After a Few Months of French....notes to myself...

Okay, you’ve been working hard at Duolingo, and have gotten a number of the modules completed. You’ve learned a lot, but every now and then a problem arises.

French has concepts that you need to know, and here is a list of the ones that challenged me, with links on how to figure them out:

Accent Marks – You’ll probably wonder about these first.

The accent aigu ´ (acute accent) can only be on an E. At the beginning of a word, it often indicates that an S used to follow that vowel, e.g., étudiant (student). This is not always the case though. The acute accent makes the sound change to "ay" (more open sounding).

The accent grave ` (grave accent) can be found on an A, E, or U. On the A and U, it usually serves to distinguish between words that would otherwise be homographs; e.g., ou (or) vs où (where). In most cases the grave accent (l’accent grave) has no effect on the pronunciation of a vowel.

The accent circonflexe ˆ (circumflex) can be on an A, E, I, O, or U. The circumflex usually indicates that an S used to follow that vowel, e.g., forêt (forest). It also serves to distinguish between homographs; e.g., du (contraction of de + le) vs dû (past participle of devoir). The circumflex, or the hat (î, â, ê) has absolutely no effect on pronunciation.

The accent tréma ¨ (dieresis or umlaut) can be on an E, I, or U. It is used when two vowels are next to each other and both must be pronounced, e.g., naïve, Saül. With the dieresis over the i, it becomes [ai].

The cédille ¸ (cedilla) is found only on the letter C. It changes a hard C sound (like K) into a soft C sound (like S), e.g., garçon. The cedilla is never placed in front of E or I, because C always sounds like an S in front of these vowels.

Definite Articles – Like the English ‘the’, they are used when the noun is specific. Le is masculine, la is feminine, and les is plural of both genders. The problem you may have is that "le" sounds like "lo", and "les" sound like "lay". Oh and you’ll see l’ before a word beginning in a vowel or the silent "h" which is treated like the "h" doesn’t exist. The word may be feminine or masculine, like l’elephant, you just won’t know from the definite article (elephant is masculine by the way).

Indefinite Articles – They introduce nouns that are not specific. They are translated as ‘a’ or ‘an’ in English.They are simply un (masc), une (fem), and des (plural).

Partitive Articles - They are used to introduce "mass nouns", which are nouns that are conceived of as a mass of indeterminate quantity. They are usually translated as ‘some’ in English. You’ve seen them with food and drinks. They are du (masc), de la (fem), and des (plural). Of course there is also de l’ before a vowel or "h" starting word.

If you’re eating food, you better put a "de", "de + le = du", "de + les = des" (where applicable) or you will be wrong. You are not drinking wine, you’re drinking of the wine, and eating of the cheese/bread, etc. Of course, when you’re translating back into English, you use "some" or drop the modifier completely. Vous buvez du vin ->You drink some wine or You drink wine. If you put "You drink the wine"….you get dinked. By the way, when you see "de" say "du" or "dur", or the same as "du". Don’t believe me? Click both on the link below:

Possessors and the Possessed - The possessor always follows the possessed, for instance, "Peter's father" is translated as, "Le père de Pierre."

Demonstrative Determiners - Are used to point out something, typically something within sight. They may be translated in English as ‘this’, ‘that’,’these’, ‘those’ depending on the number (singular or plural) and proximity (near or far). They are ce (masc), cet (masc before a vowel word), cette (fem), and ces (plural). Oh, you used "cettes" a few times? Welcome to the club of "not knowing there is no such word in French". Their pronunciation will trip you up at first. Ce – pronounced “se”, cet – pronounced “seht”, cette – pronounced “seht”, and ces – pronounced “say”.

What’s "that"? – Using the words celui, celle, ci, ceci, cela, and là for the various times you need "that" will drive you crazy. What I’ve learned is that celui is masculine, and its plural is ceux. Celle is feminine, and its plural is celles. Ceci is the contraction of ce + ici (this + here). Cela is the contraction of ce + là (this + there). Ci indicates a "close" reference, i.e. this….while Là indicates a more "remote" reference, i.e. that. Comparisons like to use celui-ci and celle-ci depending on masc/fem. i.e. [This masculine one] is bigger than [that masculine one] ->[Celui-ci] est plus grand que [celui- là]. If feminine, use celle-ci vice celui-ci or celle – là vice celui- là. Compris?

Placement of Adjectives – In French, you take your noun and modify it with an adjective that comes after the noun. But you’ve probably already found out that there are exceptions. Some adjectives precede the noun. They are remembered by the mnemonic "Bangs". Beauty, Age, Number, Good/Bad, and Size. Why? Why ask why?

Noun Genders - This subject is far too difficult to cover here. Why are some nouns masculine and others feminine? God only knows. If it ends in "e", and you had to guess, go with feminine.

