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22 Most Common French Grammar Mistakes [& How to Avoid Them]

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Common Mistakes in French and How to avoid them
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Learning French? Here’s how to avoid making the most common French grammar mistakes so you can speed up your progress and build up your confidence speaking French.

There are certain things you should never say in French. But making mistakes is an important part of learning. The more mistakes we make, the faster we learn! It’s also a great idea to know about the most common pitfalls in advance so you can avoid making an embarrassing faux pas. After all, forewarned is forearmed! Let’s take a look at the most common French grammar mistakes so you know what they are, where they come from, and the best ways to avoid making them.

Allons-y! (Let’s do it!)

Mistakes in French - 22 Most Common French Grammar Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

1.  Watch out for false cognates

Mistakes in French - Watch out for false cognatesCognates are words in two different languages that have the same origin. They are similar (sometimes almost identical) in spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. Cognates can be very helpful when you are learning a new language since they require very little effort to remember them. 

When you start learning a language that shares a lot of cognates with English you sometimes start with quite a lot of familiar vocabulary. This is true for English speakers learning French. Estimates differ, but nearly 60% of English vocabulary has French and Latin roots, as a result of centuries of shared history. 

Here are a few examples of English-French cognates: absence, impression, horrible, mental, urgent, abandonner (abandon), limiter (limit). 

However, there are also false cognates, sometimes referred to as ‘false friends’. Just like real-life false friends, they can be very treacherous. A false cognate is a word in a foreign language that looks the same as a word in your mother-tongue but has a totally different meaning.

Take a look at these French words (the English equivalents are in brackets): pain (bread), coin (corner), blesser (to hurt), location (rent), aimer (to like), chair (flesh), gros (fat), patron (boss), rester (stay), attendre (to wait). 

Unfortunately, false cognates are impossible to predict and to guess. The only way you can be prepared is to know that false cognates exist. So, next time you see a French word that looks exactly like an English one – look it up in the dictionary to double-check its meaning.

2. Using incorrect genders

Mistakes in French - Not using correct gendersThe French language uses grammatical gender which means each French noun is either masculine or feminine. Other parts of speech, such as articles and adjectives, must agree with the nouns they modify in gender as well. 

For example:

  • un homme bon – a good man
  • la voisine est bonne – the neighbour is good 

Just like English, French has both the indefinite and the definite articles, however, the difference here is that French has different forms for different genders:

  • masculine and singular (le, un)
  • feminine and singular (la, une)
  • plural (les, des)

French adjectives also have distinct forms for different genders, both in the singular and the plural: 

  • grand – (great) – masculine, singular
  • grands – masculine, plural
  • grande –  feminine, singular
  • grandes – feminine, plural 

English is less inflected than French so learning how to use grammatical gender correctly may take some time. The gender of most nouns is not based on any physical traits or features, it’s purely grammatical, which makes it a little harder, but not impossible, to memorize. 

3. Pay attention to correct pronunciation 

Mistakes in French - Pay attention to correct pronunciationThe French language has quite a few sounds that are very different from English, some of which are tricky for English speakers to produce. The good news is it just requires a little bit of practice. Pronouncing ‘foreign’ sounds can be challenging to produce simply because the muscles in your mouth are not used to them. But the more you practice, the easier it gets – and even the trickiest sounds can be conquered. 

Here are some of the French sounds and letters that cause the most difficulties:

  • The French [r] is pronounced at the back of your throat, almost like a gurgling sound.
  • The letter [h] is silent and not pronounced at all in French
  • The endings of many French words are not pronounced: froi(d), peti(t). The ending is pronounced only if the French word ends in C, R, F, or L, with some exceptions.
  • French nasal vowels – these can make you sound a bit like your nose is blocked, but they are also a common and important feature of the French language

4. Check your conjugations

Mistakes in French - Check your conjugationsFrench verbs are inflected into several forms, more so than in English. Not only do French verbs have more tenses and moods, but they also need to be conjugated for person and number.

