© 2015, Greg Lessard
The things talked about in a sentence are typically found inside the noun phrase. Noun phrases in French can take a variety of forms:
It is useful to think of determiners as containers and the rest of the noun phrase as the contents of the container. For example, if you see the noun phrase un chat (= 'a cat'), then the un tells you that the thing which follows is a new element of the conversation. On the other hand, if you see the noun phrase le chat ('the cat'), then the le tells you that the thing which follows is assumed to be known to you.
Determiners in French are of several types as the following table shows. For the moment, treat each of the variant forms in French as all equivalent to the English form. We will see shortly that this is a simplification.
|le, la, les||Definite article||the||the thing designated is known to you (le chat)|
|un, une, des||Indefinite article||a or possibly no marker, as in cats||the thing designated is new to you (un chat)|
|ce, cette, ces||Demonstrative adjective||this, these||the thing designated is being pointed out (ce chat)|
|mon, ma, mes||First person singular possessive adjective||my||the thing designated in in some relation to the speaker (mon chat)|
|ton, ta, tes||Second person singular possessive adjective||your||the thing designated in in some relation to the person being spoken to (ton chat)|
|son, sa, ses||Third person singular possessive adjective||his, her||the thing designated in in some relation to someone or something other than the speaker or addressee (son chat)|
Like English, French marks proper nouns by an initial capital letter. So when you are first confronted with a text in French, begin by looking for capital letters. However, there are several factors you should keep in mind when doing this:
When you are searching for other sorts of noun phrases, the best way to start is to look for determiners. Use the list above to guide you and click on the words that you think are determiners below or on the noun phrase attached to a determiner. If you are correct, the determiner and its attached noun phrase will turn green. You may also click on the buttons at the bottom to restart your search, to see the English translation or to see the noun phrases you have missed.
Il y a 40 000 ans, l'homme préhistorique commence à graver, peindre. Sans parler d'écriture on peut déjà remarquer que nos ancêtres ont cherché à communiquer, à transmettre un message, à témoigner (?)... Les grottes des Combarelles, de Font de Gaume ou de Lascaux laissent une impression très forte lorsqu'on les visite, comme si l'homme préhistorique avait voulu nous dire quelque chose, nous transmettre sa pensée. Il est pour l'instant difficile de comprendre le message. Si les tentatives d'explication des gravures pariétales sont nombreuses, aucune ne fait vraiment l'unanimité...
L'écriture est devenue un véritable "besoin" avec le développement d'un système de société hiérarchisée, l'existence d'un pouvoir centralisé, l'émergence des religions. Les temples, centres de pouvoir religieux mais aussi administratif, vont devoir s'organiser, comptabiliser et mesurer. Les échanges commerciaux entre villes et contrées se multipliant, il faudra formaliser les actes de ventes. Les "calculis" (voir ci-contre), ancêtres de nos factures, vont assez vite être remplacés par des tablettes d'argile dont le format va permettre d'indiquer le propriétaire d'un bien, et d'inventorier la totalité des marchandises.
Pour faciliter les échanges commerciaux, les marchands utilisaient de petits objets en terre cuite qui représentaient la marchandise accompagnée. Valeurs des calculi : le petit cône valait 1, la petite boule 10, le grand cône 60 et le grand cône percé 600. Pour "sceller" la transaction, ces figurines étaient enfouies dans une masse d'argile arrondie.
L'écriture est née il y a 6000 ans dans deux contrées voisines, la Mésopotamie et l'Egypte, de manière presque simultanée mais différenciée. Si les hiéroglyphes égyptiens et les pictogrammes sumériens sont tous les deux formés de petites images, celles-ci sont totalement propres à leur région.
Earlier, we assumed that forms like ce, cette, ces were equivalent, and for translation purposes they can often be treated as such. However, these changes in form hide several important semantic distinctions, including number and gender. Let us look first at number.
Consider the following examples:
|le chat||the cat|
|les chats||the cats|
Notice that French marks the plural twice in writing, by the -s on les and by the -s on chats, while English only adds an -s to the noun. In this, written French is redundant: it sends the same information twice. (A note in passing: things are not quite so simple in spoken French, where both the singular and plural of chat are pronounced the same and the difference between singular and plural is shown only by the difference in the determiner.)
