Reading French 4 : Adjectives, Adverbs, Prepositional Phrases

© 2015, Greg Lessard


We have now seen the building blocks of a sentence: the noun phrase and the verb phrase. We can now read basic sentences in French using these. But if this was all French had to work with, it would be a very boring language. Fortunately, there is much more that we will begin to see now, beginning with adjectives. As we noted earlier, adjectives provide additional detail about nouns, and they can also be linked with copula verbs. Let us begin with the former. Consider the following phrases:

French English
une idée an idea
une bonne idée a good idea
une idée intéressante an interesting idea

We can see that in English, adjectives precede the noun they modify. So good and interesting both precede idea. French is different. Some adjectives in French precede the noun (une bonne idée) while others follow (une idée intéressante). Adjectives which precede the noun are called preposed adjectives, and those which follow are called postposed adjectives.

Preposed adjectives in French form a small set, but most of them are very frequent, so it is important to learn them. Here are the most important ones. Mouse over them to see their English equivalents and then repeat the process until you are sure that you understand them. This may be easier if you think of them in pairs, based on a positive term and a negative term.


In an earlier chapter, we saw that determiners like un/une/des, le/la/les and so on, provide an image of how a noun is to be seen in the context of a situation: whether it is previously known, new, and so on. Although they are sometimes called adjectives in traditional grammar, there is a set of postdeterminers in French which provide more information of this sort. Here are the two main ones:

These two forms follow determiners (and numbers) but precede preposed adjectives, as the following examples illustrate:

Together, preposed adjectives and postdeterminers provide important clues to the presence of a following noun. By the same token, finding a determiner or a noun can provide a starting point for seeking out preposed adjectives.

Postposed adjectives

Most adjectives in French follow the noun, as the following examples illustrate:

When you have identified a potential noun phrase, one of the first things you should do is to check to the right of the noun to see how many adjectives can be found. When translating these into English, these adjectives will have to be placed in front of the English noun.

Adjective cognates and false friends

As in the case of nouns and verbs, a reasonable number of adjectives in French have a similar form and meaning as their English counterparts, and provide a valuable bootstrapping mechanism in interpreting a text. Here is a list of the most frequent forms where French and English words are identical. Mouse over the list to check the English cognates.