For example:

  • Tu aimes – You (singular) like
  • Nous aimons – We like
  • Vous aimez – You (plural) like

In English, a lot of tense/aspect forms are made using auxiliary verbs, while in French, inflections are used. In other words, where English may need three words to express an idea, French uses only two.

For example:

  • Ils aimeront – They will like

There are also French verb forms that are not used in English and vice versa. For instance, the Subjunctive form is very common in French and compulsory in some structures, while it is much less common in English. On the contrary, French doesn’t have a present perfect so different French equivalents are used instead depending on the situation.

French conjugation may be tricky to comprehend in the beginning, but there is nothing to be afraid of and certainly nothing that can’t be mastered with a bit of patience and ample practice. 

5. Keep the definite article

Mistakes in French - Keep the definite articleBoth English and French use articles and generally speaking their function is quite similar: they modify nouns to indicate whether we are talking about a specific thing or in general. In English, we use the word the when speaking about a specific thing. For example, the house. This is called a definite article.

It would be wrong to assume that French articles can be used in exactly the same way as English ones when in fact there are some important differences.

For example, in English, no articles are used when we generalize:

  • I like chocolate
  • Cats are very agile

But in French, the definite article is used in these situations:

  • J’aime le chocolat – I like chocolate
  • Les chats sont très agiles – Cats are very agile

When using French articles, avoid relying on English rules of article use and pay careful attention to the differences between the two languages. 

6. Incorrectly using the definite or indefinite articles instead of the  partitive article du/de/de l’ 

Mistakes in French - Knowing when to use the partitive articleIn addition to definite (the) and indefinite articles (a, an), French also uses the partitive articles du/de/de l’. The partitive article is often translated as ‘some’ but it is often left out in English. It’s used to indicate an undefined portion of something that is uncountable or an indefinite number of something countable.

For example:

  • J’ai de l’eau – I have some water
  • Nous avons de la viande – We have some meat
  • Il a du café – He has some coffee

As there is no partitive article in English, students of French tend to misuse or ignore it.

7. Misplacing adjectives

Mistakes in French - Misplacing adjectivesUnlike English, adjectives in French are placed after the noun.

For example:

  • un vélo vert – a green bike
  • des amis extraordinaires – extraordinary friends 

It may feel unusual at first to place adjective afters the noun but it’s not too difficult to get used to. There are, however, some categories of adjectives, often having to do with beauty, age, goodness, or size, that are placed before the noun.

For example:

  • une belle femme – a beautiful woman
  • une grande maison – a big house 

Some adjectives change their meaning entirely depending on whether they are placed before or after the noun.

For example:

  • mon propre enfant – my own child 
  • un enfant propre – a clean child 

8. Literally translating English phrases word for word

Mistakes in French - Literally translating word for wordWhen learning a new foreign language it’s common and even expected that you will literally translate phrases word for word. After all, it’s so tempting! Just replace the English words with their French equivalents and voilà! But that rarely works and when it does it only works with very simple sentences like ‘Je suis un garçon’ (Literally, I am a boy).

But the French language has a different structure from English so word for word translation is not always possible. For instance, the construction be + adjective becomes have avoir + adjective in French.

For example:

  • avoir raison – to be right (literally, to have reason)
  • avoir faim – to be hungry (literally, to have famine/hungry)
  • avoir besoin de – to need (literally, to have need of)
  • avoir l’air – to look, to seem (literally, to have air/appearance)

Be careful to not directly translate English phrases word for word into French. Always look out for appropriate French equivalents. 

9. Mixing up prepositions pendant vs. pour

Mistakes in French - Mixing up prepositions pendant and pourLearning prepositions are tricky in most languages. At a first glance, French prepositions seem to be easier to master as there are fewer of them than in English. But the problem is that they are used very differently so you can never fully rely on their translation or the way similar prepositions are used in the English language.

For instance, ‘for’ is used in English to describe periods of time: 

  • I have lived here for five years

‘For’ is ‘pour’ when translated into French, but ‘pour’ is never used with time expressions. Instead, pendant (during) is used.

For example: 

  • J’ai habité en Italie pendant trois ans – I lived in Italy for three years

There are also verbs in French that require a preposition while their English equivalents don’t.

