French Grammar and syntax


Linguists describe French as a moderately inflected or “synthetic” language, meaning one in which the grammatical function of words (notably verbs) is often indicated by suffixes and other markers.
While French has not kept the complex noun declensions of Latin, with its six cases (Nominative, accusative, dative, etc.), it has maintained a verb system characterised by inflected forms; verbs may have up to six different forms for a given tense, and for example the endings of many verbs in the present simple tense are -e, -es, -e, -ons, -ez, -ent (from first person singular to third person plural).

For this reason, French is a language where grammar (syntax), punctuation (or inflexion of the voice) and the form of words (morphology) are key factors in determining meaning; compare this to English, a more “analytic” language, where word-order and the use of link-words play a greater role in determining meaning.

For example: in French
Tu as vu la fille que j’ai rencontrée ?
is clearly defined as a question in written language by the presence of the quesiton mark, and in spoken language by an interrogative inflexion of the voice.

To ask the same question in English, it is necessary to use an interrogative verb form:
Did you see the girl I met ?
If an English writer forgets the question mark at the end, his sentence is still clearly a question, on account of the word order. But if a French writer forgets the question mark, the sentence reverts to being a statement.
Another example: in French,
“Commençons” – a single word –
has the meaning conveyed by three words in English: “Let’s (let us) begin”.

As it is important for conveying unambiguous meaning in French, basic grammar is something that needs to be mastered by anyone wanting to communicate effectively in this language. Thus, although teachers in France often lament the falling standards of grammar among their pupils, the teaching of French grammar has remained an essential part of the school curriculum, from primary school upwards.


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