Reading French 5 : Sentences

© 2015, Greg Lessard

From parts of speech to sentences

So far, we have seen how to identify and analyse various parts of speech, including determiners, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, pronouns and prepositions. We have also seen how some of these units may form phrases, including the noun phrase (as in le comité), the verb phrase (développe une stratégie), or a prepositional phrase (as in pour le président). We turn now to the next level of complexity: the sentence.

It is useful to think of a sentence as a set of conjoined dependencies among phrases, as in:


The core of the sentence is formed by the subject noun phrase, which may be as simple as a pronoun or a proper name, or more complex, built around a determiner, adjectives and nouns, and by the verb phrase, which may be as simple as a verb, but also more complex, including a direct object, indirect object, and so on. Around this core may be found sentence modifiers which may indicate time, place or attitude, among other things.

Let us look at an example: the sentence Depuis hier, Pierre dort ici.


Notice that the sentence modifiers are optional. Thus, Pierre dort is still a sentence, as are Ici Pierre dort and Pierre dort depuis hier. However, both the noun phrase and verb phrase are required. Thus, Depuis hier dort ici is not a sentence, nor is Depuis hier Pierre ici.

The following table shows some of the possibilities offered by this structure for a sentence. Try to determine the meaning of each sentence and then mouse over the various parts to check your understanding.

Sentence modifier Noun phrase Verb phrase Sentence modifier
Heureusement la majorité des documents comprennent une traduction.
Le gouvernement fédéral impose de nouvelles sanctions contre les groupes armés trois jours après l'entrée en vigueur d'un cessez-le-feu fragile.
Avant une réunion de ses députés, lors d'un point de presse, le chef de l'opposition précise ses propos.
Sans aucun doute les châteaux de la Bohême ajoutent à son indiscutable air romantique.
Selon le journal le restaurant est ouvert tous les soirs entre 19h et 23h.

It is also important to note that sentence modifiers like those in the table above may be moved either to the beginning or to the end of a sentence.

Noun phrases, verb phrases and agreement

When analysing a sentence, it is useful to start by finding the various noun phrases and the verb phrase. The question then arises: how can we be sure which noun phrase is attached to which verb phrase? Meaning provides one clue: the sentence needs to make sense. Another formal clue is provided by agreement in number and person.

In the case of the first and second persons, singular and plural (je, tu, nous, vous), the ending of the verb should agree, as in je chante or vous dansez. In the case of full noun phrases composed of a determiner, a noun and possibly some modifiers, as in toutes les discussions antérieures ('all the previous discussions'), a verb phrase linked with the noun phrase must be plural, since the noun phrase is plural. So, for example, toutes les discussions antérieures SONT enregistrées ('all the previous discussions ARE recorded') has agreement in the plural, while toute la discussion EST enregistrée ('the entire discussion IS recorded') has agreement in the singular.

Finding noun phrases, verb phrases and sentence modifiers

To read French, it is crucial to be able to split sentences into their parts. To practice this, try to find the noun phrases, verb phrases and sentence modifiers in the following text, adapted from the site of the bakery Au Pain Doré.

Start by selecting what you are looking for: noun phrases, verb phrases or sentence modifiers. Then, click on the parts of the sentences below that belong to that class. 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. You can also click below the text to start over, see the English translation, or show all the noun phrases, verb phrases and sentence modifiers.

L’histoire des boutiques Au Pain Doré remonte à sa famille fondatrice.

Pendant trois générations, la famille Étienne fait la renommée de ses boulangeries implantées partout à Montréal.

Cinquante ans plus tard, les boutiques Au Pain Doré attirent l’attention du Groupe Le Duff.

Aujourd'hui, Au Pain Doré adhère aux mêmes valeurs que ses fondateurs.

Notre engagement quotidien est de proposer des produits frais, variés et soignés.

Nous sélectionnons soigneusement nos ingrédients pour leur qualité.

Nous privilégions des produits et fournisseurs locaux.


The history of the Pain Doré shops goes back to its founding family.
Over the course of three generations, the Étienne family has made famous their bakeries located all over Montréal.
Fifty years later, the Pain Doré stores come to the attention of the Le Duff Group.
Today, Pain Doré adheres to the same values as its founders.
Our daily commitment is to sell products that are fresh, varied and made with care.
We carefully select our ingredients for their quality.
We favour local products and furnishers.

Declarative, interrogative, exclamative and imperative sentences

As in English, French provides tools for telling about something, asking questions and giving orders. Among these tools are the various sentence types:

In what follows, we will look at each type in more detail. Pay special attention to the particular marks of each sentence type and to the differences which distinguish them.

Declarative sentences

Consider the following examples:

All of these declarative sentences share the following traits:

When reading, use these two traits to identify declarative sentences.

Interrogative sentences

Consider the following examples:

All three sentences ask whether she is sleeping, but they use different devices to do this. In the first case, the addition of a question mark creates a question. In the second, which can only be used with the combination of subject pronouns and verbs, the pronoun is placed immediately after the verb, and in the third, the form est-ce que is added to the start of the sentence to create a question. And of course, in the second and third cases, a question mark is added.