For example:

  • Ma petite amie joue du piano – My girlfriend plays the piano
  • Je manque à ma mère – My mum misses me

The second example is even trickier as it requires the inversion of the subject and the object. 

Prepositions are one of the aspects of the French language that just have to be memorized. There are no rules or grammar tables to follow. Unlike verb conjugations, you can’t learn some basic principles and use all the prepositions based on them. But do not let this deter you. Just as any other aspect of the language, prepositions, while daunting at first, are easily mastered with active learning practice.

10. Polysemantic words: using words with more than one meaning

Mistakes in French - Using words with more than one meaningThere are quite a few polysemantic words in the French language, that is, words that have more than one meaning. These words can mean something slightly different depending on the context or sometimes have an entirely different meaning. 

Just because you know the translation of a French word don’t assume that this is the only one possible, especially if you see the word used in a different context. 

In some cases, misunderstanding the usage can lead to vulgar or rude misunderstandings. For example, the noun un baiser is a cute word for ‘a kiss. However, the verb baiser is a vulgar way ‘to have sex’ (ie. to f**k). If you want to say ‘I kissed him’, you need to use the verb embrasser and say, Je l’ai embrassé.

11. Mixing up verbs with similar meanings

Mistakes in French - Mixing up verbs with similar meaningsIn English, we have the verbs ‘say’, ‘tell’, and ‘talk’, while French just uses the verbs dire (say, tell, recite) and parler (speak, talk) but these are used in different contexts and one cannot replace the other. 

Dire’ is used when you are quoting someone’s words, in reported speech. It is also used when followed by a noun as its direct object.

For example:

  • Il a dit ‘allons-y’! – He said ‘let’s go’!
  • Tu dis un mensonge. – You’re telling a lie.

Parler’, without a direct object, is similar to the English verb ‘to talk’. It can be followed by the preposition ‘à’ to indicate an indirect object.

For example:

  • Vous parlez trop! – You talk too much!
  • Le prof parle à ses étudiants. – The teacher talks to his/her students.

12. Understanding possessive pronouns and adjectives

Mistakes in French - Understanding possessive pronouns and adjectivesThe use of possessive pronouns in French is quite different from English. In English, possessive pronouns are inflected to agree with the gender and number of the possessor. For instance, in the sentence ‘the tables are his’ the form ‘his’ reflects that the possessor is masculine, singular.

A similar sentence in French would be ‘les tables sont les siennes’. In this sentence, the base of the possessive pronouns form, ‘sien’ indicates that the possessor is third-person singular but of unspecified gender (it could be he, she, or it) while the inflection ‘-nes’ indicates that the possessed object ‘table’ is feminine plural.

The same is true for French possessive adjectives. For example, ‘your’ is ‘ton’ when followed by a masculine noun, ‘ta’ with a feminine noun, and ‘tes’ with a plural one. 

13. Verbs with reflexive pronouns

Mistakes in French - Verbs with reflexive pronounsIt is quite common that one language has a part of speech or a grammatical category that some other languages don’t. It is actually one of the many reasons that makes word-for-word translation impossible. 

One such part of speech in French is pronominal verbs. In grammatical terms, ‘pronominal’ simply means ‘relating to a pronoun’. Such verbs include a reflexive pronoun (me, te , se, etc.) followed by a regularly conjugated verb.

French pronominal verbs can have different functions. They can be used as reflexive verbs to describe the subject doing something to themselves. They can function as reciprocal verbs describing subjects acting on one another. 

For example:

  • Je me brosse les dents tous les matins – I brush my teeth every morning
  • Nous nous sommes parlé – We spoke to each other

In some cases, using the verb pronominally changes the meaning of the verb. There are also some verbs that are used only pronominally. 

For example:

  • se figurer – to imagine (while ‘figurer’ means ‘appear’)
  • se repentir – to repent  

14. Not dropping possessives adjectives with pronominal verbs when referring to body parts

Mistakes in French - Speaking about body partsWhen talking about different parts of the body, such as hands, legs, hair, etc., pronominal verbs (see the previous section) are commonly used in French: 

  • Je me lave les mains. – I am washing my hands
  • Il s’est cassé la jambe. – He broke his leg. 