"a priori", "abbatial", "abdominal", "absent", "abyssal", "accessible", "ad hoc", "adaptable", "adjacent", "admirable", "adorable", "adverbial", "adverse", "affable", "agile", "alluvial", "ambivalent", "amoral", "ample", "anal", "ancestral", "anglophile", "angora", "animal", "antique", "apparent", "applicable", "arable", "architectural", "ardent", "arrogant", "assimilable", "astral", "astringent", "auburn", "audible", "axial", "azuré", "baptismal", "baroque", "beige", "bestial", "blasé", "blond", "branchial", "brave", "brutal", "burlesque", "cadastral", "calculable", "cantonal", "capable", "cardinal", "caudal", "causal", "centigrade", "central", "certain", "cervical", "charitable", "chaste", "choral", "civil", "coaxial", "colonial", "colossal", "combustible", "commensurable", "commercial", "communicable", "compact", "comparable", "compatible", "compressible", "concave", "concomitant", "conjugal", "consonant", "constant", "consultant", "continent", "continental", "contingent", "convalescent", "convergent", "convertible", "correct", "costal", "crucial", "cruel", "cultivable", "curable", "curule", "dantesque", "dense", "dental", "dialectal", "dictatorial", "digestible", "digital", "digitigrade", "dilatable", "diligent", "direct", "disco", "dissident", "distant", "distinct", "divergent", "divisible", "docile", "doctoral", "doctrinal", "dominant", "dorsal", "double", "dry", "ducal", "ductile", "effervescent", "efflorescent", "enviable", "excellent", "excitable", "excusable", "exempt", "exorbitant", "expert", "explicable", "exploitable", "explosible", "exportable", "express", "extensible", "extra", "extravagant", "facial", "fatal", "fertile", "fervent", "filial", "final", "fiscal", "fissile", "flambé", "flexible", "floral", "fluorescent", "focal", "folk", "fragile", "frontal", "frugal", "fusible", "futile", "gastronomique", "gay", "grammatical", "grotesque", "guttural", "hermaphrodite", "hexagonal", "hi-fi", "hippie", "honorable", "horizontal", "hormonal", "horrible", "hostile", "humble", "humoral", "identifiable", "ignorant", "imaginable", "imitable", "immanent", "immature", "imminent", "immoral", "impalpable", "impartial", "impatient", "imperceptible", "implacable", "important", "impossible", "imprescriptible", "impromptu", "impudent", "inaccessible", "inapplicable", "inaudible", "inaugural", "incalculable", "incandescent", "incessant", "incombustible", "incommunicable", "incomparable", "incompatible", "incompressible", "inconsolable", "incontinent", "inconvertible", "incorrect", "incorrigible", "incorruptible", "incurable", "indestructible", "indigo", "indirect", "indispensable", "indissociable", "indissoluble", "indistinct", "indivisible", "indolent", "indubitable", "indulgent", "inexorable", "inexpiable", "inexplicable", "inextricable", "infantile", "infernal", "infertile", "inflexible", "inguinal", "inimitable", "initial", "injectable", "innocent", "inquisitorial", "insane", "insatiable", "insolent", "insoluble", "instrumental", "intact", "intangible", "intelligent", "intelligible", "intense", "interchangeable", "intercontinental", "intercostal", "international", "intestinal", "invariable", "invincible", "inviolable", "invisible", "ipso facto", "irritable", "junior", "justifiable", "kitsch", "labial", "lamé", "latent", "lexical", "local", "long", "longitudinal", "luminescent", "lustral", "macabre", "marginal", "marital", "maritime", "martial", "mauve", "maximal", "maximum", "mental", "militant", "minimum", "mobile", "modal", "mohair", "monochrome", "monumental", "moral", "multinational", "multiple", "municipal", "munificent", "musical", "mutant", "nasal", "national", "naval", "navigable", "noble", "nominal", "nonchalant", "normal", "nubile", "oblique", "oblong", "observable", "occipital", "officinal", "ogival", "omnipotent", "omniscient", "opaque", "opposable", "optimum", "opulent", "oral", "orange", "orbital", "orchestral", "ordinal", "oriental", "original", "out", "p.m.", "palpable", "papable", "papal", "parental", "participial", "partisan", "pastoral", "patient", "patrimonial", "patronal", "payable", "pectoral", "perceptible", "perfectible", "permanent", "pertinent", "phosphorescent", "picaresque", "plantigrade", "plausible", "pleural", "pluvial", "polygonal", "polyvalent", "pop", "porno", "portable", "possible", "postal", "primatial", "profitable", "proverbial", "provincial", "psychotechnique", "public", "punk", "purulent", "putrescible", "pyramidal", "quadriennal", "quadruple", "racial", "radial", "radiant", "radical", "raglan", "rare", "rechargeable", "recrudescent", "rectifiable", "reflex", "regrettable", "repentant", "respectable", "rococo", "rosé", "rural", "scout", "sculptural", "second", "secret", "seigneurial", "senior", "sentimental", "septuple", "servile", "simple", "sociable", "social", "soluble", "sororal", "soufflé", "spatial", "spectral", "spinal", "stable", "stagnant", "standard", "sterling", "stimulant", "strict", "strident", "structural", "sublime", "submersible", "succinct", "succulent", "sui generis", "synovial", "tactile", "tangent", "tangible", "tartare", "temporal", "territorial", "textile", "thermal", "tonal", "tory", "total", "transcontinental", "transmissible", "transparent", "transportable", "traversable", "tribal", "tripartite", "triple", "tropical", "ultraviolet", "urgent", "vacant", "vaginal", "vague", "vain", "variable", "vassal", "ventral", "verbal", "vertical", "viable", "vibrant", "vigilant", "viking", "violent", "viral", "virginal", "virulent", "visible", "vital", "vocal", "yankee", "yé-yé", "zen"

There are also many cases where the two languages differ only by a bit and where, once vowels are removed, the two are the same. The following table shows some of the systematic relations between the two.

French form English form Examples
French adjective in -e English adjective has no final -e communiste : communist
French adjective has no final -e English adjective has a final -e pur : pure
French adjective ends in -ain English adjective ends in -an africain : African
French adjective ends in -aire English adjective ends in -ary auxiliaire : auxiliary
French adjective ends in -aire English adjective ends in -ar polaire : polar
French adjective ends in -ieur English adjective ends in -ior antérieur : anterior
French adjective ends in -el English adjective ends in -al confidentiel : confidential
French adjective ends in -eux English adjective ends in -ous victorieux : victorious

And here is a list of some close cognates. Again, mouse over these to become familiar with them.

