breaking down french sentences
At some point in your language learning process, you’re probably going to want to graduate from single words and short phrases to longer and more complex French sentences.
While this may seem daunting at first, if you’re a native speaker of English or another romance language similar to French (like Spanish or Italian), you’ll find that French has a very familiar sentence structure. If not – have no fear! With just a little bit of practice, you’ll get the hang of French sentences in no time.
How are French sentences similar to English sentences?
French and English both have the same basic sentence structure. In English, a sentence is constructed according to a subject-verb-object word order:
Sally (subject) eats (verb) croissants (object).
French also has a subject-verb-object (or sujet-verbe-complément) structure in basic sentences, as you’ll see here:
Marie (sujet) mange (verbe) des croissants (complément).
Once you get the hang of these very simple sentences, you can begin to add some more details. Doing so is also pretty easy – for example, you could add a modifier like beaucoup (a lot) in front of your object to express that Marie eats a lot of croissants. This modifier will go in front of the object, just like in English (though beware – don’t forget your French basics! Remember that if you use an adjective in French, it normally goes after the noun!).
Sally eats a lot of croissants. Marie mange beaucoup de croissants.
Sally likes delicious pastries. Marie aime les pâtisseries délicieuses.
Making Sentences Negative
French sentence structure diverges very slightly from English when it comes to making sentences negative. If you want to make a sentence negative in English, all you need to do is put does not/do not in front of the verb. While French also has a standard negative construction in ne…pas, you have to put the verb in the center of the ne and pas. While this can feel a little awkward and unnatural at first, with enough practice this manner of negation will become second nature!
Sally does not like salads. Marie n’aime pas la salade.
Sally doesn’t exercise. Marie ne fait pas d’exercice.
You can add extra detail to a negative sentence in much the same way that you can to an affirmative sentence – just remember to keep your modifier outside of the ne…pas.
Marie n’aime pas beaucoup de sports. Joseph ne joue pas bien de la guitare.
When listening to native or near-native French speakers, you will probably start to notice that they often leave off the ne entirely and keep only the pas in a negative expression. This is extremely common, but only in spoken French as it’s quite informal. Don’t be afraid to try it out when you’re having a conversation! In written French, it is customary to keep the ne in place, though you may see it missing from written correspondence in extremely informal settings – like on social media, for example.
Marie aime pas la salade. Elle fait pas d’exercice non plus.
Creating Complex Sentences
Once you get the hang of using simple French sentences, creating more complex ones is a logical next step – and in French, it’s easy! Just as in English, there are three main conjunctions you can use to create a compound sentence:
Simply insert one of these conjunctions in between two shorter sentences to create one that is slightly more complex. Just remember to conjugate your verbs appropriately – even though you may not be reiterating the subject, if you have a conjugated verb in both sentences, that verb still must be conjugated after your conjunction, unless it is a second verb that immediately follows a conjugated verb.
Marie aime les croissants et elle aime Marie likes croissants and she also likes
aussi les madeleines. madeleines.
Le weekend, Joseph regarde la télé et On the weekend, Joseph watches TV and
mange de la pizza. eats pizza.
Céline joue de la guitaire mais elle ne Celine plays guitar but she doesn’t play
joue pas du piano. piano.
Mamadou préfère lire des romans Mamadou prefers to read novels or listen to
ou écouter de la musique. music.
Sentence Structures Unique to French
Though French and English have very comparable sentence structure, generally speaking, there are a few things unique to French that you should be aware of. The first is the placement of direct and indirect object pronouns, which do not follow the typical Subject-Verb-Object sentence structure.
In English, the object pronoun follows the verb, just as the named object normally does.
Sally loves croissants. She eats them every day.
In French, however, an object pronoun goes in front of the verb, contrary to the normal SVO order.
Marie adore les croissants. Elle les mange tous les jours.
This definitely takes some getting used to, but the more you practice, the more second nature it will become!
If you’re feeling confident with these previous structures and want to try something more advanced, then try working a little bit of repetition into your French sentences! No, not just any repetition – it’s a habit in spoken French to repeat the subject of the sentence for added emphasis; the term for this is la reprise.
Elodie nage dans la piscine. [no repetition] Elodie, elle nage dans la piscine. [repetition]
This reprise can also happen at the end of a sentence if you want to contrast one person’s activity with another’s.
Elle nage dans la piscine, Elodie [mais moi, je ne nage pas].
Finally, you’ll often hear speakers do la reprise with an object pronoun. The principle is the same as the previous examples – the repetition is really just for emphasis.
Tu le retrouves, ton ami? Are you meeting up with him, your friend?
C’est une super nouvelle, ça! That’s great news, that!
Il ne fait jamais de sport, lui. He never does sports, [that guy].
Though speaking or writing in complex French sentences may seem overwhelming at first, it’s a skill just like any other – the more you do it, the easier it becomes! Similarly, even just listening to other speakers or reading in French can help you acquire the rhythm of the language and will help make your own speech or writing feel more natural. Just make sure to start small and build on slowly – progress will come with time.
Want more tips on learning French? Check out LingQ cofounder and French speaker Steve Kaufmann’s video:
Megan is currently working on her graduate degree in French and Francophone Studies, prior to which she taught high school French for five years. In addition to French, she self-studies Spanish and is looking forward to starting German classes soon.
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