In this case, the pronominal verb already indicates that the subject is doing the action to themselves and their part of the body. That is why possessive adjectives ‘mes’ (my) or ‘sa’ (his) are not needed in the examples above. Using both a pronominal verb and a possessive adjective in French is redundant. Instead of possessives, definite articles are used in this situation.  

15. Forgetting to use contractions

Mistakes in French - Forgetting to use contractionsIn English, contractions are commonly used with auxiliary and modal verbs and are optional. For instance, you can choose between ‘I’m’ and ‘I am’, ‘can’t’ and ‘cannot’, ‘I’d like’ and ‘I would like’. 

French contractions are quite different. Firstly, they aren’t based on the grammatical category but on the pronunciation. Most French contractions have to do with the disappearance of a final mute [e] before a vowel or a mute [h].

For example:

  • l’avion – the plane
  • l’hiver – the winter

Secondly, French contractions are compulsory: if the words call for a contraction you must contract them.

16. Expressing time

Mistakes in French - Expressing timeWhen you come across a word in a foreign language that is very similar to a word in English, it is very tempting to use it in a similar way. But French words that seem to be direct equivalents of their English counterparts can have a different connotation, a broader, or more specific meaning. 

One such example is the word le temps, a singular word with a silent [s] at the end that is often translated as ‘time’. However, this French word has a more specific meaning than its English equivalent. It is mostly used in two situations: to mean ‘weather’ or ‘time’, as in, ‘I don’t have the time’ (Je n’ai pas le temps).

Other uses of the English word ‘time’ would be translated very differently:

  • What time is it? – Quelle heure est-il?
  • three times – trois fois
  • in the times of – à l’époque de
  • at the time of – au moment de
  • many times – souvent

This is just one example, but there are many more French words like this. When in doubt, make sure to look it up in a dictionary or a grammar book to avoid these common French grammar mistakes. 

17. Using c’est instead of il est (or vice versa)

Mistakes in French - Using c'est instead of il est‘It is’ may seem like a simple phrase to use and a simple one to translate, but fais attention! (be careful!). There are two ways of saying ‘it is’ in French: c’est and il est. The two options are synonymous but not interchangeable; the trick is to know when to use which.

For example: 

  • J’aime ce jardin, il est joli. – I like this garden, it’s pretty.
  • C’est un joli jardin. – It’s a pretty garden.

The phrase c’est is used when followed by a noun. It can also be followed by an adjective when you are making a generic statement about something.

  • C’est un chien – It is a dog
  • C’est beau! – It’s beautiful!

Use il est when it is followed by an adjective and when it is known from the context what we are referring to – for instance, the object was already mentioned or named before. It is also used when talking about professions.

For example: 

  • J’aime ce perroquet. Il est drôle! – I love this parrot. It is funny!
  • Il est acrobate – He is an acrobat

18. Translating verbs of movement and transportation

Mistakes in French - Verbs of movement and transportationFrench verbs for movement and transportation such as ‘walk’, ‘fly’, ‘swim’, ‘drive’, ‘fly’ are translated differently in different contexts. For example, the verb voler (to fly) describes the physical act of flying. You can use it to speak about flying birds. But if you want to use the verb ‘to fly’ to describe a means of transportation you have to use ‘aller en avion’ which literally means ‘to go in a plane’. 

Here are a few other examples:

  • to walk – aller à pied (literally, to go by foot)
  • to drive – aller en voiture (literally, to go in a car)
  • to cycle – aller [quelque part] à vélo (literally, to go [somewhere] by bike) eg. On va aller au travail à vélo. – We go to work by bike / We cycle to work.
  • to swim – aller à la nage (literally, to go by swimming)

19. Trying to use English -ing endings in French

Mistakes in French - Trying to use -ing endings in FrenchUnlike English, there is no aming, is-ing or are-ing. The -ing form, or the gerund tense, is frequently used in the English language to form Continuous tenses.

