Five tricky points of the French language (that even natives have a hard time with!)

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Today’s post has been written for The Polyglotist by the most charming Johanna Wagman, the author of the blog Les Langues Etrangères, where she gives tips and advices to Francophones learning foreign languages. As a native French speaker, Johanna learned English, Hebrew and Spanish. She then took a step further and studied the subtle art of language hacking. Johanna now works with the online language hacking method called Fast n’ Fluent, in order to help learners from all over the world achieve their linguistic goals!


Dear learners of the beautiful French language,

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I know, and I’m sorry. My language is a real bummer! A number of exceptions making you wonder why we even have grammar rules in the first place. Useless silent letters. Sounds like “on” and “an” that seem so alike you’re wondering why there even is a difference! I mean, really, just look at the words thon (tuna) and temps (time): so much fuss for so little syllables!

Dear learners of the beautiful French language, I would like to thank you. Thank you, for taking the time and energy to learn my language. A language as beautiful as its grammar is schizophrenic.

Thanks to you, la Francophonie se porte bien (the spreading of the French language is doing well), as our dear French cultural institutes abroad love to say.

In order to thank you for your hard work, I would like to give you a little present. Here are five grammar and spelling mistakes that French people make ALL THE TIME! (I will not speak of people from Quebec, Belgium, Switzerland or any other place, as I don’t know the grammar/spelling situation goes over there). Some of them are so widely used, that we even have a hard time noticing that they are mistakes.

If sometimes you feel blue and discouraged while learning French, just remember: it’s difficult even for us, so you guys should really be proud of yourselves!

Mistake number 1: Le participe passé (Past participle)

This mistake is a written one. While speaking the use of past participle for verbs of the 1st group ending by “ER” makes no difference what so ever. This is probably one of the main reasons why we have a hard time using it correctly. That being said, the unreasonable complexity of this (somewhat useless) grammar rule could be part of the explanation.

  • With the auxiliary être (to be), things are rather simple: the past participle used with the verb être agrees, by gender and number, with the subject to which it is referring to.

Example: la lumière est allumée (the light is on), or les garçons sont fatigués (the boys are tired).

My little tip: if you are not sure if the second verb is a past participle or an infinitive, try replacing it with a verb from the 2nd or 3rd group (finishing by IR or RE).

Example: les garçons sont fatigués could become les garçons ont vendus, but not les garçons ont vendre. You now know you need to accord the participle with the subject. Obviously, this only works if you have a good mastering of oral French…

  • With the auxiliary avoir (to have), things get tougher. You have three options:

  • If the verb has no object, the past participle never changes and never agrees with the subject.

Example: les singes ont dansé tout l’après-midi (the monkeys danced all afternoon).

  • If the verb has an object placed after the participle it never changes and never agrees with the subject.

Example: les singes ont volés deux pommes (the monkeys stole two apples).

  • However, when this object is placed BEFORE the verb, it agrees, in number and gender, with the object (and NOT the subject).

Example: les pommes que le singe à volées sont rouges (the apples the monkey stole are red).

Mistake number 2: Parmi and malgré – misused and misspelled

Parmi (among, as part of) and malgré (despite, in spite of) are two cute little words extremely useful in day-to-day speech. However, for some obscure reason all French people have a bad tendency to add an “S” to the end of those words. Well guess what, parmi and malgré don’t, ever never ever, take an S at the end. They just end by a vowel, that’s all. I guess the great God of French grammar created those two words on the 6th day and just went to rest without finishing them. We need to live with it!

In addition, as if misspelling them was not enough, French speakers often use the word malgré followed by que.

Example: Malgrés que nous soyons en retard, il commande un café (despite the fact that we are late, he is ordering a coffee). Officially, that’s a mistake. Que cannot follow malgré. Malgré should be follow by le fait que (the fact that).

Example: Malgré le fait que nous soyons en retard, il commande un café.

Truth is, because intellectual like to fight over these kind of stuff, some renowned authors have pledge for the acceptance of the use of malgré que. Nonetheless, it’s a common mistake and I had to point it out. That being said, no one would EVER blame a foreigner for misusing it (you know how French people, and especially Parisians, are so nice, and welcoming and helpful to foreigners asking for directions in the subway 🙂 ).

Number 3: C’est (it’s) instead of ce sont (another form of it’s)

This mistake is as common in oral speech than writing. French people have a very bad tendency to say and write c’est les vacances, when actually ce sont les vacances (it’s holidays). And c’est pas Pierre et Michel, no! Ce sont Pierre et Michel. Yes, verbs agree with subjects, ALL THE TIME (the past participle rule put aside)!

Mistake number 4: Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas venu (if I knew, I wouldn’t came)

For those who recognize this sentence from the movie La guerre des boutons, congratulations! Not only do you speak French, but you also know quite a bit on French culture.

For those of you seeing no conjugation mistake in this sentence BAD, BAD, BAD student!

Conditional tense is a nightmare, and when you add sequence of tenses to it, it’s just hell. If I use si (if), which tense should I use for the following verbs?

If si is followed by present tense, it should be followed by future tense. If si is followed by imperfect tense, it should be followed by conditional tense: Si j’avais su, je ne serais pas venu. 

Mistake number 5: les liaisons (liaisons)

This one is tricky and French people have a hard time respecting the rule. A liaison could be defined as a speech-sound redistribution, in which an otherwise silent final consonant is articulated as the initial sound of a following syllable that begins with a vowel or with a silent h.

Example: je suis un homme (I am a man) is pronounced “je sui zun nomme”. Correctly written for phonetics: [zhuh swee zœ nawm].

It looks pretty easy: you need an ending consonant, followed by a beginning vowel or an h. That’s it. However, in reality there is a heaving set of rule defining when you do or do not pronounce a liaison.

Example: Paul joue avec ses amis [se-za-mi] (Paul plays with his friends). However, Michel est un enfant intelligent (Michel is an intelligent child), has no liaison.

Some are obligatory liaisons, some are optional and some are forbidden. In order to keep this article at a reasonable size, you may find all the rules here.

You can imagine how often French people forget a liaison when they shouldn’t have and create one that doesn’t exist. The worst of all? Fake liaisons derived from grammar mistakes!

Example: j’ai fait Tune faute (I made a mistake) or je fais Zune faute (I make a mistake), but not j’ai fais Zune faute.

Between correct liaisons that we do not pronounce, the liaisons we make up and the ones we can or cannot use, how could you ever know how to pronounce correctly any sentence?

That’s all folks! I hope this article helped you relax with French grammar and/or improve your French. If not, don’t worry, grammar is less and less an important skill (in French and in other languages). The level of mastering of grammar is in decline. I don’t know if it’s bad or a good thing: mé tfacon mwa jécri plu ke dé txto !

Last but not least, if you liked this article I recommend you visit this website. You’ll find a lot of information regarding the use of the French language. It’s all in French, of course, and if you manage to understand it, well first of all congratulations, and second of all, you’ll be able to brag about weird grammar knowledge at pushy dinner parties!