French grammar - do I really need it to learn French?

“Fun” and “grammar” aren’t usually words you find in the same sentence, but grammar can sometimes get you into or out of an embarrassing situation:

Uncle Jack off a horse

Grammar is the key to meaning and understanding in languages and you’re brilliant at it, whether you know it or not. You know the difference between a noun, an adjective and a verb on a completely intuitive level – even if those words make you scream a little inside or send you straight into a coma. For example:

     I saw her duck

Did you see a woman stoop quickly to avoid being hit by a flying ball, or did you see her quacking pet mallard? This ambiguous little sentence is the linguistic equivalent of the Necker cube illusion where the same black lines resolve into two completely different cubes depending on how you interpret them:

Necker cube

So even if you don’t know the terms “noun” and “verb”, when you entertain its two possible meanings, you can feel the meaning of the word “duck” change in that sentence from noun (a duck) to verb (to duck). You can play a similar mental trick with:

     I fed her dog food

which may or may not be amusing depending on whether you fed her or her dog. Isn’t it fascinating the way the very same words change inside your head into a different meaning whilst staying exactly the same words? This is what piqued my own interest in grammar. Your brain is already a grammar expert, you just might not have the words to describe how you do it. This seemingly magical transformation happening in your mind when you consider these alternative meanings is your brain changing its internal representation of the words.

Grammar is really just specialized vocabulary to describe the way your brain does this and other incredible linguistic tricks. How many meanings can you interpret from “project enthusiasm”? An instruction to an actor, perhaps. The title of something you’re working on. A description of your mood whilst working on it. Can you feel how the words change subtly as you entertain these possibilities?

French grammar is very different to English grammar, of course, and that’s exactly why it’s worth taking the time to understand both, especially to avoid embarrassing French grammatical mistakes such as:

     Je suis chaud !

which is just dandy if you want to brag to the world about your sexual prowess, but if you’re only asking for a window to be opened, you’ll get fewer lascivious stares if you say J’ai chaud.

Don’t worry if grammar jargon puts you off, or did at school. You were probably just exposed to too much too soon. I can’t promise to make grammar fun – not all the time anyway – but I hope I can at least show you that it’s a) interesting, b) important, and c) not as hard as you thought. It’s easy to practise French grammar with our clever technology that takes the pain away, and as your written grammar improves so will your speaking confidence.

Grammar is a huge subject, but the trick to learning it, like learning anything large, is to learn in small chunks, just enough to help you at the point you need it. Once you get over the stumbling block of learning what all the fancy words actually mean, you’ll began to see grammar as a friend rather than an enemy. You don’t need to learn the grammar, but I promise you something: it makes learning another language a whole lot easier if you do.

It’s a bit like learning to drive. It seems really complicated and intimidating at first, but in fact it’s easy enough for anyone to learn, and once you get the hang of it, it makes getting around vastly quicker and easier than before. Grammar is just about knowing the patterns that appear in sentences and knowing the names for those patterns. You’ve spotted patterns and learned names for them before, right? Checks, stripes and spots, anyone? Easy!

There isn’t always a grammatical reason behind meaning changes. Take an apparently simple sentence such as

     I didn’t say she stole my money.

and you can squeeze seven completely different meanings out of it simply by stressing a different word each time. Try it!

Intonation is clearly vital but it’ll only get you so far. You can use tone to turn a statement into a question in French (as in English), as in Tu peux. vs Tu peux ? but there are at least three ways in French to use syntax (that’s the order of words in a sentence) to turn a statement like Tu les connais into a question:

     Est-ce que tu les connais ?

     Les connais-tu ?

     Tu les connais, n’est-ce pas ?

Why do I need grammar to learn French?

You don’t. If you’re a beginner you can just learn the sentences, try and spot patterns and not worry too much about structure or fancy jargon. You will need to accept that French works differently to English and not waste energy moaning to yourself about how it doesn’t make sense. If you plan to speak French well, though, you will benefit massively if you gradually educate yourself about grammar – and it makes English more interesting too. Remember:

  • French grammar is taught in school in France to native children because French is grammatically more complex than English.
  • Your innate knowledge of English grammar (whether you know the jargon for it or not) is going to get in the way of you speaking French. Understanding both French and English grammar will help you disentangle the two languages, see how their structures are different, and understand why French is different to English in certain cases, which I find makes it less annoying and more interesting.

Tips for learning French grammar

Like learning anything, if you start off too hard, you’re just going to find it tough going and put yourself off the whole thing, so start with the basics and build up from there.

  1. Learn on a need-to-know basis. You don’t need to know it all up front. In fact, you can get really far with no grammar at all. But as you advance, some stuff is just wa-a-ay easier with some grammar under your belt.
  2. Be patient with yourself – you’re human, you’re not perfect and it’s okay.
  3. Be persistent – it may take a few tries before you get it. If you don’t get it first time round, just ignore it for now and come back to it again later.
  4. Trust in and believe yourself. You can learn anything given time.

Test your way to perfect French

If you want to improve your French grammar, you can access thousands of practice French grammar questions on our site, so test your way to perfect French today!

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Author info

Gruff Davies

Despite the very Welsh name, Gruff is actually half French. Nowadays, he's a tech entrepreneur (and some-time novelist) but he used to be a physicist at Imperial College before getting hooked on inventing things. He has a special interest in language learning, speaks five languages to varying degrees of fluency and he often blogs about language learning, science, and technology. As well as co-founding Kwiziq, he is the author the Amazon best-selling SF thriller, The Looking Glass Club and the inventor of the Exertris gaming exercise-bike and Pidgin, a free online tool that makes drawing flow charts and relationship diagrams as quick and easy as describing them in pidgin English.

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