Reading French 7 : Complex Sentences and More Verb Tenses

© 2015, Greg Lessard

From simple to complex sentences

Like English, French has the ability to combine simple sentences together into a larger sentence. There are two principal ways of doing this. In one, two or more sentences are attached together with punctuation like a comma, a semi-colon or a colon, and the resulting unit is ended by a period, question mark, or exclamation mark. This is called a compound sentence. To see an example, consider this image:


Notice that each of the simple sentences (Pierre est parti and il était malade) can stand alone as a sentence. However, when attached together in a bigger sentence, they give us the sense that the two simple sentences are related. Here, we can assume that it is because he was sick that Pierre left, but it is up to us to decide how the two sentences are related. Consider, for example, the following sentences. Try to determine the nature of the relation between the two sentences, then mouse over each to check your understanding.

It is also possible to use a conjunction to make explicit the nature of the relation between the two simple sentences in a compound sentence, as the following example shows:


Here, parce que makes it clear and explicit that it is because of being sick that Pierre left.

Some frequent French conjunctions

French possesses a variety of conjunctions. Study the following table and try to memorize as many of these conjunctions as possible. Fortunately, all of them are invariable so you don't need to learn more than one form.They recur frequently and you will need them to analyze compound sentences.

Conjunction Meaning Example
et 'and' (either a sequence or a combination) La porte est fermée et la fenêtre est ouverte.
ou 'or' (to present a choice) Pars ou reste.
parce que 'because' (to show that the second element explains the first) Le gouvernement est tombé parce qu'il a perdu l'élection.
mais 'but' (to present an opposition) J'aime le café mais il m'empêche de dormir.
donc 'therefore/so' (the second sentence is the consequence of the first) Je pense donc je suis.
car 'since' (the first sentence is the consequence of the second) Je mets un manteau car il fait froid.

In the examples we have seen, all of these conjunctions fit between the two sentences. Some, however, may occur before the first sentence, as the two following examples show:

Conjunction Meaning Example
puisque 'since' (because of the first sentence, the second is true) Puisqu'elle est malade, elle ne peut pas aller au concert.
ou...ou 'either...or' (to present a choice) Ou tu pars ou tu restes.

Puisque can also occur between sentences, as in Elle ne peut pas aller au concert puisqu'elle est malade.

Exploring conjunctions

It is important to practice the use of conjunctions, first by finding them, then by determining the nature of the relation that they produce between two sentences. To help with this, mouse over the following short story to find the conjunctions. If you are correct, the conjunction will turn red. Mouse over the simple sentences and try to determine the nature of the relation provided by the conjunction.

Il fait chaud et je ne dors pas. Je bois un verre d'eau car j'ai soif mais cela n'aide pas. Puisque les autres dorment toujours, je quitte la maison. Je ne sais pas quoi faire. Ou je vais au restaurant ou je prends un bain. Je prends une lampe de poche parce qu'il fait noir. Je marche dans la forêt et j'entends le bruit des feuilles. J'entends le vent donc la pluie va venir. Je rentre à la maison.

Conjunctions in other contexts

In the examples we have seen so far, conjunctions have been used to connect simple sentences. But for many conjunctions, their role can go farther and they can connect two items belonging to the same class among many. Here are a few examples for :

Conjunction Context Example
et between two noun groups le chat et le chien
et between two verb groups Nous avons marché et parlé.
et between two prepositional groups dans la cuisine et sous la table
et between two adjective groups un livre bleu et vert
et between two adverbial groups Elle a conduit rapidement et prudemment.

When you are reading a passage, begin by finding the conjunction. Then look to the left and right to determine what kind of structures are being linked (sentences, noun groups, etc.) and then try to determine the meaning of the complex structure built around the preposition.

Complex sentences

Another way of combining simple sentences in French is to have one sentence act as the principal clause and the other as the subordinate clause. The following image illustrates this:


Let us think about how this works. The principal clause says that I believe something. But what? It is that Pierre is ill. Pierre est malade takes the place of the object of the verb. The link that makes this possible is the relative pronoun que. In other words, rather than being at the same level, one sentence fits into another.

Consider another example:


Here, the sentence qui était sur la table tells us something about the book (that it was on the table). The principal clause here could stand by itself (J'ai acheté le livre). On the other hand, était sur la table isn't a full sentence: it's missing a subject. Where is the subject? In fact, it's there in both le livre (think about le livre était sur la table), and in the qui, equivalent to which or that in English.

French has a number of relative pronouns, as the following table shows. As in the case of conjunctions, take some time to memorize them since they will be crucial in what we will see later. All of them serve to attach a subordinate clause to some element of a principal clause.