As the following table shows, the two principal plural markings on nouns and adjectives in French are -s and -x, and some French nouns are invariable in the plural.
|-s||les livres, les pneus, les décisions|
|-x (usually words ending in -al, -au, -ou)||le journal/les journaux, un aveu/des aveux, le travail/les travaux|
|invariable (usually words ending in -s, -x or -z)||le gaz/les gaz, le fils/les fils|
The repetition of plural markings in French provides a valuable clue for the limits of the noun phrase. So, for example, if we see a sequence like les chaises bleues ('the blue chairs'), the fact that all three words (determiner, noun and adjective) end in -s lets us know that they hang together in a single noun phrase. In fact, as we will see later, agreement allows French to show relations even across longer spans of text.
Let us turn now to gender. Consider the following examples:
|le chat||the cat|
|la chatte||the female cat|
|le mur||the wall|
|la table||the table|
Notice that French chooses between le> and la>, while English uses only the>. The distinction between le and la in French can carry one of two meanings. In the case of animate entities like people and animals, le refers to males and la to females. So, le juge is a male judge, while la juge is a female judge. Sometimes the male/female distinction is carried by some aspect of the noun as well, like the ending: le tigre (male tiger) versus la tigresse (female tiger).
In the case of all other nouns in French, the difference between masculine (forms like un, le, ce, mon, ton, son) and feminine (forms like une, la, cette, ma, ta, sa) is used to disambiguate words into separate classes. In some cases, the only way to determine the meaning of a word is to look at its gender. Thus, la mode means 'style', while le mode means 'way of doing' as in le mode d'emploi 'instructions on how to perform some task'. As a result, attention to gender is critical.
Unfortunately for the learner of French, the assignment of gender to most nouns must be learned, as the following list of items found in a kitchen shows:
Mouse over each of the preceding words to see its English equivalent.
Fortunately, the assignment of gender is not entirely random in French. There exist a number of factors which allow us to predict the gender of a noun with more or less accuracy.
Nouns which designate males are usually masculine, while those which designate females are usually feminine. So, as we saw above, le juge is masculine and la juge is feminine. In earlier periods, French often used the masculine to designate all members of a profession, even if they were women, but this has changed considerably in recent years, particularly in Canada. The following table shows some of the principal rules used to designate a woman occupying some employment position.
|keep the same form for masculine and feminine||un/une pilote, un/une diplomate, un/une médecin|
|add -e for the feminine||un agent/une agente, un ingénieur/une ingénieure, un écrivain/une écrivaine|
|double the final consonant (often -n or -l) and add -e||un éléctricien/une éléctricienne, un professionnel/une professionnelle, un omnipraticien/une omnipraticienne|
|change -eur to -euse||un coiffeur/une coiffeuse, un danseur/une danseuse, un travailleur social/une travailleuse sociale|
|change -er to -ère||un ouvrier/une ouvrière, un conseiller/une conseillère, un banquier/une banquière|
For a more complete list, see here and especially here.
Most French suffixes carry a gender. As a result, once you have determined that some word is a noun, you should check whether it has a suffix and use that to determine its gender. Here is a list of some common suffixes and their gender:
|-ité||Feminine||la possibilité, la culpabilité|
|-age||Masculine||le nettoyage, un sondage|
|-ais||Masculine||le français, l'anglais|
|-tion||Feminine||l'augmentation, la construction|
|-esse||Feminine||la gentillesse, la petitesse|
|-isme||Masculine||le capitalisme, le socialisme|
Certain categories of objects or concepts share a common gender, as the following table illustrates:
|Days of the week||Masculine||lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi, vendredi, samedi, dimanche|
|Months of the year||Masculine||janvier, février, mars, avril, mai, juin, juillet, août, septembre, octobre, novembre, décembre|
|Most Trees||Masculine||l'érable, l'orme, le pin, le pommier (but l'épinette is feminine)|
|Most fruits||Feminine||une pomme, une orange, une poire (but un citron is masculine)|
As you read more and more texts in French, pay attention to the gender of the nouns you come across. This will help you in two ways. First, you will begin to see the patterns of association between form and gender, and secondly and most importantly, we will see that, as in the case of number, gender is crucial in French by its role in showing long-distance relationships in a text.
