Why French Grammar is Hard

Sam’s recent post about the three nouns in French that are masculine when singular, yet feminine when plural (amour, délice, orgue) got me thinking about other ridiculous grammar rules in French. So I give you (some of the) reasons why French grammar is a cruel joke for those trying to learn it:

1. Use of ne and deletion of pas in negative statements. Although you can drop ne in spoken French and just use pas to show negation, you cannot do this in written French. However, you can drop pas in written French and just use ne to show negation; but thankfully only after certain verbs: cesser, daigner, oser, pouvoir, and savoir.

2. Use of ne in positive statements. Just when you learned that ne can exist on its own as a negative particle, now you have to separate it from the ne explétif, which is just a ne thrown into a sentence for no good reason (and it does not make the sentence negative!) It must be used 1) after certain conjunctions: avant que, à moins que; 2) after expressions and verbs of fear: de crainte que, de peur que, craindre que, avoir peur que, redouter que, trembler que, empêcher que, éviter que; 3) before a verb that follows a comparison of inequality: plus, moins, autre; and 4) after adverbs of doubt and negation used in the negative to express a positive idea.

3. Agreement (or not) with past participles. Some verbs require être as the auxiliary verb in the passé composé. The subjects and past participles of these “être verbs” must agree in gender and number. For all of the other verbs, avoir is used as the auxiliary in the passé composé and there is no agreement, except when there is a preceding direct object. Then the direct object and past participle must agree. (WHY?) Furthermore, all pronominal verbs take être as an auxiliary, and the subjects and past participles must agree as well, except when the pronominal verb is followed by a direct object OR when the reflexive pronoun of the pronominal verb is an indirect object. Piece of cake, right?

4. Masculine to Feminine. Adjectives must agree in gender and number with the nouns they qualify. Not too hard. If only it were as simple as just adding -e to form the feminine. No, no, there are several ways to change masculine to feminine: -x changes to -se; -il, -el, and -eil change to -ille, -elle, and -eille; -et changes to -ète; -en and -on change to -enne and -onne; -er changes to -ère; -f changes to -ve; -c changes to -che; -g changes to -gue; -eur changes to -euse if the adjective is derived from a verb, -eur changes to -rice if the adjective is not derived from the same verb, and -eur changes to -eure with adjectives of comparison. Plus there are five adjectives that have an alternate form (bel, fol, mol, nouvel, vieil) when used before masculine singular adjectives beginning with a vowel! Oh, and there’s a dozen or so adjectives that change meaning depending on whether they are placed before (figurative meaning) or after (literal meaning) the noun.

5. Singular to Plural. Almost all masculine singular nouns ending in -al or -ail change to -aux to form the plural. But all feminine nouns ending in -ale form the plural by adding -s. Also, if the singular ends in -eu or -eau, add an -x and not an -s for the plural. And don’t forget those seven nouns ending in -ou that add -x instead of -s too: bijou, caillou, chou, genou, pou, joujou, hibou.

6. Non-agreeing adjectives. Of course there are exceptions to the agreement rule. Compound adjectives, such as bleu clair or vert foncé, do not agree. Neither do adjectives that also exist as nouns, such as or, argent, marron. And then there’s châtain, which can be masculine or feminine depending on your mood and whether or not you feel like adding an -e to the end. Either way, it will be grammatically correct. Cent agrees only when the number is a multiple of one hundred (trois cents, but trois cent un), while mille remains invariable at all times.

7. Disjunctive Pronouns with à. These pronouns are supposed to follow prepositions, but when that preposition is à, things get complicated. Sometimes à + a person is replaced by an indirect object pronoun (lui, leur). However, in certain verbal phrases, indirect pronouns are not used, and the disjunctive pronoun remains after à. Compare je lui ai dit and j’ai pensé à elle.

8. Articles. If you accidentally use the wrong gender of an article, you could be saying a completely different word. Le livre is a book; la livre is a pound. There is neither elision nor liaison with articles before nouns beginning with an aspirate h. Which words have an aspirate h? A lot of words that are not derived from Latin, but you really just have to memorize them one by one. And you had better not pronounce a z between des and haricots!

9. Inversion. Subject and verb must be inverted after these adverbs when they begin a sentence: à peine, ainsi, aussi, du moins, peut-être, sans doute, and toujours. (Aussi means so or therefore when it begins a sentence, not also, but of course you already knew that.) Inversion is also used for emphasis or just because it sounds nice to French peoples’ ears, such as after adverbial expressions of time or place and to avoid putting monosyllabic verbs at the end of a sentence. Quelle horreur !

10. Subjunctive Mood. This mood expresses a subjective statement of opinion, rather than factual information as with the indicative. It cannot be used when two clauses have the same subject (in this case, the infinitive is used). The subjunctive must be used after verbs expressing fear, doubt, desire, and other emotions. It only follows penser, croire, and trouver when they are negative. However, it is not used with ésperer, even though the subjunctive is required after this verb in the other Romance languages. And it must be used after random conjunctions that seem to have no connection to statement of opinions, such as avant que, pour que, jusqu’à ce que, à moins que, bien que, sans que, etc. The beginner student will probably assume this tense is not very important or very common in French since textbook authors insist on waiting until chaper 12 to teach it, but don’t be fooled. It is very common.

11. Passé simple. A verb tense that no longer needs to exist. In modern French, it is very rarely used in speech. You will find it in many books that you would like to read, but can’t because you never learned how to recognize the forms of the simple past. It’s too bad that this tense is shoved to the very end of textbooks so the semester is over before you get to it.

There are several other reasons why French can be a nightmare to learn (all of those homonyms, faux amis, huge number of slang words, pronunciation of nasals, vowels and r, informal reduced speech, etc.) but these grammar quirks have always stuck out in my mind as being the most ridiculous.

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Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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