French Sentence Structure

By OptiLingo

Learn how to write sentences in French, complete lesson. Includes overview of French direct objects, French indirect objects and French prepositions.

Understanding grammar will help you on your way to foreign language fluency. When learning the French language, it’s important to understand how French sentence structure is both similar and different to the English language. Generally speaking, French sentence structure is almost identical to English sentence structure. Word order is commonly: Subject – Verb – Direct Object:

I eat apples.     Je mange des pommes.

This is true when you start to add adjectives as well, except that in French some adjectives (like color) come after the noun.

I eat beautiful red apples. Je mange de bellespommes rouges.

Additionally, French word order is quite flexible, as in in English:

Tomorrow, I’m going to work. Demain je vais travailler.
I’m going to work tomorrow. Je vais travailler demain.

Word order is a function of what information is more important and bears additional stress.

Forming Questions

Like English, French lets users choose how they want to ask questions, depending on where the speaker wants to put the emphasis. Like English, there are three ways of conveying the meaning of a question and the desired focus for the answer to that question.

1) Use of question words
2) Use of inflection
3) Switching subject and verb order

Because it has gendered nouns, French requires some changes to pronouns and adjectives when forming questions.

Use of Question Words

Just like English, adding question words to the beginning of a sentence is a simple way of creating a sentence. The most common is the phrase “Est-ce que” at the beginning of a sentence with a verb, or “Est-ce” with only a noun.

Do you speak Engish? Est-ce que vous parlez anglais ?
Is this the right way? Est-ce la bonne façon ?
Is the food good? Est-ce que la nourriture est bonne ?

The following are some of the most common French questions words:

How Comment
What Que / Qu’est-ce que que
What kind Quel genre
When Quand
Where
Who Qui
Why Pourquoi

Addition at the End of a Sentence

Also like English, French lets you add a little something to the end of a sentence to turn it into a question. Naturally, you need to add inflection to this addition for it to reflect your meaning. Just like you can say “We are going to the park, right?” or “We had a great time, didn’t we?” to form questions, you can do this in French as well. The difference is that you can do it with a single phrase to make it much easier – “n’est-ce pas.”

We’re going in the right direction, right? Nous allons dans bonne direction, n’est-ce pas ?

We had a great time, didn’t we? Nous avons passé un très bon moment, n’est-ce pas ?

This is probably the most common way of forming a question in French – so much so that it is a bit of a cliché in the way people imitate the way the French speak.

Switching Subject and Verb Order

The last way to form a sentence is similar to the most common way to form a question in English, by switching the order of the subject and verb. Place the verb first, and make the subject second to form a questions, adding a “-” in between.

Do you speak English? Parlez-vous anglais ?

Did he leave? Est-il parti?

Can you help us? Pouvez-vous nous aider?

Note: when the verb ends with a vowel, you must add a “t” between the verb and the subject.

Does he speak well? Parle-t-il bien?

Changing Pronouns and Adjectives

You may have noticed that common question word “which“ has not been covered yet, and that is because it requires changing the pronouns and adjectives to properly convey the question. This is because pronouns and adjectives reflect the gender of the noun, as well as whether the noun is singular or plural.

Gender, number Which Which one
Masculine singular quel lequel
Feminine singular quelle laquelle
Masculine plural quels lesquels
Feminine singular quelles lesquelles

You need to substitute the right form of which to the sentence to refect the gendered noun.

Which book is yours? Quel livre est le tien ?
Which blanket do you want? Quelle couverture veux-tu ?
Which one is yours? Lequel est à toi ?
Which one do you want? Laquelle veux-tu ?

Though you may expect it to change, the use of “who” does not change based on gender. “Qui” is equivalent to who, which is gender neutral because you don’t know the answer when you ask it.

Who is there? Qui est là ?

When you ask “whom”, you have to add “à” before “qui”. That’s why French people often “to who?” in English.

Whom did you visit? À qui avez-vous rendu visite ?

When you need to ask “whose,” add “à” before “qui” to express the possessive form of “who” and “whom.”

Whose car is that? À qui est cette voiture ?

“What” changes based on its function within the sentence. Use “qu’est-ce qui” as the subject to reflect “what.”

What is going on? Qu’est-ce qui se passe ?

Use “que” or “qu’est-ce que” when you need to express “what” as an object.

What is it? Qu’est-ce que c’est ?
What did you say? Qu’est-ce que vous avez dit ?

Use “qu’est-ce que” or “qu’est-ce que c’est que” when you need to express “what” to ask for an explanation.

What is that? Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça ?
What is a democracy? Qu’est-ce qu’une démocratie ?

Finally, use “quoi” to express “what” as a prepositional object.

What? Quoi ?
What is she in charge of? De quoi est-elle responsible ?

Useful Question Phrases

With so many rules governing how to express a question, it may be heplful to simply memorize a few simple phrases. This will not only help you start talking a little faster, it will give you more concrete examples of the way to express phrases that you will likely need.

How much does it cost? Combien ça coûte ?
How do you get to town? Comment arrivez-vous en ville ?
When does the train arrive? Quand arrive le train ?
Why are you upset? Pourquoi es-tu agacé ?

Negation

Compared to English’s one addition (no or not), a negative sentence in French requires two additions: “ne” or “n’” (depending on the first letter of the verb) and “pas.” Take the following examples:

I do not want food. Je ne veux pas de nourriture.
I did not walk far. Je n’ai pas marché loin.