“à” & “de” - Prepositions are words which link two related parts of a sentence. In this module, you may get frustrated with the variety of uses for the French prepositions “à” and “de”. Generally speaking, “à” means to, at, or in, while “de” means of or from.

Savoir vs. Connaître – French has two verbs which can be translated by the English verb "to know": savoir and connaître. This can be confusing to English speakers, but in fact there are distinct differences in meaning and usage for the two verbs.

Savoir is used when you know a fact, know something by heart or when you know how to do something.

Connaître has two meanings, and they are related to knowing a person, or being familiar with a person/thing.

Oui vs. Si - The word si is often used as an adverb of affirmation in the sense of "yes". Si must be used in answers to a negative question or assertion ; oui in plain answers.

Que vs. Qui – You will see “que” for the word “that” and "qui" for the word "who/whom" when you have subordinate clauses (two sentences with one introducing the other). To join the clauses there must be a “que”, i.e. Je sais que tu es intelligent. In English “that” is optional, so “He thinks I like dogs” prompts the English speaker to write, “Il pense j’aime les chiens” instead of the correct, “Il pense que j’aime les chiens”. If you are translating, "I want him to do it", the sentence is actually the French, "je veux qu’il le fasse (I want that he does it). The requirement of using "que" and "qui" and "qu’il" and on and on, is an English speaker mystery until you realize this fact. Behind the question "Est-ce que John est ici?" lurks that strange "que", because the sentence really is…. “Is it that John is here?” not ”Is John here?”. DuoLingo will even ask you to translate the English version and you have to remember to subordinate clauses and join them together with "que".

Weather (Faire Warning) – References to the weather, using “faire” i.e. faire beau (nice weather) do not make sense to an English speaker, but it certainly does to romantic language speakers. Il fait soleil (It’s sunny). Il faisait froid (It was cold). It’s uncomfortable to English speakers, but you eventually start using "faire" and life gets easier.

Time Warp – Not to be outdone…time has a lot of quirks…like "It is [insert day, i.e. Monday] suddenly becomes "Nous sommes lundi"….we are Monday…..

Est-ce que vs. Est-ce – These words show up everywhere, and they mean "is it that". Why do you see "que" sometimes and then you don’t? "Est-ce que" is followed by a verb. "Est-ce" is followed by a noun, or a pronoun.

Possessive Pronouns – Possessive Pronouns refer to an object or person by identifying its possessor….mine, ours, yours, his/hers, or theirs. They have a masculine form or feminine form, as well as a singular and plural form. The French possessive pronoun matches the noun being replaced - so if the noun being replaced is masculine/singular, the possessive is masculine/singular... and so on. No big deal right? The problem comes when you think the masculine/feminine and pluralizations are the same for each.

The ones that make sense are:

Mine has le mien (sing. masc.) and la mienne (sing. fem.), as well as plurals les miens and les miennes.

Yours (familiar) has le tien (sing. masc.) la tienne (sing. fem.), as well as plurals les tiens and les tiennes.

His/Hers has le sien (sing. masc.) la sienne (sing. fem.), as well as plurals les siens and les siennes.

The ones that will trick you:

Yours has the same masculine and feminine singular le vôtre and la vôtre, and the plural becomes les vôtres.

Theirs is similar, the same masculine and feminine singular le leur and la leur, and the plural becomes les leurs.

Ours, likewise, has the same masculine and feminine singular le nôtre and la nôtre, and the plural becomes les nôtres.

Possessive Adjectives – Making things even worse is the confusion between the possessive pronouns we just reviewed and possessive adjectives, like my, your, his/her/its, our, and their. These are words that take the place of articles to indicate to whom or to what something belongs. They also have seemingly random applications.

My has the masculine mon, feminine ma, and plural mes.

Your (familiar) has the masculine ton, feminine ta, and plural tes.

His/Her/Its has masculine son, feminine sa, and plural ses.

Your has votre for both masculine and feminine and the plural is vos.

Our is similar, and has notre for both singulars, and nos for plural.

Their has leur for both singulars and leurs for plural.

Liasions – This is where the French speaker does not normally say the silent consonant at the end of a word, but then does when they encounter word that begins with a vowel. They’ll use the last letter as the first letter for that vowel starting word. It seems strange, but it helps their word fluency, and you’ll eventually get used to it.

Enchaînement – similar to liaisons, it is when the ending consonant sounds are pushed onto the next word if it begins in a vowel. For instance: elle est is pronounced like "eh-lay". Mange une pomme is pronounced like "mahn-jun-pom".