"absolutiste", "absorbant", "absurde", "acadien", "accidentel", "achéménide", "actuariel", "adulte", "africain", "aisé", "alerte", "algérien", "alpin", "ambré", "américain", "amputé", "ancillaire", "anglican", "angulaire", "animiste", "annuel", "antédiluvien", "antérieur", "anthropoïde", "anticlérical", "anticolonialiste", "anticommuniste", "antifasciste", "antimilitariste", "antiraciste", "aphteuse", "applicateur", "appréciable", "approchable", "arbitraire", "archiépiscopal", "aride", "artériel", "artificiel", "aryen", "atrabilaire", "auguste", "austère", "automnal", "auxiliaire", "avunculaire", "bacillaire", "bai", "belligérant", "bénéficiaire", "béotien", "biennal", "bilatéral", "biliaire", "binaire", "binoculaire", "bipolaire", "bleu", "bluffeur", "bohémien", "bovin", "brillant", "budgétaire", "calme", "canin", "capillaire", "capitaliste", "capitulaire", "carminé", "caténaire", "cellulaire", "centésimal", "centriste", "céramiste", "cérébral", "cérébro-spinal", "circulaire", "clair", "clandestin", "clérical", "cohérent", "coïncident", "collatéral", "collectiviste", "colloïdal", "colonialiste", "comédien", "commun", "communiste", "compensateur", "compétent", "complémentaire", "complet", "complexe", "complimenteur", "compréhensible", "concevable", "conciliaire", "concis", "concret", "confidentiel", "conformiste", "congénital", "conséquent", "constituant", "consubstantiel", "consulaire", "contractuel", "contradictoire", "contrasté", "contrefait", "contrit", "conventuel", "convexe", "coronaire", "corpusculaire", "courtois", "crasse", "crédible", "crématoire", "crépusculaire", "criminel", "cristallophyllien", "cryptocommuniste", "cryptogame", "cubiste", "culinaire", "culturel", "cunéiforme", "décadent", "décent", "décimal", "déclamatoire", "déclinable", "décomposable", "déductible", "défaitiste", "déficient", "délicat", "délinquant", "deltoïde", "déodorant", "départemental", "dépendant", "dépilatoire", "déplorable", "déponent", "dérisoire", "désinfectant", "désirable", "détachable", "détergent", "déterministe", "dévot", "différent", "différentiel", "diffus", "diluvien", "diocésain", "dirigeable", "discernable", "disciplinaire", "discourtois", "discret", "discriminatoire", "divin", "divinatoire", "documentaire", "dodécaphoniste", "domiciliaire", "draconien", "duodécimal", "duodénal", "égyptien", "électoral", "électronique", "élégant", "élémentaire", "éligible", "éliminatoire", "élitiste", "ellipsoïde", "éloquent", "éolien", "épicurien", "épiscopal", "épistolaire", "épithélial", "équatorial", "équidistant", "équilatéral", "équivalent", "érectile", "érudit", "essentiel", "esthète", "éternel", "euclidien", "eurasien", "européen", "évanescent", "excréteur", "exécutable", "exemplaire", "existentialiste", "expédient", "expérimental", "expiatoire", "explicite", "exponentiel", "extra-fin", "extraordinaire", "extraverti", "extrême", "extrémiste", "extroverti", "exubérant", "factoriel", "faisable", "familier", "fasciste", "favorable", "fébrifuge", "fécal", "féculent", "fédéral", "fédéraliste", "félin", "féminin", "féministe", "fémoral", "féodal", "ferme", "fétide", "fin", "fluide", "foetal", "fondamental", "formel", "fossile", "fraternel", "frêle", "fréquent", "frigide", "futur", "gouvernable", "gouvernemental", "graduel", "gravide", "halogène", "héréditaire", "hésitant", "hétérodoxe", "hétérosexuel", "hexapode", "hippy", "homosexuel", "honoraire", "humain", "humanitaire", "humide", "hybride", "idéal", "illégal", "illicite", "illusoire", "imaginaire", "immatériel", "immédiat", "immortel", "impénétrable", "impérial", "impérialiste", "implicite", "impondérable", "impressioniste", "impur", "inacceptable", "inadéquat", "inaliénable", "inca", "incertain", "inclément", "incohérent", "incompétent", "incomplet", "incompréhensible", "inconcevable", "indécent", "indélébile", "indéniable", "indépendant", "indésirable", "indicateur", "indien", "indifférent", "indiscernable", "indiscret", "individualiste", "individuel", "indo-européen", "indochinois", "indonésien", "industriel", "inélégant", "inéligible", "inepte", "inexploitable", "infaillible", "inférieur", "ingouvernable", "inhérent", "inhumain", "inimaginable", "inintelligent", "inintelligible", "injustifiable", "inopérable", "inséparable", "insipide", "insistant", "insociable", "instable", "insulaire", "intellectuel", "intercalaire", "interdépendant", "interministériel", "internationaliste", "interplanétaire", "intersidéral", "interstellaire", "intestat", "intolérable", "intolérant", "intouchable", "intramusculaire", "intransigeant", "inuit", "invalide", "invérifiable", "invulnérable", "iranien", "irréconciliable", "irréfragable", "irréparable", "irrépressible", "irréprochable", "irrésistible", "irresponsable", "irréversible", "irrévocable", "italien", "jugulaire", "justificateur", "languide", "latéral", "légal", "légendaire", "libéral", "libertin", "lige", "limpide", "linéaire", "liquéfiable", "liquide", "lombaire", "lucide", "lunaire", "majeur", "malléable", "mammaire", "manoeuvrable", "manuel", "marginaliste", "marin", "masculin", "masticateur", "matériel", "maternel", "médian", "médical", "médicinal", "médiéval", "médiocre", "médullaire", "mémorable", "menstruel", "mercenaire", "méridien", "mesurable", "météo", "métropolitain", "migrateur", "migratoire", "militaire", "minéral", "mineur", "miniaturé", "ministériel", "moderne", "modeste", "modificateur", "moléculaire", "monarchiste", "mondain", "monétaire", "mononucléaire", "monothéiste", "morbide", "moussu", "muet", "multilatéral", "musculaire", "mutuel", "naturaliste", "naturel", "naturiste", "nécessaire", "néo-libéral", "néo-réaliste", "neutraliste", "nobiliaire", "non euclidien", "nucléaire", "nudiste", "numéral", "obèse", "obscène", "obsolète", "obtus", "océanien", "octogonal", "oculaire", "officiel", "olympien", "ombilical", "omniprésent", "ondulatoire", "opalin", "opérable", "orangé", "ordinaire", "originel", "ornemental", "orthodoxe", "ostrogoth", "ottoman", "ovale", "ovarien", "ovin", "ovulaire", "pacifiste", "pâle", "parallèle", "paramédical", "paramilitaire", "pariétal", "parlementaire", "particulier", "partiel", "paternel", "patricien", "pendulaire", "pénétrable", "péninsulaire", "péremptoire", "perméable", "perpendiculaire", "perpétuel", "persistant", "phénoménal", "pictural", "placide", "plaisant", "planétaire", "plantaire", "plébéien", "plébiscitaire", "plénière", "plénipotentiaire", "pluraliste", "pointilliste", "polaire", "ponctuel", "pondérable", "populaire", "populiste", "porcin", "positiviste", "potentiel", "prédominant", "préfectoral", "préférable", "préférentiel", "préhensile", "préliminaire", "prémonitoire", "préparatoire", "présent", "présentable", "présidentiel", "toge prétexte", "prétorien", "primaire", "proéminent", "professoral", "profus", "prolétarien", "propitiatoire", "providentiel", "psychomoteur", "puerpéral", "pulmonaire", "pulvérulent", "pur", "purificatoire", "puriste", "putride", "putschiste", "raciste", "rapide", "rationaliste", "réaliste", "récalcitrant", "récent", "rectangulaire", "redondant", "réel", "réformable", "réfractaire", "réfugié", "régicide", "régionaliste", "régulier", "rénal", "réparable", "répréhensible", "républicain", "résidentiel", "résiduel", "respiratoire", "responsable", "réticent", "rétractile", "rétro", "rétrograde", "révérend", "réversible", "révocable", "riche", "rigoriste", "rituel", "rogatoire", "rond", "royaliste", "rubicond", "rudimentaire", "sacramentel", "sanitaire", "satiné", "sauf", "scalaire", "sécant", "secondaire", "sectoriel", "séculaire", "sédentaire", "sédimentaire", "sélect", "séminal", "sénatorial", "sénile", "sensuel", "séparable", "serein", "sériel", "sexiste", "sexuel", "siamois", "sibyllin", "sidéral", "similaire", "sincère", "singulier", "sinistre", "sinusoïdal", "socialiste", "solaire", "solide", "solitaire", "sommaire", "sordide", "spécial", "spectaculaire", "spiritualiste", "spirituel", "statutaire", "stellaire", "stéréo", "stérile", "sternutatoire", "structuraliste", "structurel", "stupide", "subséquent", "subsidiaire", "substantiel", "subtil", "suburbain", "superficiel", "suprême", "sur", "surmontable", "surréaliste", "symboliste", "tabou", "tabulaire", "tachiste", "taciturne", "tangentiel", "temporaire", "temporel", "tendre", "ténor", "térébrant", "ternaire", "terroriste", "tertiaire", "thermonucléaire", "thyroïde", "timide", "tolérable", "tolérant", "torrentiel", "torride", "traditionaliste", "transalpin", "transformiste", "transsexuel", "triangulaire", "triomphant", "tsariste", "tubulaire", "ukrainien", "ultramoderne", "ultramontain", "unicellulaire", "uniforme", "unilatéral", "unisexe", "urbain", "urinaire", "utérin", "vanillé", "vasculaire", "vasomoteur", "vaste", "vaudou", "vectoriel", "végétarien", "vélaire", "vénal", "vénérable", "véniel", "ventriculaire", "vérifiable", "vermiculaire", "vernaculaire", "vertébral", "vésical", "vétérinaire", "vibratoire", "vidéo", "virtuel", "virtuose", "viscéral", "visuel", "vitellin", "volatil", "voltairien", "volubile", "vulnérable", "yiddish", "yougoslave"