For example:

  • I am reading a book.
  • He was watching a movie at nine o’clock last night. 

However, there is no such form in the French language and there are no continuous tenses. There is only one present tense and it is used to translate both Present Simple and Present Continuous into French.

For example:

  • We are having lunch. – Nous déjeunons. (lit. we have lunch)
  • He’s waiting for you. – Il t’attend. (lit. he awaits you)

In the past tense, the imparfait (imperfect) is used to convey the Past Continuous, meaning an action that was ongoing at some point in the past. 

For example:

  • He was thinking about the problem. – Il pensait au problème.
  • They were watching TV when the phone rang. – Ils regardaient la télé quand le téléphone a sonné.

20. Confusing connaître and savoir

Mistakes in French - Confusing connaitre and savoirThere are two ways of translating the verb ‘to know’ into French: connaître and savoir. These two French verbs are similar in meaning (after all, both are translated as ‘to know’) but they are not interchangeable and are used in different situations. 

Connaître needs a direct object, which may be a person, place, or thing. It may be helpful to think of this verb as ‘to be familiar with’.

For example:

  • Ils ne connaissent pas Bordeaux. – They don’t know / aren’t familiar with Bordeaux.
  • Elle connaît bien le français. – She knows a lot of French.

Savoir is used when there’s another verb in the sentence. The English equivalent is ‘to know how to do something’.

For example:

  • Je ne sais pas chanter. – I don’t know how to sing.
  • Tu sais faire la cuisine – You know how to cook
  • Ma sœur sait très bien nager – My sister can swim really well.

21. Using avoir and être

Mistakes in French - Using avoir and êtreThe verbs ‘avoir’ (to have) and ‘être’ (to be) are auxiliary verbs – the so-called ‘helper’ verbs that are used to ‘help’ build various tense forms and grammatical structures. Tenses that are formed with the help of avoir or être are called compound tenses. In French, these are usually found in past tenses. 

For example:

  • Nous avons fini (we finished) – this phrase is made of the auxiliary verb ‘avoir’ followed by a past participle. In this case, the combination of the two is a compound tense, the passé composé.
  • Tu étais déjà parti (you had already left) – here, the auxiliary verb is ‘être’, followed by a past participle to form the plus-que-parfait (pluperfect).

In English, the verb ‘to have’ + infinitive is often used to express obligation: ‘You have to help me’. The French verb ‘avoir’ is never used in this context; instead, ‘devoir’ (have to, must) is used.

For example:

  • Nous sommes en retard. Nous devons aller. – We are late. We have to go.

Avoir and être are never used with infinitives when they are used as auxiliary verbs. They are only used with past participles like arrivé (arrived), parlé (spoke), vu (seen), vendu (sold), and so on.

22. Using voir and regarder

Mistakes in French - Using voir and regarderSimilar to connaître and savoir or  dire and parler, the verbs voir and regarder express a similar concept but are used in different situations. When accompanied by a direct object, voir means ‘to see’ something. Without an object, it means something similar to ‘to understand’.

For example:

  • Nous avons vu des choses surprenantes. – We saw some surprising things.
  • Je vois. – I see.

Regarder is similar to the English verb ‘to watch’ and refers to actively looking at something.

  • ll regarde la télé. – He watches TV.

Final thoughts 

That’s it! The most common French grammar mistakes students of French make. While this isn’t an exhaustive list of all mistakes you’ll make, they are the most common that students encounter. It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t rely too heavily on the English language when learning French. While there are many similarities between the two languages, such as shared vocabulary and similarities in grammar which help get your foot in the door, there are just as many ways it can trip you up. Look out for false cognates, things that don’t exist in one of the two languages, or things that seem similar but are actually used quite differently. 

Last but not least, don’t let this list of common French grammar mistakes scare you. Now that you’re aware of them, you’ll be able to spot them quickly and either avoid them entirely or know where you need to focus your studies in order to improve and progress. Bonne chance! (Good luck!)

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Common Grammar Mistakes in French and How to Avoid Them

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