Just Because – There are many words for because, "à cause de", "grâce à", car, and "parce que". According to comments: "Parce que" can be used at the beginning of a sentence or in the middle of the sentence whereas "car" can only be used in the middle of a sentence. "Car" cannot be used to start the phrase, i.e. "Parce qu’il pleut je ne sors pas", "Je ne sors pas parce qu’il pleut","Je ne sors pas car il pleut". All three mean the same. You cannot say, "Car il pleut je soirs".

False Friends, False Cognates – These are French words that look like an English word…but are not what you think they are. Most common false cognates: Travailler (to work) ≠ travel (voyager), actuellement (currently) ≠ actually (effectivement), Assister (to attend) ≠ to assist (aider), Attendre (to wait) ≠ to attend (assister), Rester (to stay) ≠ to rest/relax (se reposer), Collège (middle school) ≠ college (l’université), Formidable (excellent) ≠ formidable (redoutable), une librarie (bookstore) ≠ library (bibliotéchque), pleurer (to cry) ≠ to rain (pleuvoir), les bras (arms) ≠ bras (un soutien-gorge), rendre (to give back/surrender) ≠ render (se render), remettre (to put back/postpone) ≠ to remit (à remettre), entendre (to hear) ≠ to intend (l’intention), prétendre (to claim) ≠ to pretend (faire sembleant), abus (excess/overindulgence) ≠ to abuse (d’abuser), disposer (arrange/have available) ≠ to dispose of (de disposer de), une injure (an insult) ≠ an injury (une blessure), actuel ≠ (current) (), actuellement (currently) ≠ actually (en fait), avertissement (warning) ≠ advertisement (publicité), une recette (recipe) ≠ receipt (réception), fournitures (supplies) ≠ furniture (muebles), original (new/innovative) ≠ original (originel), humeur (mood) ≠ humor (humour), formel (strict) ≠ formal (formelle). The list goes on forever. Why? A lot of French was taken by the English and over time things change.

Idiomatic Verbs – You’ve seen them, they are the s’ or m’ before a verb. You thought you knew what that verb meant, but now that it is being done to oneself, themself, myself…as a reflexive, it means something completely different. . i.e. "s’en aller" means "to go away", but "aller" means "to go"…sure that kind of makes sense…but how about "se demander" meaning "to wonder" while "demander" means "to ask"? You need to find the list of reflexive verbs and sort them out…yourself.

Avant vs. Devant – They both mean "before" but avant has to do with time and devant has to do with position. i.e. Before you go to lunch, get in front of me -> Avant d’aller déjeuner, aller au-devant de moi.

"Il y a" Odyssey – What is going on there? Il y a is made up of three words: il – the subject "it", y – the adverbial pronoun "there", a – the third person singular present tense of avoir (to have). The whole thing adds up to a meaning of "there is/there are" in English.

Just say ‘no’ – Another "head scratcher" is when to use ne-verb-pas, because many times the "pas" disappears. i.e. Nous ne les avons jamais retrouvés (We have never found them). Okay, maybe "jamais" took the place of "pas"…but then….Nous ne trouvions plus son chapeau (We did not find his hat anymore)….why not "Nous ne trouvions plus pas son chapeau"? Je ne sais pas…but then you find this, and it all becomes clear.

Imagine if you had known that: ne…plus = no longer, ne…jamais = never, ne…rien = nothing, ne…aucun(e) = not a single one, ne…que = only, ne…personne = nobody, ne…ni…ni = neither…nor, and ne…nulle part = nowhere.

Did you know that use of "ne … pas de" in negative sentences, is because the partitives and indefinite articles become de before the noun (unless the verb is être, then nothing changes).

i.e. Partitive: Je prends du pain et du beurre (I’m having some bread and butter), Negative: Je ne prends pas de pain ou de beurre (I am not having any bread or butter).

Indefinite: J’ai un chien (I have a dog)

Negative: Je n’ai pas de chien (I don’t have a dog)….but when the verb is être: C’est une chatte brune (It’s a brown cat), Negative: Ce n’est pas une chatte brune (It’s not a brown cat).

c’est vs. il est – il est – used to describe a person, unmodified adverb, unmodified noun and prepositional phrase.

c’est – used to describe a situation, modified adverb, modified noun, proper name and stressed pronoun.

Verbs and Their Prepositions – They will drive you crazy as an English speaker. Learn the verbs with their prepositions, instead of just the verb, because there’s no getting around it.

Imperfect and Passé Composé – Did you know that Avoir, Devoir, Pouvoir, Savoir, and Vouloir change meanings, according to whether they are used in the imperfect or the passé composé? Would have been nice to know, oui?