However, it is also important to recognize cases of false friends among adjectives, where the meaning of the French adjective is not the same as its counterpart in English. Here are some of the most frequent cases:

Adjectives and agreement

Just as determiners and nouns in French agree in number and gender, so do adjectives. This provides a valuable clue about which adjectives are associated with which nouns. Unfortunately, there is one complication: not all adjectives mark the differences in gender and number in the same way, as the following table illustrates. The table contains a typical adjective of each pattern. Read the table and try to commit as many of the patterns as possible to memory. Then, when faced with an adjective, you can determine which ending it is likely using.

Pattern Masc. sing Masc. plur. Fem. sing. Fem. plur.
Add e for fem. and s for plur. manuscrit manuscrits manuscrite manuscrites
No change in form anti-rides anti-rides anti-rides anti-rides
Add -s in the plural riche riches riche riches
Masc. adds x in plur.; fem. changes to elle nouveau nouveaux nouvelle nouvelles
Masc. al becomes aux in plur.; fem. adds e amical amicaux amicales amicales
Add e for fem.; masc. invariable anglais anglais anglaise anglaises
Double final consonant and add e in fem.; masc. invariable gros gros grosse grosses
Double final cons. and add e in fem.; add s in masc. virtuel virtuels virtuelle virtuelles
Masc. ends in eur; fem. in euse prometteur prometteurs prometteuse prometteuses
Masc. ends in eux; fem. in euse religieux religieux religieuse religieuses
Masc. ends in if; fem. in ive fictif fictifs fictive fictives
Masc. ends in teur; fem. in trice accusateur accusateurs accusatrice accusatrices
Feminine adds a grave accent secret secrets secrète secrètes
Masc. and fem. have different forms fou fous folle folles

Finding adjectives

The best initial step in finding adjectives is to look for determiners and nouns. Then check to the left and right of the noun, first to the left for one of the small number of preposed adjectives, then to the right for postposed adjectives. Remember to use agreement in number and gender to help you with your search. Click on the words that you think are adjectives. If you are correct, the adjective 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 adjectives you have missed.

You will note that this is a text we have seen before. We are returning to it here to see how to combine previous and new knowledge of French.

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.

Source: Hominidé

Adjectives and degree

In English, it is possible to indicate the degree of an adjective by means of associated adverbs. French allows the same mechanism, as the following table illustrates:

French English Specification
la plus grande table the biggest table the superlative (highest degree)
une table plus grande que les autres a bigger table than the others the explicit positive comparative (higher degree than some specified others)
une plus grande table a bigger table the implicit positive comparative (higher degree than some unspecified others)
une très grande table a very big table the implicit positive degree (high degree compared with some unspecified point of comparison)

A note in passing: even in the case of a preposed adjective like grand, if the comparison is made explicitly, as in une table plus grande que les autres), then the adjective follows the noun.

Just as le plus, plus, très can indicate a positive degree, so le moins, moins et peu indicate a negative degree, as can be seen in the following table:

French English Specification
la moins grande table the least big table the superlative (highest negative degree)
une table moins grande que les autres a table less big than the others the explicit negative comparative (lower degree than some specified others)
une moins grande table a less big (smaller) table the implicit negative comparative (lower degree than some unspecified others)
une table peu grande a not very big table the implicit negative degree (low degree compared with some unspecified point of comparison)

Note also that French can show low degree either by applying peu to a positive adjective, or by applying très to a negative one, as in une très petite table (a very small table). In fact, peu is relatively infrequent in French, except in forms like peu profond (meaning shallow, as of water), because in French, there is no generally used word equivalent to deep, so the opposition is profond/peu profond.

