If we could look at the blueprints of a sentence in French, we could see articles, nouns, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, adjectives, conjunctions and prepositions, and how words interact with each other. From there, we could deduce the rules that French sentences follow.


So today, let's look at the rules behind the construction of French sentences--from simple sentences to negative ones. I will start by stating the obvious, highlighting the differences between English and French, before adding a layer of complexity with pronouns. I promise it will get harder as you read, but don't be alarmed; I'll give you some tips along the way. Ready?


Basic Rules for Sentences

  • The most minimalistic sentence in French can be made of only one word, such as Oui (yes) or even just one verb in impératif, such as Parlez! (speak!)
  • That said, a normal basic French sentence is usually made with the following components in this specific order: a subject, a conjugated verb and a complement (i.e. something to complete it, something that can be summarized by answering one of the following questions: What? Why? Where? or How? In grammar books, they call this a complément d'objet direct aka C.O.D.).


J'ai mangé une pomme.

I ate an apple.




  • If the subject is a noun, it needs to have an article first. A sentence like Apple is my favourite fruit would not be: Pomme est in French. It has to be: La pomme est mon fruit préféré.
  • There is one tiny exception to this rule--Russian speakers, pay attention!--and that is names, what we call noms propres--proper names: people’s names and towns’ names. If we are talking about Alexander Pushkin and you want to say he wrote many books, you can't say Le Pouchkine a écrit. It has to be: Pouchkine a écrit plusieurs livres.
  • Also, if you want to say Moscow is a big town, it has to be Moscou est une grande ville.
  • Of course, you can have multiple complements. They will sit one after the other at the end of the sentence.


J'ai mangé une pomme ce matin à la cafétéria.

I ate an apple this morning at the cafeteria.


  • You can change the order of a complement if you want to, but you should isolate it with commas to show that inversion.


Ce matin, j'ai mangé une pomme.

This morning, I ate an apple.


  • Also, don't forget that adjectives and nouns are back to front in French. For example, a white car would be une voiture blanche (literally: a car white). This apparently simple concept usually takes years to fully embrace and lots of perseverance to get it right.
  • Beware of exceptions: petit(e), grand(e), bon(ne), méchant(e), mauvais(e), gentil(le), jeune, vieux/vieille, nouveau/nouvelle, joli(e), beau/belle. Those adjectives are to be put before the noun they describe, just as in English.




Some tips to make it easier:


1. Keep your sentences short. Split ideas into two or three sentences. You can't simply translate long thoughts into one sentence as you would in English, unless you’re already at a C1 (advanced) level. It may look childish to write short sentences, but it's better than rambling on confusingly.


2. Don't overdo adjectives. Four per sentence--two on each side of a noun--is heavy. It would be better to break the idea into several sentences.



J'ai reçu une belle petite robe rouge soyeuse.

I received a beautiful little silky red dress.



J'ai reçu une belle petite robe rouge. Elle est très soyeuse.


So far so good, but wait, there is more to it.


There is an almost unbreakable bond between a subject and a verb. That means that words, such as often, always, never and sometimes are not allowed between the subject and the verb. Adverbs go after the verb, or they can be isolated with commas before the subject. This may need some time to sink in because, as an English speaker, you are conditioned to put the adverbs between the subject and the verb.



Je mange parfois des pommes.

I sometimes eat apples is literally: I eat sometimes apples.



Parfois, je mange des pommes.

Sometimes, I eat apples.



Another tip: Pay extra attention when you want to use often, always, never or sometimes in a sentence.


  • There are only two things allowed between a subject and a verb: pronouns and the word ne, meaning not.




There are a great number of pesky pronouns, from pronoms personnels, pronoms possessifs, pronoms démonstratifs, pronoms relatifs, etc. Je (I), for example, is a pronoun, but I'm not interested in it now because it acts as a subject. At the moment, I'm interested only in pronouns that can sit between a subject and a verb.

By the way, translating pronouns in English is not straightforward, so keep an open mind. Don't try to box them up too much.






Rough equivalent in English or purpose



me or m'



equivalent to me, myself



te or t'



you, yourself






he, she, they, himself/herself, themselves






us, ourselves






you, yourself (formal or plural)



le, la, les, l'



Replace a C.O.D. It could be a thing or a person.

Choose according to gender and number.



lui, leur



Replace a C.O.I. It can only be a living thing if placed before the verb.


lui = singular; leur = plural.






Often equivalent to there, but in some cases it can be the thing you mentioned before in the previous sentence.






Vaguely equivalent to some or about it. It also serves to introduce a number.



Complements (C.O.D and C.O.I. in the table above) are split into two categories: direct ones (C.O.D.) that can be found by asking qui (what?) or quoi? (who?) after the verb.


The second category is called indirect (C.O.I.) because they can be found by asking either à qui?; à quoi?; de qui? or de quoi? (to whom? or for whom? etc.). The bottom line is: depending on the nature of the complement, a different pronoun is required. I know, it's a bit overly fussy. But there is always a silver lining: only pronominal verbs need them, the rest of the time, pronouns are kind of optional!


So where do pronouns sit? If you have only one of them, it should sit neatly between the subject and the verb. This can be easier said than done, especially if this is a new idea to you.



J'y suis allé.

I went there is literally: I there went.



