You, the aspiring francophone, in your eagerness to use the language skills you've acquired, express yourself in French at every opportunity.
With other students in your French class, with the French speakers in your neighbourhood, on holiday in France...
Why do you get those puzzled glances? Why don't people understand you?
It could be because you are committing unintentional grammar faux-pas: common French mistakes every language learner makes – at least, until s/he is at intermediate level or higher, when instinctive knowledge kicks in.
Let Superprof provide you with this concise list of French grammar no-nos, so that you can pin them to the wall in your study area and internalize them using a method called passive learning.
Errors in Using French Articles
Article usage in French tends to be rather tricky; not only because there is the issue of gender to consider.
The English language employs no grammatical gender; rules of agreement tend more toward definite versus indefinite articles.
The French language mirrors all of our tongue's rules of agreement, and adds to them their rules for gender.
The most common errors made by those learning French is using the wrong gender article. The easiest way to avoid that trouble is to learn the rules for gender assignment in French.
Now, let us look at particular instances where these rules most often are broken.
Definite articles in French are: le, la and les; all of which correspond to English's the.
Contrary to English, these articles are not the default in French; the indefinite and partitive articles are.
Indefinite article: un and une, a and an, with the plural form des being equivalent to some.
Partitive article: du, de la, and des represent masculine and feminine singular, and the plural form for either gender, respectively.
They correspond to English's some or any.
The correct use of articles in French depends greatly on knowing the gender of the noun: you should not use a masculine article with a feminine gender noun, and vice versa.
Article usage also depends on number: if the noun is plural, so too must the article be.
Finally, extra conditions apply if the noun in question starts with a vowel, or with a mute H, in which case it would be treated to de l', rather than a wholly written article.
Mon ordinateur a besoin de l'electricité – my computer needs electricity.
This sentence demonstrates the use of article contraction, as well as the lack of article in the English translation.
Take French lessons online on Superprof.
Misusing Indefinite and Partitive Articles
in English, we use different articles for countable and uncountable nouns: Some water versus a bottle of water, for example.
You can count bottles; you cannot count water itself.
The exception to that rule would be ordering a water in a restaurant, or buying a water. In these cases, it is because the definer was omitted: a glass of water, or a bottle of water.
The same rules hold true in French. Still, many students get this wrong. Here is the way it should be:
- use partitive articles for uncountables
- du blé, de la crème – some wheat, some cream
- use indefinite articles for countables
- un livre, une maison – a book, a house
You should only use definite articles if you are discussing something specific: the blue car, or the porcelain cups – la voiture bleue, or les tasses en faience.
Common Errors Using Verbs
The French language, with its multiple tenses and moods, sometimes confound those working so hard to learn French.
One of the biggest problems is that two of the language's irregular verbs, corresponding to our to be and to have, are most often used in various French verb forms!
To Describe a Condition
We English speakers describe certain conditions that afflict us using to be:
- I am hungry/thirsty
- I am cold/warm
- I am scared
The French use to have to describe the same states:
- J'ai faim/soif
- j'ai froid/chaud
- J'ai peur
However, in the following examples, the French match us, be for be:
- I am tired Je suis fatigué(e)
- I am sick Je suis malade
- I am angry Je suis en colère
- I am happy Je suis content(e)
For an in-depth study at how and when to use être – to be, you might look at this tutorial.
Now, for a curve ball...
To describe a human condition, you would use either to be or to have. However, to describe an environmental condition, you would use to make.
It is hot outside translates to il fait chaud dehors, literally: he makes hot outside.
To describe such situations, you should always use the masculine singular pronoun + fait + the condition.
Il fait du vent would correctly describe a windy day; il fait beau means the weather is nice.
Mixing up Verbs of Similar Meaning
During your French lessons, you have surely covered the verbs dire and parler – to say and to speak.
As in English, each of these verbs represents the concept of talking, but with slightly different meaning.
Je veux parler means I want to talk. Je veux dire... means I want to say...
See the diff?
To use the word parler on its own, with no direct object, suggests the very meaning described above. However, using it with a preposition, specifically à or au, indicates that you are speaking with someone.
Le gendarme parle au voyous, or le maître parle à ces étudiants.
You can use the verb dire to report what someone else said. Dire, followed by a direct object is also acceptable.
Tu dis qu'il fait chaud?
Another verb pair with similar meaning is voire and regarder.
Again in English there exists a similar pair: to see and to look.
You can use je vois in the same way you use I see: to express understanding. This verb is also commonly used with a direct object, yielding the same sentence as in English.
How to say we saw something beautiful in French?
Regarder is reserved for things actively looked at; in this sense, it corresponds more to our verb to watch.
Regarder la tele means watching the telly.
How do you say look at that girl?
The final verb pair to not confuse is connaître and savoir: to know and to know – but not interchangeably!
You can aver that you know a location, a person, or a possession by using connaître, in the sense that you are familiar with them.
Savoir is reserved for actual accrued knowledge.
Using Possessives Properly
It is an innocuous action, and everybody should do it: wash their hands.
In English, we are compelled to assign as the sentence's object whose hands were washed: Marie washed her hands.
In French, those hands are only identified as Mary's by the pronominal verb construction that precedes it:
Marie s'est lavée les mains, translated into English, is: Marie washed herself the hands.
Often, this is incorrectly expressed as: Marie s'est lavéeses mains.
In fact, using the possessive pronoun ses would make the her in her hands redundant, as the sentence already expresses that Marie has washed herself.
The rule is: any time you invoke body parts, from hair to toes, use pronominal verbs but not possessive adjectives.
Why So Much Trouble?
Native speakers, those who grew up in French speaking countries, do not commit such crimes against grammar.
Thanks to their immersion – surrounded by French language and culture, they are quick to pick up on words and phrases and use them correctly... most of the time.
Often, one can hear parents gently improve their youngsters' spoken French: ça se dit..., Chéri(e).
Just as you learned to express yourself by trial and error in your young age.
Today, you're doing your best to excel at language learning, and you may get understandably frustrated at making these niggling spelling and grammar mistakes on your way to being bilingual.
There's the thing about mistakes: they are vital to learning how to speak French.
If you want to learn French fast, we urge you to direct your efforts more to absorbing French vocabulary, how to use words in proper context, and exercising French pronunciation.
To understand French better, listening to French audio online and participating in French conversation is the way to go.
Naturally practicing conjugation of French verbs is a must, in each tense and mood!
Partaking of French culture, learning new words, the greetings - bonjour and merci beaucoup!, developing your comprehension and accent: these are all aspects of French learning that will soon make you fluent.
To further improve your second language, we now offer a list French words that are used in English, but with a decidedly different meaning!
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