It is also important to note that French has special comparative and superlative forms for bon et mauvais, as the following table shows:

Base form Comparative form Superlative form
un bon contrat un meilleur contrat le meilleur contrat
un mauvais contrat un pire contrat le pire contrat

Note also that le article which precedes meilleur and pire agrees in gender and number with the noun being modified, and so does meilleur, so you will see forms like une meilleure solution, une pire solution, les meilleures solutions, les pires solutions, and les meilleurs contrats.

To check your skill in interpreting degrees with adjectives, look at the following list, then check your understanding by mousing over the words to see their English equivalents.

Attributive, predicative and relational adjectives

Adjectives in French may play a variety of roles, depending on their nature and their location in a sentence. We will discuss three of them here.

In most of the cases we have seen so far, an adjective describes some quality of a noun, as in la petite auto (the little car), or une femme intelligente (an intelligent woman). Forms like this are called attributive adjectives. They are usually found next to nouns.

However, some adjectives found next to nouns don't describe a quality but rather a relation with some other noun. For example, un appel téléphonique (literally, a telephonic call) links the noun appel with an adjective (téléphonique), itself based on an underlying noun (téléphone). Relational adjectives are often used in learned terminology. To find them, look for the determiner, then the noun, then a following adjective, and then ask yourself whether you see a noun 'behind' the adjective.

Finally, like in English, an adjective may follow a copula verb like être as in Le chat est gris. (the cat is grey). In cases like these we speak of predicative adjectives. To find a predicative adjective, look for a copula verb and then to its right.


The good news about adverbs is that they are invariable (with one exception we can ignore for the moment), so that if you learn a single form you will always be able to identify the adjective. The bad news is that they can play several different roles in a sentence:

Role Example
Adverb modifies an adjective une province extrêmement riche
Adverb modifies a verb Elle marche rapidement.
Adverb modifies another adverb Elle marche très rapidement.
Adverb applies to an entire sentence Souvent, nous dînons chez Michel.

It is often useful to think of adverbs as forming small systems and to relate each adverb to the others in the system. For example, here are some adjectives used to situate events in time:

French English
auparavant previously
maintenant/actuellement now
dorénavant henceforth

And here are some adverbs used to situate days in time:

French English
avant-hier the day before yesterday
hier yesterday
aujourd'hui today
demain tomorrow
après-demain the day after tomorrow

Here are some adverbs used to talk about spatial relations:

French English
ici here
là-bas over there

And here are some others used to talk about the relative frequency of events:

French English
jamais never
rarement rarely
parfois occasionally
souvent often
toujours always

Turning adjectives into adverbs

French has many manner adverbs which indicate how some event takes place. Many of these are formed from the corresponding adjective, by adding -ment or some variant, often to the feminine form of the adjective, as the following table shows:

Adjective Adverb Note
courageux courageusement -ment added to feminine
joli joliment -ment added to masculine
brillant brillamment -amment added to base of adjective
prudent prudemment -emment added to base of adjective

The key to finding adjectives like this is to search for the ending in -ment and then to check that the word you have found is modifying an adjective, a verb, or another adverb. The reason for this extra level of checking is that there are other forms in French which also add -ment without being adverbs.

To help with this, here is a list of the most frequent adverbs in French ending in -ment, in descending order of frequency. Try to guess their meaning and the mouse over each form to check. Your subsequent work will be easier if you have retained many of these.

seulement, vraiment, tellement, lentement, simplement, doucement, brusquement, exactement, évidemment, complètement, justement, sûrement, naturellement, parfaitement, également, légèrement, absolument, autrement, rapidement, certainement, finalement, longuement, vaguement, heureusement, immédiatement, entièrement, directement, probablement, facilement, particulièrement, précisément, profondément, soigneusement, rarement, décidément, vivement, apparemment, forcément, franchement, régulièrement, tranquillement, largement, réellement, drôlement, uniquement, visiblement, définitivement, brutalement, machinalement, totalement, gentiment, sérieusement, malheureusement, violemment, nettement, notamment, suffisamment, discrètement, gravement, clairement, infiniment, silencieusement, pratiquement, extrêmement, faiblement, généralement, actuellement

Comparative and superlative of adverbs

We saw earlier that adjectives can take different degrees, as in moins intelligent, le plus intelligent. Adverbs can do the same. Thus, we have comparative adverbs (which indicate some positive or negative comparison) and superlative adverbs (which present the extrement positive or negative point on a scale), as the following table shows. Superlative forms add le to the comparative forms plus or moins. Note also that comparatives and superlatives may apply to both adjectives and to adverbs.