Relative pronoun Function Example
qui an element of the principal clause is the subject of the subordinate clause La fille qui a gagné le prix venait du Canada.
que an element of the principal clause is the direct object of the subordinate clause Voici le chien que j'ai acheté.
dont an element of the principal clause is the indirect object of the subordinate clause Voici le chien dont j'ai parlé

Let us look at these examples in a bit more detail, beginning with the first one: La fille qui a gagné le prix venait du Canada. The qui here acts as a bridge between two things: the noun group la fille and the subordinate clause X a gagné le prix, where X is the understood subject who won the prize. We can represent this graphically like this:


In other words, the subordinate clause qui a gagné le prix modifies la fille, much like an adjective would (think of la fille intelligente).

Now let us turn to the second example above: Voici le chien que j'ai acheté. The relative pronoun que here is the sign that le chien is the direct object of the subordinate clause, as the following image shows:


The X in the image shows the place of le chien in the structure of the subordinate clause.

The distinction between qui and que here is like the now-disappearing distinction in English between who and whom. English increasingly uses that in both cases: The girl that won the prize was from Canada/Here is the dog that I bought. In French, however, as we have seen, the difference between qui and que has a huge effect on the meaning, so when you come upon forms like these, ask the following questions:

  1. qui or que?
  2. what does qui or que modify?
  3. how does this affect the meaning?

More relative pronouns

We saw earlier that along with direct objects like chien in je vois le chien, there are also indirect objects, attached to the verb by a preposition, as in je donne le livre à Marie, where à Marie is the indirect object. It is possible to have complex sentences based on indirect objects as well.

Imagine the situation where I have some apples and I put them in a bag. The focus of my attention is primarily the apples when I say: J'ai mis les pommes dans le sac. But what if I want to talk about the bag rather than the apples? There is a complex structure for that, as the following image illustrates:


We can do the same thing in English when we say Here is the bag I put the apples in, except that there is no form to show the relation, just the order of the words.

French can produce a complex sentence with almost any combination of preposition and object, as the following examples show. To get a sense of this diversity, read the following examples and try to determine their meaning. Then mouse over the sentences to check your understanding.

Notice a couple of important things here. First, the relative pronoun agrees in number and gender with the noun phrase it modifies. So we write dans laquelle after la poche, but sous lequel after le pont. The following table summarizes the forms most frequently found. Try to memorize these forms, because they will recur often in any reasonably complex text.

Form Notes Example
lequel Masculine singular le livre dans lequel j'ai laissé la note
laquelle Feminine singular la table sur laquelle j'ai mis le livre
lesquels Masculine plural les amis sur lesquels on peut compter
lesquelles Feminine plural les avenues sur lesquelles vous marchiez

There are also some contracted forms used when lequel or one of its variants is combined with the preposition à or de, as the following table shows:

Form Notes Example
auquel à plus lequel l'ami auquel je pense
auxquels à plus lesquels les amis auxquels je pense
auxquelles à plus lesquelles les amies auxquelles je pense
duquel de plus lequel l'ami duquel j'ai la photo
desquels de plus lesquels les amis desquels j'ai les photos
desquelles de plus lesquelles les amies desquelles j'ai les photos

Finally, there is the form dont, which can replace duquel, desquels, de laquelle, desquelles, as the following examples show:

As we noted earlier, when you see one of these relative pronouns in a text, use gender and number agreement to find which noun group on the left it is attached to, and then look to the right to see what information is being provided about the noun group.

The subjunctive mood

Usually when we use language to talk about the world, we assume that the things we talk about are real, either physically, or mentally, or in some fictitious world. Even when we use negation, we are saying that something is really not the case. And when we use the future or conditional tense, we are conjecturing that some real state of affairs may exist. All of these forms represent what is known as the indicative mood.

However, in opposition to this indicative perspective, many languages, including French, provide a means of signalling that some state of affairs isn't real. In French, this is called the subjunctive mood. It is marked by a particular set of verb endings. To better grasp the difference between the two, consider the following sentences:

Example Mood Meaning
Je sais que vous avez tort. Indicative I have knowledge that it really is the case that you are mistaken
Je ne sais pas si vous avez tort. Indicative It is the case that you are mistaken or not, but I don't know which
Je me demande si vous avez tort. Indicative You are mistaken or not, but I am wondering which is true
Je crains que vous ayez tort. Subjunctive I worry about your possible mistakenness, but I can't be sure of its reality
Il est possible que vous ayez tort. Subjunctive Your being mistaken is one possibility among many; it is not clear which is real
Je doute que vous ayez tort. Subjunctive I have my doubts about the reality of your mistakenness

Notice the difference of form in the last three, subjunctive, examples. Instead of avez, we find ayez. When looking for the subjunctive, the form of the verb provides one of the clues. The other clue is provided by the structure of the sentence, as we will see below.