In all these cases, the appropriate answer to the question will be either oui or non. However, as we noted above, it is also possible to ask for partial information, as the following examples illustrate. Mouse over the sentences to see the various meanings.

Question Possible answer
Qui dort? Marie.
Quand dort-elle? Toute la nuit.
Quand est-ce qu'elle dort? Toute la nuit.
dort-elle? Dans son lit.
est-ce qu'elle dort? Dans son lit.
Comment dort-elle? Bien.
Comment est-ce qu'elle dort? Bien.
Pourquoi dort-elle? Parce qu'elle est fatiguée.
Pourquoi est-ce qu'elle dort? Parce qu'elle est fatiguée.

Note two things here. First, qui replaces the subject, that is, the person or thing that performs the action of the verb. Second, to ask about aspects of an event (why, how, when, where), two forms are possible. In the first, the verb and pronoun are inverted (as in Où dort-elle?, and in the second, est-ce que is added.

Exclamative sentences

It is sometimes useful in language to show that one is excited. One of the ways of doing this is to use exclamative sentences, as the following table shows.

French English
Il fait froid! It's cold!
Qu'il fait froid! It's cold!

As you can see, there are two ways of showing exclamation. In one, an exclamation point is added to the sentence. In the other, the form que is added to the start of the sentence.

Imperative sentences

If one wants to issue a command, it must be to someone, and this must happen in the present. So imperative sentences use second person (you) or the first person in the sense of 'me and you'. Look at the following imperative sentences and try to figure out how they work. The corresponding declarative sentences are provided as a point of comparison.

Declarative Imperative
Tu dors. Dors.
Vous lisez le livre. Lisez le livre.
Nous partons à 5h. Partons à 5h.

As you can see, the imperative is created by removing the subject pronoun.

Classifying sentences by type

To test your ability to distinguish declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamative sentences, drag each of the sentences below into the appropriate box. (N.B. Drag the sentence into the centre of the box.) If you are correct, the sentence will remain in the box. If you are mistaken, the sentence will return to its original position.

If you wish to retry the exercise, click on the Start Over button.

Elle dort. Allons-nous boire un café? Allez chez Marie. Qui veut partir? Est-ce que la directrice connaît les réglements? Mettez trois tasses de sucre dans le bol. Montréal est une ville extraordinaire! Où allez-vous? Allons boire un café. Je suis contre votre idée! Pourquoi as-tu quitté le souper? Est-ce que la page est couverte de formules? Elle dort? La table est couverte d'eau.


Very early in life, children learn to say no. As we grow up, we retain this ability, but we diversify our means of communication. Like many other languages, French has several devices for negation:

The basic form of negation in French uses the adverbs ne and pas placed around a conjugated verb, as the following positive and negative sentences show.

Positive sentence Negative sentence
Elle dort. Elle ne dort pas.
La porte est fermée. La porte n'est pas fermée.

Notice that before a verb beginning with a vowel, ne is written n' and is attached to the verb.

Negation may be used with declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamative sentences. To check your understanding of this, look at the following list of sentences and try to guess their meaning. Then mouse over the sentences to check your understanding.

Notice in particular that in the case of inverted forms, where the verb precedes its subject pronoun, as in voulez-vous above, the pas follows the pronoun.

Some negative words to learn

You will remember that we distinguished between questions which have oui or non as an answer, and questions which seek out details on who, how, why, when, where, etc. French provides a way of showing the negative version of this more detailed information, as the following table shows:

French form English equivalent An example
jamais never Elle ne dort jamais.
personne no one Personne ne dort.
personne anyone Je ne vois personne.
rien nothing Je ne vois rien.
nulle part nowhere Elle n'est nulle part dans la maison.

An informal quiz on negation

Here is a short informal quiz that you can use to test your ability to recognize the most frequent negative elements in French. 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.

Active and passive sentences

French, like English, provides a means of choosing between a focus on the the person or thing which has performed an action, or on the action itself, while taking the focus off the agent. In the first case, we speak of an active sentence, and in the second, of a passive sentence. To see how this works, consider the following sentences:

French English Status (active/passive)
Pierre achète les mitaines. Pierre buys the mittens. Active (Pierre is subject)
Les mitaines sont achetées par Pierre. The mittens are bought by Pierre. Passive (Pierre is no longer the main focus)
Les mitaines sont achetées. The mittens are bought. Passive (We now don't know who bought them)

As you can see, the passive allows us to remove attention from the agent. So how does it work in French. Consider the following active sentence. As you can see, the subject is followed by the verb, which is followed by the direct object:


So how do we turn this into a passive sentence? This involves three operations:

  1. the noun phrase subject is either removed or placed at the end of the sentence after par
  2. the direct object is placed before the verb
  3. the appropriate form of the verb être is placed before the verb, and the end of the verb has added to it. The form of être is chosen to agree in number with the object before the verb. So we would write LES mitaines SONT achetées or LA mitaine EST achetée. In addition, the after the verb has -s added to it if the object is plural (achetéS), and -e if the object is feminine (achetéE). If the object is both feminine and plural, both -e and s are added (achetéES).