Comparative form Superlative form
plus rapidement le plus rapidement
moins rapidement le moins rapidement

To make sure you understand comparatives and superlatives, try to guess the meaning of each expression in the following list and then check your understanding by mousing over the expressions to see their English equivalents.

An informal quiz on adverbs

Here is a short informal quiz that you can use to test your ability to translate some of the basic adverbs. As earlier, this score is not retained, so feel free to experiment. Remember also that a computer is fundamentally dumb, so you may come up with a correct answer that it doesn't recognize.

Prepositions and prepositional phrases

Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs share an important trait: there are many members of each class and new ones can be added at will. For example, to explain that one is watching a film, one might say: Nous visionnons le film. But suppose that we have seen the film before. Then we might say: Nous revisionnons le film. where adding re- makes a new verb meaning 'watch again'. We speak of open classes to describe this ability to add new members.

On the other hand, forms like determiners form closed classes. There are few of them and we can't add new ones at will. As we saw earlier when discussing determiners, it is often best to analyse closed class items in terms of the small systems they form, where, for example, the indefinite takes its meaning by its opposition to the definite.

Another part of speech that forms a closed class is prepositions. In what follows, we will consider some of the systems formed by prepositions and also how prepositions relate to nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

The first thing to understand in this context is that, just like determiners which take nouns as their arguments, so also prepositions take arguments, as the following examples show. (Mouse over the examples to see the equivalent in English.)

As you can see, a preposition may be followed by a determiner and noun, a determiner adjective and noun, proper noun, or pronoun. As we will see in the next module, all of these have in common the fact they they form a noun phrase. The preposition together with the noun phrase that depends on it form a prepositional phrase.

In other words, a preposition is like a hinge, linking the noun phrase to what precedes it. But what precisely can precede a preposition? In fact, a preposition can follow any of the open class items, as the following table illustrates:

Structure Example
Noun + Prep. phrase le chat sur la table
Verb + Prep. phrase entrer dans la pièce
Adjective + Prep. phrase fière de son fils
Adverb + Prep. phrase vite comme un éclair

Prepositional systems

As in the case of determiners and adverbs, it is useful to think of prepositions in terms of small systems, where each term takes its meaning from its opposition to others. Let us start with the two most frequent prepositions, à and de. Consider the following image:


As we can see, given some point of reference, à represents a relation toward the point of reference and de away. This relation can function in many dimensions, including space, time, ownership, and others, as the following table shows:

Relation Example Meaning Example Meaning
Spatial relation Je vais à Montréal I am going to Montreal Je viens de Montréal I come from Montreal
Temporal relation de midi à 17h from noon to 5 p.m. de midi à 17h from noon to 5 p.m.
Ownership relation Je donne le livre à Pierre. I'm giving the book to Pierre. C'est le livre de Pierre. It's Pierre's book.

A note in passing: French uses the 24 hour clock, where times are represented by a number from 1 to 24 followed by h (heures).

Another system is based on relations in time, either avant (before), après (after), or entre (between):


On the other hand, if we wish to focus not on the relation in time but rather use one event as a point of reference, French provides the forms jusqu'à (until) and depuis (since), as the following images illustrate. So if we're interested in the span between X and some event after X, we can use jusqu'à.


On the other hand, if we're interested in the relation with some event that precedes X, we can use depuis.


To ensure that these are clear, consider the following examples and try to find their meaning. Then mouse over the examples to check whether you are correct.

Prepositions also indicate a variety of spatial relations, as the following image shows.


The following table summarizes some of the other important prepositions with their equivalents in English.

French English
avec with
sans without
pour for
contre against
dans in
hors de outside
loin de far from
près de near
durant during
par through
selon according to
malgré despite
vers around/toward

It is also important to remember that prepositions may have a basic meaning attached to space or time, but they often assume more abstract meanings, as the following examples illustrate. Try to guess the meanings and then mouse over the sentences to check. Remember for the future that when reading a text, you should be sensitive to these more abstract meanings.