Conjugating verbs in the subjunctive

Some parts of language learning require memory. Some forms of the subjunctive fall into this category, as the following table shows. These are the most frequent irregular verbs in French, in their subjunctive forms. Concentrate on the variations in form, and try to commit their forms to memory. When looking at the glosses, you will note that English has retained a few special forms for the subjunctive (as in should you be), but that even these are disappearing. On the other hand, the subjunctive is alive and well in French.

être avoir faire dire aller
que je sois que j'aie que je fasse que je dise que j'aille
que tu sois que tu aies que tu fasses que tu dises que tu ailles
qu'il soit qu'il aie qu'il fasse qu'il dise qu'il aille
qu'elle soit qu'elle ait qu'elle fasse qu'elle dise qu'elle aille
que nous soyons que nous ayons que nous fassions que nous disions que nous allions
que vous soyez que vous ayez que vous fassiez que vous disiez que vous alliez
qu'ils soient qu'ils aient qu'ils fassent qu'ils disent qu'ils aillent
qu'elles soient qu'elles aient qu'elles fassent qu'elles disent qu'elles aillent

Among the more regular verb classes, the subjunctive is formed in a variety of ways. The following table shows some of these, but you should note that some verbs ending in these forms use still other endings for the subjunctive. Treat what follows as a guide.

Form -er verbs -ir verbs -re verbs
First person singular (je) que je chante que je remplisse que je prenne
Second person singular (tu) que tu chantes que tu remplisses que tu prennes
Third person singular (il/elle) qu'il/qu'elle chante qu'il/qu'elle remplisse qu'il/qu'elle prenne
First person plural (nous) que nous chantions que nous remplissions que nous prenions
Second person plural (vous) que vous chantiez que vous remplissiez que vous preniez
Third person plural (ils/elles) qu'ils/qu'elles chantent qu'ils/qu'elles remplissent qu'ils/qu'elles prennent

Notice several tendencies. First, the subjunctive will often follow que. Second, the subjunctive often resembles the indicative, but sometimes the imperfect, and sometimes it has its own form. So to find it, first look at the context of the verb, then the meaning of the expression, then at the ending to confirm. And as usual, the more forms you have committed to memory, the easier your task will be.

Sentence structures and the subjunctive

We noted above that the subjunctive is often associated with particular sentence structures. We will examine some of these here.

Structure Example
Verb of opinion + subjunctive Je doute que la neige soit partie.
Verb of obligation + subjunctive Il faut que la neige soit partie.
Verb of desire + subjunctive Je veux que la neige soit partie.
Verb of thought in the negative + subjunctive Je ne pense pas que la neige soit partie.
Verb of thought in the interrogative + subjunctive Espèrez-vous que la neige soit partie.

There are a number of conjunctions that are followed by the subjunctive, as the following table shows. You should try to memorize these as they come up in written texts fairly frequently.

Meaning Example
Hoped-for goal Nous avons pelleté pour que la neige soit partie.
Also: afin que, de peur que, de sorte que
Restriction Nous avons pelleté pour que la neige soit partie.
Also: afin que, de peur que, de sorte que
Condition Nous avons pelleté à condition qu'elle nous aide.
Also: pourvu que
Temporal relation Nous avons pelleté avant qu'elle se lève.
Also: jusqu'à ce que, en attendant que
Concession Nous avons pelleté bien qu'il y ait beaucoup de neige.
Also: quoique

When not to use the subjunctive

The subjunctive is used to talk about events seen as unreal. However, there is one circumstance when it isn't used, even if the event is unreal. That is the case when the same person is represented in the principal clause and in the subordinate clause. To see this, compare the following examples:

So, in the first sentence, the person who wishes for the departure is not the person who will be departing, and the subjunctive is used. However, in the second sentence, the person wishing is the same person who will be leaving and so the infinitive is used. A similar relation can be found in the third and fourth sentences.

Exploring the subjunctive

Understanding the subjunctive takes practice. To begin to see how it works, read the following short passage and try to imagine the irreality behind the sentences in the subjunctive. Then, to check your understanding, mouse over the text. Sentences in the subjunctive will turn red.