Did Someone Mention "Passé Composé"? – The Passé Composé uses “avoir” for every verb except 14 verbs that use “être”, and anything reflexive that uses etre for the passé composé.. There is a memory tool…DR MRS VANDERTRAMPP (Devenir Revenir Monter Rester Sortir Venir Aller Naître Descendre Entrer Retourner Tomber Rentrer Arriver Mourir Partir), and it’s easier to memorize these verbs than to make sense of anything else. (From Comments: If you want to try to make sense of them instead of rote memorizing them: they're all verbs having to do with motion (or lack thereof). Come, go, arrive, leave, climb, fall, stay. Birth and death are outliers, but you can think of them as moving through time/life).

and here is the mnemonics that French teachers use:

Je puis vs. Je peux – Puis is an older form but it’s ok and can be used though mainly in questions cause it makes it easy to prononce "puis-je vous aider?". Would have been good to know. Oui?

French Dictionary "qqc" & "qqn"? - This is short for "quelques chose" (something, anything) and "quelqu'-un" (somebody, some one, anybody), or quelques-uns (a few, some)

Those are the common concepts that will trip you up during the first month. We’ll cover more advanced confusions at a later time.

August 21, 2014


I'm not as far along as you in the French course and I'm understanding things pretty well for the most part, but you really cleared up a couple of things and hinted at a LOT more to come. This post is a keeper, for sure. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it. I am looking forward to spending some time with it and all the links.

Bonus: I adore Anki. THANK YOU for creating that deck!!

August 21, 2014

I'm glad to have been able to create it. I had my notes, expressions, and such in an MS Excel file, and someone here mentioned Anki. When I looked into it I realized I could do something special for those who work so hard on their French, while helping myself complete the audio portion. It was too good not to share. Maybe someone can use it as the basis for an even better version. You never know. There are some very clever people on this website.

August 21, 2014

Re: passé composé:

It's those verbs and anything reflexive that uses etre for the passé composé. Also, any derivatives of those verbs (ie. redescendre, retomber, etc).. which means you don't need the "DR" in your acronym, since devenir and revenir are just derivatives of venir.

If you want to try to make sense of them instead of rote memorizing them: they're all verbs having to do with motion (or lack thereof). Come, go, arrive, leave, climb, fall, stay. Birth and death are outliers, but you can think of them as moving through time/life.

August 21, 2014

Thanks. Added your notes. For others, this is a link to what we are discussing.

and here is the mnemonics that French teachers use:

August 22, 2014

But some of these etre verbs use avoir when they are used as transitive verbs, and there are still other verbs which indicate movement but use only avoir. I would say that only universal criterium for all etre verbs is that they are used as intransitive or reflexive verbs.

August 22, 2014

You're right, but my point isn't that anything to do with movement uses être, it's that everything that uses être is about moving through time and space. If it's a word like "aimer" or "souhaiter" or "jouer", you don't even need to think about it. It uses avoir unless it's reflexive in which case it uses être. If it's about movement, you can fall back onto MRS VANDERTRAMP if you're not sure.

When I was first taught French in school they used the MRS VANDERTRAMP "just memorize it" way and I was always hopelessly lost, because I'm not very good at memorizing things without any reason. When I learned that they were all movement-y, it became a lot easier to develop a feel for which auxiliary verb to use without thinking much about it.

August 22, 2014

thanks for showing that I'm not insane for saying "je puis" !!! It was in a textbook from way back and no one I talk to has heard of this usage!!! Merci Monsieur!

August 21, 2014

Yep. I got thrown one day and wrote that down. There are a lot of WTF (What? That's French?) moments, and I might sit down and write my notes to myself, now that I've completed Duolingo and have worked on more advanced (and even more challenging) French projects.

August 21, 2014

Didn't you made a mistake on the possessive pronouns ? They have a masculine form or feminine form (and singular and plural form) that refer to the gender and number of the possessed object or person, not the possessor as in English...

So one would say about her husband "le mien", and another about his wife "la mienne", without being a same-sex couple ! ;-)

August 23, 2014

I agree with you. Simply put: French possessive pronouns match the noun being replaced - so if the noun is masc/singular, the possessive is masc/singular... and so on.

August 23, 2014

I don't think I was clear, so I re-wrote that section, using Runakom's words and pointing out that the problem is with pluralization patterns, not use.

August 23, 2014

Yes, I actually got what you meant, but agree it would be better to clarify it. Very good post by the way.

August 23, 2014


August 23, 2014

In the "partitive articles" section you have "del" for plurals. Shouldn't that be "des"?

August 22, 2014

Merci, good eye.

August 22, 2014

#Les motres <> les notres

August 23, 2014


August 23, 2014

Bookmarking this -- a great help!

August 24, 2014

All accents DO change the pronunciation of the letter "e".

è and ê is pronounced like /ε/, a more open sound

é is pronounced like /e/, a more closed sound

You can find audio examples on youtube.

August 25, 2014
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