An informal quiz on prepositions

Here is a short informal quiz that you can use to test your ability to translate some of the basic prepositions. As earlier, this score is not retained, so feel free to experiment.

Reading passages

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 adjectives, adverbs and prepositional phrases, but remember also the key elements (determiners, nouns and verbs). 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 reading passage from a tourism brochure for Montréal

Une croisière, un déjeuner ou un dîner sur l'eau, les possibilités de divertissement nautique sont nombreuses. Profitez de l'une de nos 2 terrasses ou du pont climatisé. Pour ajouter au plaisir, service de restauration et de bar complet à bord.


A sightseeing cruise or a breakfast or a dinner on the water, there are numerous possibilities of nautical entertainment. Enjoy one of our open-air decks or the climate-controlled interior deck. To add to your pleasure, a restaurant service and full bar are available on board.

A short reading passage on oxygen (from Wikipédia)

L'oxygène est l'élément chimique le plus abondant du point de vue de la masse dans la biosphère, l'air, l'eau et les roches terrestres. Il est aussi le troisième élément le plus abondant de l'univers après l'hydrogène et l'hélium et représente environ 0,9 % de la masse du Soleil. Il constitue 49,2 % de la masse de la croûte terrestre et est le principal constituant de nos océans (88,8 % de leur masse). Le dioxygène est le second composant le plus important de l'atmosphère terrestre, représentant 20,8 % de son volume et 23,1 % de sa masse (soit quelque 1015 tonnes). La Terre, en présentant un taux si important d'oxygène gazeux dans son atmosphère, constitue une exception au sein des planètes du système solaire : l'oxygène des planètes voisines Mars (qui ne représente que 0,1 % du volume de son atmosphère) et Vénus y a des concentrations bien plus faibles.


Oxygen is the most abundant chemical element from the point of view of its mass in the biosphere, the air, water and terrestrial rocks. It is also the third most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen and helium and represents around 0.9% of the mass of the Sun. It constitutes 49.2% of the mass of the earth's crust and is the principal component of our oceans (88.8% of their mass). Dioxygen is the second most important component of the earth's atmosphere, representing 20.8% of its volume and 23.1% of its mass (around 1015 tons). Earth, by showing such a high concentration of gaseous oxygen in its atmosphere, constitutes an exception among the planets in the solar system: the oxygen on neighbouring planets Mars (where it represents only 0.1% of the volume of its atmosphere) and Venus is present in much lower concentrations.

The opening paragraphs of Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir (from Association des bibliophiles universels)

La petite ville de Verrières peut passer pour l'une des plus jolies de la Franche-Comté. Ses maisons blanches avec leurs toits pointus de tuiles rouges s'étendent sur la pente d'une colline, dont des touffes de vigoureux châtaigniers marquent les moindres sinuosités. Le Doubs coule à quelques centaines de pieds au-dessous de ses fortifications, bâties jadis par les Espagnols, et maintenant ruinées.

Verrières est abritée du côté du nord par une haute montagne, c'est une des branches du Jura. Les cimes brisées du Verra se couvrent de neige dès les premiers froids d'octobre. Un torrent, qui se précipite de la montagne, traverse Verrières avant de se jeter dans le Doubs, et donne le mouvement à un grand nombre de scies à bois; c'est une industrie fort simple et qui procure un certain bien-être à la majeure partie des habitants plus paysans que bourgeois.


The small city of Verrières may be one of the prettiest in the Franche-Comté. Its white houses with their pointed roofs covered in red tiles spread over the slope of a hill, whose tufts of vigourous chestnuts show the slightest sinuosities. The Doubs flows several hundred feet under the fortifications, built earlier by the Spanish, and now ruined.

Verrières est protected on the north by a tall mountain, one of the ranges of the Jura. The broken peaks of the Verra are covered with snow from the first cold temperatures in October. A torrent, which flows from the mountain, traverses Verrières before flowing into the Doubs, and activates a great number of wood saws; this very simple industry procures a certain well-being to the majority of the inhabitants, more peasants than bourgeois.

Summing up

You should now feel comfortable with the following concepts:

  1. using basic adjectives, including their agreement with nouns, their placement around nouns and the use of different degrees
  2. the difference between attributive, predicative and relational adjectives
  3. the form and use of adverbs and the use of degree with adverbs
  4. the basic prepositions and prepositional systems in French
  5. the use of prepositions with other forms including nouns, verbs and adjectives
  6. strategies for finding adjectives, adverbs and prepositions in sentences

In the next module, we will combine what you have learned in the first four modules to look at the structure and functions of sentences in French.