Je te téléphonerai plus tard.

I will call you later is literally: I you will call later.


I know it sounds mad when I translate this kind of sentence literally. But in French, it makes perfect sense. It's not confusing.


If you have several pronouns, it gets more complicated.


Do you play poker? I don't but, still, let me compare pronouns with hands ranking.



  • Put me/te/se/nous/vous before any other pronouns.

Example: Il vous en a parlé. (He told you about that is literally: He you about it talk.) Example: Il vous y rencontrera. (He'll meet you there is literally: He you there will meet.) Example: Il vous les a donnés. (He gave it to you is literally: He you it gave.)


  • Put le/la/les/l' before lui/leur.

Example: Je le lui ai dit. (I told that to him/ to her is literally: I it him/her told.)


  • Put lui/leur before en.

Example: Je leur en ai parlé. (I told them about it is literally: I them about it talked.)


  • Put y before en.

Example: Il y en a 3. (There are 3 there is literally: It there quantity have three.)




Tip No 4:

Even if you find pronouns to be a fun challenge, limit yourself to two per sentence. Too many is challenging to understand. Even native French speakers use them sparingly.


Negative sentences


As I said earlier, the other thing allowed between a subject and a verb is the word ne, or simply n' if the verb starts with a vowel. Example: Je ne peux pas. (I can't.)


Let's elaborate more about the rules that govern negative sentences.

  • If you write a negative sentence, use two negative markers (usually ne + pas).
  • You can skip the ne part when you speak if you want, but the second part (pas) is essential. In writing, use both parts.

Example: Je n'aime pas la grammaire. (I do not like grammar.)


  • When making a negative sentence, slip ne between the subject and the verb and pas after the first verb if there are several. If it's passé composé, a two-part verb, put it after the first part of the verb--the auxiliary.


Example in passé composé:

Je n'ai pas aimé ça. (I didn't like it.)


Example with two verbs:

Je ne peux pas partir. (I can't leave.)


  • Negative sentences are not limited to ne…pas (do not). You can replace pas by other negative words such as jamais (never) or que (which means only in this context.)


Jamais will take the exact same spot as pas after the first verb or the first part of a verb.


The position of que depends. It will go after the first verb if there are several, but it will not break passé composé in two; it will happily sit after the second part of the verb--the past participle.



Je n'ai jamais vu les pyramides.

I've never seen the pyramids.



Je n'ai vu que les pyramides.

I only saw the pyramids.



Je ne peux jamais mentir.

I can never lie.



Je ne peux que mentir.

I can only lie.


  • In a negative sentence, articles need to adaptUn and une (meaning one) have to be traded for de. It makes sense if you think about it: you can't say I don't have one cat in English. It's the same in French:



Je n'ai pas de chat.



  • Not only do we use ne, pas, jamais and que, but there is also a whole list of negative words. But before you start saying it's too hard and unfair, let me show you how it's exactly the same in English.


You say: I saw someone, but it becomes I didn't see anyone.

You say: Me, too, but in a negative sentence it's me neither.


The same logic applies in French.



Positive word



Negative counterpart



et (and)



ni… ni… (neither nor)



quelque chose (something)



rien (nothing)



quelqu'un (someone)



personne (no one)



quelque part (somewhere)



null part (nowhere)



moi aussi (me too)



moi non plus (me neither)




J'aime le chocolat et le vin. ► Je n'aime ni le chocolat ni le vin.

I like chocolate and wine. I like neither chocolate nor wine.



Je connais quelqu'un qui parle anglais.Je ne connais personne qui parle anglais.

I know someone who speaks English. I don't know anybody who speaks English.


  • This last comment is mostly for the Russian speakers (sorry to pick you out again). I need to stress that we use ne and pas with a verb in the middle. If there is no verb, use only pas. So, sentences like …ne pas très grand…are not correct.


There is one exception to this rule: public signs. It's allowed to write sentences such as Ne pas déranger (do not disturb).


Now, how about a negative sentence with a pronoun? Ne is like a joker; it trumps all the other cards (i.e. pronouns). So the order should be:






Almost every week, someone asks on italki Why did XYZ write …? Is it a mistake? Should it not be … instead? My answer is always the same: You need to master painting before being able to doodle like Picasso. In other words, you can break the rules with flair if/when you know them very well.


One last bit of advice for today: Thinking in French doesn't mean translating English thoughts into French ones. This concept is well explained in a video from French in Action.


 (Link for the full video http://www.learner.org/resources/series83.html )


Now, I've never tried their teaching methods, but I think their introduction speech is spot on. It goes like this:

"When French people say something in French, it is not that they really mean something in English but say it in French because they don't know better, or to show off, or out of perversity. No. When they say something in French, they mean something French."


If you only translate English thoughts into French--as opposed to starting to think in French right away--you will quickly find the mental gymnastics too demanding.


In a way, learning a language is like traveling. If you go abroad and insist on eating Kraft dinners or fish-and-chips or whatever every night like you do at home, it will be a long and frustrating holiday! Instead, be ready to accept new combinations, embrace new ways of doing things. Don't shackle yourself with English thoughts. Observe how good French sentences are made. Create new ones following the same patterns. Let go of your crutches. Make mistakes. Learn.


And, please don't forget to like this article if you enjoyed it!


All images created and provided by the author.