Graphically, we can represent these operations like this:


The passive is particularly useful in contexts like science or administration. To see this, look at the following sentences and try to guess their equivalent in English. Then mouse over them to check your understanding.

When reading texts, it is important to consider whether the active or passive is being used. One of the clues will be the meaning, but there are also formal clues to look for. Among other things, check for the sequence of the verb être plus a verb plus an ending like é. (We will see later that other forms of the verb être may be found, and that it is not alway that we find after the verb.

Finally, the examples we have seen so far are in the third person. In fact, though, others persons are also possible, as the following examples illustrate:

Reading passages

We now have a much richer set of tools for reading texts in French at the sentence level. However, in reading a text, these tools should still be used in the following order:

To practice using these tools, try to grasp the meanings of each of the following texts. Once you have done your best, mouse over the Translation bar to see the English equivalent of the text. Also, don't forget to have fun with this! It should be like solving a puzzle...

A short passage on price adjustments from the Government of Québec

Les droits et les frais exigibles sont ajustés, au 1er janvier de chaque année selon le taux d'augmentation de l'indice général des prix à la consommation pour le Canada pour la période se terminant le 30 septembre de l'année précédente, tel que déterminé par Statistique Canada. Ils sont diminués au dollar le plus près s'ils comprennent une fraction de dollar inférieure à 0,50 $; ils sont augmentés au dollar le plus près s'ils comprennent une fraction de dollar égale ou supérieure à 0,50 $.

Le résultat de l'indexation annuelle est publié à chaque année à la Gazette officielle du Québec...


Payable fees and charges are adjusted on January 1 of each year according to the rate of increase of the consumer price index of Canada for the period ending on September 30 of the preceding year, as determined by Statistics Canada. They are lowered to the nearest dollar if they include a fraction of a dollar less than $0.50; they are increased to the nearest dollar if they include a fraction of a dollar greater than $0.50.
The result of the annual indexation is published each year in the Gazette officielle of Québec...

A short extract from the Samuel Becket play En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot)

ESTRAGON: Aide-moi !
VLADIMIR: Tu as mal ?
ESTRAGON: Mal ! Il me demande si j'ai mal !
VLADIMIR: Il n'y a jamais que toi qui souffre ! Moi je ne compte pas. Je voudrais pourtant te voir à ma place. Tu m'en dirais des nouvelles.
ESTRAGON: Tu as eu mal ?
VLADIMIR: Mal ! Il me demande si j'ai eu mal !


ESTRAGON: Help me!
VLADIMIR: Are you hurt?
ESTRAGON: Hurt! He's asking me if I'm hurt!
VLADIMIR: There's never anyone but you who's suffering! Me, I don't count! But I'd like to see you in my place. You'd have something to say.
ESTRAGON: Were you hurt?
VLADIMIR: Hurt! He's asking if I was hurt!

Description of a typical day for a railway technician (from Révolution: journal marxiste)

Ma journée commence à 4h30. Le réveil sonne. Comme je mets un certain temps à l’entendre, ma femme me bouscule pour que je réagisse...

5h30. Départ de la maison, en voiture : direction la gare pour la première étape de la journée. Puis je fais une heure de train jusqu’à la Gare de l’Est, qui n’est pas ma gare d’arrivée. Je marche alors d’un pas cadencé jusqu’à la Gare du Nord, pour ne pas rater ma correspondance.

A 7h45, je rejoins mon équipe pour prendre un petit café...

A 8h, je prépare mes outils et me dirige vers le train que je dois remettre en état de rouler. La matinée se passe comme d’habitude : démontage, remontage, nettoyage.


My day begins at 4:30 a.m. The alarm clock rings. Since I take some time to hear it, my wife shakes me so that I react...
5:30 a.m. Departure from the house by car, in the direction of the railway station for the first lap of the day. Then I do an hour by train to the Gare de l'Est, which is not my final station. So I walk at a quick pace to the Gare du Nord, so as not to miss my transfer...
At 7:45 a.m. I meet up with my team to have a quick coffee...
At 8:00 a.m., I prepare my tools and set off for the train that I must get ready to run. The morning passes in the habitual way: take things apart, put things back together, washing up...

Summing up

You should now feel comfortable with the following concepts:

  1. dividing simple sentences into noun phrase, verb phrase and sentence modifiers
  2. distinguishing declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamative sentences
  3. recognizing and understanding the various interrogative forms
  4. understanding how negation works and the forms used to show negation
  5. recognizing active and passive sentences and being able to find the subject and object in each case

In the next module, we will continue looking at sentences, but we will consider different verb tenses which enable us to talk about the past and the future.