Le débat sur l'énergie continue, mais il se peut que des solutions apparaissent. Il ne faut pas que les politiciens oublient leurs responsabilités. Il est certain que le pétrole va durer encore longtemps. Bien que cette ressource reste disponible, les études montrent clairement les effets des combustibles fossiles. Il est important d'investir dans les énergies renouvelables maintenant pour que notre avenir soit assuré.

Reading passages

We now have the means of talking about events in a much more subtle fashion, including describing situations in the past, conjecturing about the future, and thinking about possible states of affairs. Use this knowledge to read the following texts. Don't forget though to use the scaffolding we saw earlier:

Also, remember that you won't understand everything. Rome wasn't built in a day...

Reasons to like New York (from La Presse)

Des raisons d'aimer New York, Marie-Joëlle Parent en a plusieurs. Installée dans la métropole américaine depuis plus de six ans à titre de correspondante de Québecor Média, la journaliste vient de publier un guide qui regroupe 300 de ces raisons glanées au fil du temps.

Car New York, ce n'est pas seulement Times Square et Central Park. «Même si c'est un premier voyage à New York, il faut sortir du coeur de Manhattan, recommande Marie-Joëlle Parent. Ne mangez pas à Times Square ou dans la Petite Italie, ce sont des attrape-touristes! Il ne faut pas avoir peur de sortir des sentiers battus

D'où ce guide «non traditionnel» dans lequel la ville se laisse découvrir à échelle humaine, quartier par quartier. En l'écoutant parler avec enthousiasme de son New York, on croirait que Marie-Joëlle Parent relate son tour du monde. Ici, la journaliste se sent comme à Barcelone. Cette cour lui rappelle l'Allemagne; ce café, Los Angeles.

«C'est ce que j'adore de New York. Chaque quartier a son identité propre. Il y a 20 000 restaurants à New York et on peut chaque soir manger un plat d'une culture différente. C'est pour ça qu'on se sent à la maison à New York: c'est une terre d'étrangers.»


Marie-Joëlle Parent has many reasons to love New York. Located in the American metropolis for more than six years as a correspondent for Québécor Média, the journalist has just published a guide which brings together 300 of these reasons collected over the years.
Because New York is not just Times Square and Central Park. "Even if it's a first trip to New York, you must get out of the heart of Manhattan, recommends Marie-Joëlle Parent. Don't eat at Times Square or in Little Italy. They are tourist traps! You mustn't fear leaving the beaten path.
This is why she published this 'non-traditional' guide where the city can be discovered on the human scale, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Listening to her speak with enthusiasm about her New York, you would think Marie-Joëlle Parent was describing a trip around the world. In this location, the journalist feels like she is in Barcelona. That square makes her think of Germany; that café of Los Angeles.
"It's what I adore about New York. Each neighbourhood has its own identity. There are 20,000 restaurants in New York and you can have a dish from a different culture every evening. It's because of that that one feels at home in New York: it is a land of foreigners.

The reader (from Marcel Pagnol, La gloire de mon père)

Le lecteur -- je veux dire le vrai lecteur -- est presque toujours un ami.

Il est allé choisir le livre, il l'a emporté sous son bras, il l'a invité chez lui.

Il va le lire en silence, installé dans le coin qu'il aime, entouré de son décor familier.

Il va le lire seul, et ne supportera pas qu'une autre personne vienne lire par-dessus son épaule. Il est sans doute en robe de chambre ou en pyjama, sa pipe à la main : sa bonne foi est entière.

Cela ne veut pas dire qu'il aimera ce livre : il va peut-être, à la trentième page, hausser les épaules, il va peut-être dire avec humeure : « Je me demande pourquoi on imprime de pareilles sottises ! »


The reader -- I mean the real reader -- is almost always a friend.
He went to choose the book, he took it away under his arm, he invited it to his home.
He will read it in silence, settled in the corner that he loves, surrounded by his familiar decor.
He will read it alone, and will not tolerate that another person comes to read over his shoulder. He may be in housecoat or pyjama, his pipe close at hand : his good faith is absolute.
That doesn't mean that he will like the book: he may, at the thirtieth page, shrug his shoulders, he may say with irritation "I wonder whey they publish such stupidity!"

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Summing up

You should now feel comfortable with the following concepts:

  1. distinguishing simple and complex sentences in French
  2. recognizing the basic conjunctions in French and understanding how they connect sentences
  3. recognizing the relative pronouns in French and understanding how they connect sentences
  4. understanding the distinction between the indicative and subjunctive mood
  5. being capable of analysing sentences which use the subjunctive mood

In the next module, we will move beyond the boundaries of the sentence and look at some of the devices French provides to create paragraphs and more complex texts.