We have seen how the difference between masculine and feminine is important in French. Unfortunately, the distinction is sometimes hidden. This happens in the plural, as the following table shows.
|les||masculine or feminine|
|des||masculine or feminine|
|ces||masculine or feminine|
The situation is further complicated by the fact that when a determiner like le or la precedes a noun beginning with a pronounced vowel (including most nouns beginning with h), it is elided. This process of elision effectively 'hides' the gender, as the following examples illustrate. Mouse over each of these words to see the gender.
So, what is one to do? Fortunately, a partial solution to this and a number of other problems is provided by agreement in number and gender.
Consider the following sequences:
Note that the masculine singular noun chat is surrounded by le, petit and vert, all of which are masculine and singular. Together, they provide three additional clues that chat is masculine and singular. They also show that the four words 'hang together' in a single noun phrase.
In the same way, the feminine singular noun table is surrounded by la, petite and verte, all of them feminin singular forms. They also provide multiple clues that table is feminine and singular, as well as showing that la and petite and table and verte are all part of the same structure.
Now consider the following sequences:
The addition of -s to each of the words shows that they are all plural. In French, such agreement in number and gender forms a powerful device that you should always pay particular attention to.
To test your skill at finding agreement in number and gender, try the following exercise:
Jean-Michel is the proprietor of un mont-de-piété (a pawnshop). He has decided to make un inventaire (an inventory) to see what he has in this shop. Read through the inventory and then select one of the possible combinations of:
Then, in the inventory, click on those words which fall together into the same noun group and share the gender and number you have preselected. Once you have finished one combination, click Restart and try another.
If you click on a member of the class you have selected, it will turn green. If you choose another part of speech by mistake, it will turn red.
Here is a gauge to show you how you're doing.
- une amulette bleue
- deux aquariums clairs
- un bagage noir
- sept bouteilles vertes
- deux bustes grecs
- une corde longue
- sept détonnateurs légers
- vingt et un dictionnaires français
- des disquettes usées
- une encyclopédie italienne
- beaucoup de fossiles anciens
- un kaléidoscope rouge
- quelques lanternes vertes
- trente-cinq médailles canadiennes
- trois panneaux blancs
- quelques pédales graisseuses
- du poudre noir
- huit raquettes bleues
- un petit sombréro
- deux toboggans québécois
- beaucoup d'ustensiles neufs
- un peu de velcro vert
- cinquante-trois yoyos bruns
We have seen that in French, there are possessive adjectives for the speaker (mon, ma, mes), for the person being addressed (ton, ta, tes) and for something being referred to (son, sa, ses). They are roughly equivalent to my, your and his/her respectively. But why use three separate forms in French? What we saw earlier provides a clue. Mon is used with a masculine singular noun, as in mon chat ('my cat'), ma for a feminine singular noun, as in ma table ('my table'), and mes with a plural noun, either masculine, as in mes chats ('my cats') or mes tables ('my tables').
Using the same logic, find the meaning of the following expressions:
ta rivière = your river, ton livre = your book, tes géants = your giants, sa fourchette = his/her fork, ses casseroles = his/her cooking pots, son sel = his/her salt. Note that while in English, the choice of the third person possessive adjective his or her depends on the sex of the possessor, in French, it is based on the gender and number of the thing possessed.
There are several other possessive adjectives you should become familiar with:
|notre||first person plural possessive singular||our||the thing designated belongs to or is in a relation with us|
|nos||first person plural possessive plural||our||the things designated belong to or are in a relation with us|
|votre||second person plural possessive singular||your||the thing designated belongs to or is in a relation with you|
|vos||second person plural possessive plural||your||the things designated belong to or are in a relation with you|
|leur||third person plural possessive singular||their||the thing designated belongs to or is in a relation with them|
|leurs||third person plural possessive plural||their||the things designated belong to or are in a relation with them|
Using the table, find the meaning of the following expressions:
leur construction = their construction, notre guitare = our guitare, vos questions = your questions, leurs skis = their skis, nos bottes = our boots, leur table = their table.
Some things in the world can be counted. We can say, for example,
One cat, two cats, three cats, ah, ah, ah! Others, however, typically can't, as in
Some sand, some food, some water. We call nouns that can be counted count nouns and those which can't, non-count nouns.
