monter uses être when the verb is used to describe movement, but avoir is used for other contexts. For example, Loïc est monté se coucher (Loïc has gone upstairs to sleep), but il a monté le son (he raised the volume).

Finally with passer, avoir is used when there is a direct object without a preposition; Jacques est passé me voir hier soir (Jacques popped by to see me yesterday evening) but j’ai passé quelques semaines à Paris en été (I spent a few weeks in Paris in the summer).

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