French is a tricky language. It’s closely related to English, so the vocabulary shouldn’t cause many problems. However, there are plenty of French grammar mistakes students make. Here are the most common French errors and mistakes, so you know how to avoid them. Don’t let these problems stop you from reaching French fluency.
1. False Cognates
Approximately 60% of the English vocabulary comes from French and Latin, the result of a long shared history. Cognates are words that look and sound similar and have the same meanings. There are plenty of these in the French language. However, beware of false cognates. These words look similar to English words, but their meanings are much different. Take a look at some examples of French words and their translations:
actuellement = currently
attendre = to wait
car = coach
coin = corner
compréhensif = understanding
décevoir = to disappoint
éventuellement = possibly
librairie = bookshop
pain = bread
supplier = to beg
2. Erroneous Pronunciation
French sounds are tricky to master. The truth is, the only way you can master the French pronunciation is with a lot of practice. You need to speak a lot confidently before you can get the hang of French pronunciation. Meanwhile, here are the sounds that cause the most common mistakes in French pronunciation:
- R: Mispronouncing the French “r” is extremely common. This soft sound is made in the back of your throat. Don’t worry if it takes time to master it.
- H: The French don’t pronounce the letter “h”. But it’s there in the spelling.
- Silent endings: Pronouncing the final letters in “tabac” (tobacco), “clef” (key) or “trois” (three) is always correct. But, saying them at the end of adjectives like “froid” (cold), “petit” (small) or “grand” (tall) implies that you’re using their feminine form. And don’t forget that “-nt” and “-s” at the end of verbs are never pronounced: “je chante,” “tu chantes” and “ils chantent” should all sound the same (I, you, they sing).
- U vs OU: These are frequently mixed-up. Pronounce the “u” sound (a short “ee” with rounded lips), like in “le jus” (juice), and the “ou” sound (the English “oo”), like in “la joue” (cheek).
- Similar words: Distinguishing similarly sounding words can be difficult. You need a lot of speaking and listening practice before you can master these. For example, “dessus” (above) and “dessous” (underneath) sounds the same, but they have opposite meanings. “Beaucoup” (a lot, many) sounds a lot like “beau cul” (pretty ass), so be careful when saying “merci beaucoup!” (thanks a lot!). Last, while going to the office can be difficult enough, try not to confuse your “bureau” (office) with “un bourreau” (a torturer)!
3. Conjugation Problems
French conjugation is more detailed than in English. There are more tenses to look out for.
The conditional and future forms, introduced with “would” and “will” in English, are thus single-word verbs in French: “Ils aimeraient” (They’d like), “Ils aimeront” (They’ll like). If you add the French for “would” or “will,” it will just obscure the sentence: “Ils voudraient aimer” (They’d like to love). The good news is that they are extremely regular.
This probably the most difficult French verb form because it’s seldom used in English. In French, the subjunctive is compulsory in many situations, for example in a sentence expressing a wish—“J’aimerais qu’elle vienne” (I’d like her to come)—or a necessity—“Il faut qu’ils soient prêts” (They need to be ready).
French doesn’t have a present perfect—“I’ve been learning French for three years” will be translated as “J’apprends le français depuis trois ans” (literally “I learn French for three years”). But “He did his homework” can have three different translations. The imparfait is used when referring to a period of time: “Il faisait ses devoirs tous les jours” (He did his homework every day). The passé composé is used when speaking about a one-time event: “Il a appris le français en Belgique” (He learned French in Belgium). Literary language uses a third form called the passé simple, but this form is never used in everyday speech.
4. Mixing Up Genders
Every noun in French has a gender. It’s either masculin or feminin. And unfortunately, you have to learn them to avoid French grammar mistakes.
While both French and English use the articles “the” and “a,” French three separate types of articles based on gender:
- masculine and singular (“le,” “un”)
- feminine and singular (“la,” “une”)
- plural (“les,” “des”)
Adjectives must also change with feminine or plural nouns. For example, the adjective “amusant” (funny) becomes “amusante” in the feminine singular and “amusantes” in the feminine plural. English adjectives generally don’t change based on the gender or number, so it’s easy to commit this French grammar mistake. Some French adjectives even change a lot: a beautiful man is “beau” while such a woman is “belle.”
5. Mixing up prepositions
In theory, French prepositions are easier to master than English prepositions because there are fewer of them. For example, “de” translates as “of” or “from,” and “à” translates as “to,” “at,” or sometimes another location or movement preposition. But they are often used differently than prepositions in English.
In English, we typically describe periods of time using the word “for.” As an example, we might say, “I have lived here for five years.” The French language does not use “pour” (for) when describing periods of time, instead relying on “pendant” (during) to describe the time period: “J’ai habité en Suisse pendant deux ans” (I lived in Switzerland for two years).
Prepositions are especially tricky with verbs. Some verbs that don’t need a preposition in English need one in French. For example, “jouer” (to play) is followed by “de” for a musical instrument and “à” for a sport: “Je joue de la flute” (I play the flute), “Je joue au tennis” (I play tennis). Some verbs that use a preposition in English don’t always use the same one in French. To say you’re thinking of someone or something, you’ll need to use “penser à”: “Je pense à toi” (I’m thinking of you). But on the other hand, to ask what somebody thinks about you, you’ll have to say, “Que penses-tu de moi?” (What do you think of me?).