French has the same distinction, and forms to show the difference. So, if we want to express the concept 'two cats', we can write deux chats, but if we want to express the concept 'some sand' as presented for the first time, we use the partitive article and write du sable. As in the case of other determiners, French has a masculine form (du) and a feminine form (de la, as in de la nourriture). Before a vowel, the form de l' is used, as in de l'eau 'some water'.
Of course, if we want to talk about some already presented sand, we would say le sable and to specify some particular sand, ce sable.
To see how some uncountable nouns work, consider the following text. Hover over each sentence to see its meaning. Note how uncountable nouns can be used to represent specific things, both new and known, as well as general classes.
Il y a du sable dans mes chaussures. Le sable est là depuis notre dernière visite à la plage. Le sable est une substance difficile à enlever. Par conséquent, ce sable sera probablement encore là l'été prochain.
In French, like in English, some nouns refer to directly observable things, like tables, chairs, trees and cats, while others refer to abstract concepts like courage, luck, timidity and fear. In English, nouns referring to abstract concepts often do not take a determiner: we say, for example,
Courage is a rare quality or
Luck was with him that time.
In French, however, we have two choices. If we are referring to some instance of the abstract class for the first time, we use the partitive article, as in Elle a du courage 'She has courage'. However, to refer to the abstract class in general, we use the definite article, as in Le courage est une qualité assez rare 'Courage is quite a rare quality'. And to refer specifically to a particular instance of courage, we use the demonstrative adjective, as in Ce courage est exceptionnel 'Such courage is exceptional'. Finally, to refer to courage as related to someone, we use the possessive adjective, as in Son courage nous impressionne 'His/her courage is impressive'.
Because French can use the definite article to refer both to specific instances and to general classes, it is important to pay attention to the context. For example, in a text, l'homme can mean 'the man' or 'man, as in humanity in general'.
As we noticed above when discussing agreement, words 'clump together' in units. In the case of nouns, determiners, nouns and their modifiers (adjectives or prepositional phrases) form larger units known as noun phrases. When reading a French text, finding the noun phrases is a crucial first step in grasping the meaning. To see how this works, consider the following paragraph. Hover over the various words of the text to find the noun phrases, which will appear in blue.
Son positionnement géographique et ses caractéristiques physiques en font un atout socio-économique majeur pour le Québec, le Canada et le coeur industriel des États-Unis. Le Saint-Laurent représente une des plus importantes voies de navigation commerciales au monde, joignant l’océan Atlantique aux Grands Lacs.
L’écosystème du Saint-Laurent est complexe et ses propriétés physiques changent d’amont en aval. On retrouve des lacs et des tronçons fluviaux, un long estuaire et un golfe aux caractéristiques marines, une diversité d’habitats ainsi qu’une faune et une flore tout aussi diversifiées.
Source: Environnement CanadaSee entire English text
The Saint Lawrence River
Its geographic position and its physical characteristics make it a major socio-economic advantage for Quebec, Canada and the industrial heart of the United States. The Saint Lawrence represents one of the most important commercial waterways in the world, linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes.
The ecosystem of the Saint Lawrence and its physical properties change as one moves downstream. One finds lakes and freshwater reaches, a long estuary, a gulf with ocean-like characteristics, a diversity of habitats, as well as similarly diversified fauna and flora.
When faced with a French sentence, begin by finding the determiners. These will help you find the noun phrases. Then look for nouns that follow the determiners and agree in gender and number with them. After that, again using agreement, find elements which modify the nouns to see the full extent of the noun phrase.
Remember also how the combination of a noun plus an adjective in French is frequently equivalent to an adjective plus a noun in English, as the following table shows:
|positionnement géographique||geographic position|
|caractéristiques physiques||physical characteristics|
|coeur industriel||industrial heart|
So far, we have considered various sorts of determiners, including direct and indirect articles and demonstrative and possessive adjectives. However, there exist several other sorts of determiners which, rather that simply presenting a noun, give an indication of quantity, of proximity to the speaker, and of proportions. Let us consider them now.
Like English, French has a complex system of quantification based on numbers. In particular, it has cardinal numbers like un, deux, trois (one, two, three), and ordinal numbers like premier, deuxième, troisième (first, second, third).