Sometimes further complications arise. One classic example is the verb “manquer à” (to miss), which not only requires the preposition “à” but also leads to the inversion of the subject and the objects: “Je manque à mes parents” (My parents miss me).
6. Possessive Adjectives
Possessive adjectives work differently in French and English. While English makes them agree with the gender of the possessor, possessive adjectives in French are determined by the gender of the possessed object: “Dormir est son passe-temps favori” can mean “Sleeping is his/her/its favorite pastime” whether the sleeper is a man, a woman, or a cat.
This doesn’t mean French possessive adjectives always remain the same; they change according to their gender. “Your” becomes “ton” followed by a masculine noun, “ta” by a feminine noun and “tes” by a plural one: “ton frère, ta sœur et tes parents” (your brother, sister and parents).
A last trick is that “ma,” “ta” or “sa” (my, your or his/her/its) followed by a feminine noun starting with a vowel becomes “mon,” “ton” or “son.” Thus, to say “my friend,” you’ll always use “mon,” followed by “ami” or “amie.”
7. Verbs with “se”
French possesses a very common class of verbs that don’t exist in English: pronominal verbs. These verbs use a possessive pronoun (“me,” “te,” “se,” etc.) followed by a regularly conjugated verb.
These verbs can be used to indicate that their subject is doing something on or to his or her self (reflexive verbs), generally implying “oneself” in English: “Je me douche et me rase tous les matins” (I shower and shave every morning).
They can also express a reciprocal action, as with “each other” in English: “Nous nous sommes téléphoné” (We phoned each other), “Je me suis battu avec ton frère” (I fought with your brother), “Ils s’aiment” (They love each other).
Finally, some verbs need a pronoun without any logical explanation—you just need to learn them: “je m’enfuie” (I flee), “tu t’écries” (you shout), “il s’avère que” (it appears that), “nous nous prosternons” (we bow down), “vous vous moquez de” (you don’t care about), “ils s’en vont” (they leave).
8. Misplacing Adjectives
Typically, when using adjectives in French, the noun comes before the adjective. Most French words follow this traditional French sentence structure: “une assiette cassée” (a broken plate), “un vélo vert” (a green bike), “des amis extraordinaires” (extraordinary friends).
However, some common adjectives will come before the noun:
- Goodness: “un bon ami” (a good friend), “un gentil chien” (a kind dog)
- Beauty: “une jolie maison” (a pretty house), “une belle porte” (a beautiful door)
- Age: “une vieille femme” (an old woman), “un jeune garçon” (a young boy), “un nouvel élève” (a new pupil)
- Size: “une grande maison” (a big house), “un petit chat” (a little cat), “un gros oiseau” (a big bird)
- Reality: “un vrai ami” (a true friend), “une fausse réponse” (a false answer)
- Number adjective: “le premier jour” (the first day), “la centième fois” (the hundredth time)
- Other/same: “un autre jour” (another day), “le même jour” (the same day)
It should be noted that some adjectives can be placed before or after the noun, with different meanings depending on their position: “son ancien mari” (her former husband) vs. “une statue ancienne” (an antique statue), “mon propre enfant” (my own child) vs. “un enfant propre” (a clean child), etc.
9. Forgetting Contractions
English uses contractions mostly to shorten verbal forms: “I’ve“ for “I have,” “we’ll” for “we will,” etc. French uses many more, generally linked with the disappearance of a final mute “-e” before a vowel or a mute “h”.
Such contractions are compulsory with “le/la/de” (the): “l’avion” (the plane), “l’amie” (the friend), “l’hiver” (the winter), “pas d’argent” (no money). They are also compulsory with “je” (I), “ce” (it/that), “me/te/se” (myself/yourself/oneself with reflexive verbs): “j’apprends” (I learn), “c’est” (it is), “je t’aime” (I love you).
Another set of very common contractions is “du” (“de” + “le”), “des” (“de” + “les”), “au” (“à” + “le”) and “aux” (“à” + “les”)—but “de la” and “à la” do not contract: “J’ai de la chance” (I am lucky), “Je vais au théâtre” (I go to the theater). Note that “des” (many) becomes “de” in negative sentences: “Je n’ai pas de problèmes” (I don’t have any problems).
10. Literally translating English phrases
Finally, another common set of mistakes comes from the direct translation of English phrases or grammatical construction.
Be + Adjective Becomes Have + Noun
What’s “to be + adjective” in English often becomes “to have + noun” in French.
- avoir peur = to be afraid
- avoir raison = to be right
- avoir sommeil = to be sleepy
Often, that confusion just leads to nonsensical sentences, like saying “Je suis faim” instead of “J’ai faim” when you’re hungry or “Je suis 20 ans” instead of “J’ai 20 ans” when you want to say you’re twenty. Sometimes, it can also cause misunderstanding: when you’re feeling hot, be careful to use “avoir” (“J’ai chaud”), as using “être” (“Je suis chaud/chaude”) will just mean you’re horny.
Different Situations, Different Uses
You should also be careful not to assume that because you know the meaning of a word in French, it will always translate the same way. If you visit a place, you’ll use “visiter,” but if you visit a friend, you’ll have to use “rendre visite à”: “J’ai rendu visite à mon ami après avoir visité Rennes” (I visited my friend after visiting Rennes”).
Watch out for vulgar or rude misunderstandings. While the noun “un baiser” is a cute word for a kiss, if you make it a verb, baiser is a rude ways to say “to have sex”. To say “I kissed him,” be
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