In all cases but two, the ordinal numbers are produced by adding -ième to the corresponding cardinal number. So if dix is 10, then dixième is tenth. The exceptions occur in the case of un and deux, which have as their ordinal equivalents premier/première/premiers/premières depending on gender and number, and second/seconde/seconds/secondes, again depending on gender and number. In the latter case, the form deuxième is also possible.
Here is a table of the first twenty cardinal numbers in French:
|Value||Form in French||Value||Form in French|
|1||un (masculine), une (feminine)||11||onze|
French also has more general terms to describe quantity, as the following examples show:
|beaucoup de tables||many tables|
|beaucoup de vin||a lot of wine|
|la majorité des livres||the majority of the books|
|assez de livres||enough books|
|peu de livres||few books|
|peu de vin||little wine|
|un peu de vin||a little wine|
|une minorité des représentants||a minority of the representatives|
In language, it is often important to be able to compare quantities, either explicitly or implicitly, either from one quantity to another, or from some quantity to a point of comparison, as the following table illustrates:
|la plupart des tables||most of the tables|
|beaucoup plus de tables||many more tables|
|plus de tables||more tables|
|plus de vin||more wine|
|autant de livres||as many books|
|autant de vin||as much wine|
|moins de livres||fewer books|
|beaucoup moins de livres||many fewer books|
|moins de vin||less wine|
As you can see, the important words to retain in dealing with relative quantities are plus, autant and moins.
Think about English sentences like Here is the book./There is the book. In this context, here means that the book is close to the speaker, whereas there means that the book is farther away. French has similar devices based on the forms voici and voilà, as in Voici le livre ('Here is the book') and Voilà le livre ('There is the book').
In the case of noun phrases, French can append the forms -ci and -là combined with ce, cette, ces to the noun to show proximity and distance from the speaker, as the following examples show. Mouse over the forms to see the meaning in each case.
As we noted in the last module, reading is invaluable in learning the more subtle elements of a language. Spend some time reading the following passages. Look in particular for determiners, nouns and noun phrases. You won't recognize everything, but treat these texts as puzzles to be solved. Once you feel that you've got as far as you can, mouse over the line which reads Translation to see the text in English and compare the two.
A short passage of literary criticism by Claude Martin and Vincent Nadeau
L'auteur débutant peut rejeter cette approche longue et indirecte pour tenter une vente plus personnelle et plus immédiate de ses droits. S'il n'a pas déjà de relations particulières avec le milieu de l'édition, il pourra songer à demander un rendez-vous au président-directeur général, au directeur littéraire, aux conseillers littéraires, à quelque membre des comités de lecture ou s'adresser pour conseils ou recommandations à un employé quelconque, ou à des amis, de la maison. Il pourra encore rechercher le parrainage d'un critique influent ou d'une célébrité. Ou il pourra tenter de percer dans un autre domaine, connexe ou non, pour se faire agréer d'un éditeur.
The beginning author may reject this long and indirect approach by attempting a more immediate and personal sale of the right to his work. If he isn't already acquainted with the publishing world, he can think about asking for a meeting with the president, the literary director, a literary advisor, or some other member of the reading committees, or he can ask for advice or recommendations from some employee, or a friend of the publishing house. He can also seek the support of an influential critic or of a celebrity. Or he can attempt to get into some other area, related or not, in order to be accepted by an editor.
A short advertising text (iPhone touch id)
Il n’y a pas mot de passe mieux pensé que votre empreinte digitale. Impossible à oublier, impossible à deviner. Pour permettre à votre téléphone de vous reconnaître à votre doigt, la technologie Touch ID utilise un ingénieux capteur qui facilite le déverrouillage pour vous, et le rend impossible pour n’importe qui d’autre. Grâce aux percées d’iOS 8 et de Touch ID, votre empreinte devient un rapide et pratique passe-partout.
There is no better password than your fingerprint. It is impossible to forget, impossible to guess. To allow your telephone to recognize you by your finger, the Touch ID technology uses an ingenious sensor which makes unlocking easier for you, and impossible for anyone else. Thanks to the breakthroughs in iOS 8 and Touch ID, your fingerprint becomes a rapid and practical key.
We have now reached the end of the second chapter. At this point, you should be able to understand and manipulate in French:
Together, these should permit you to find the noun phrases in a French text, a crucial first step in understanding the text as a whole.