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French Noun Syntax

This replaces the internal Help for French Noun Syntax, which is faulty on some versions of Windows.

Why syntax is useful | Using the Language Engine | Phrase Structures | Glossary

Why syntax is useful

Syntax is the process by which languages join words together to make phrases; in English, for example, we can combine street with our and in to make in our street. Learning the syntax of a foreign language is the biggest single step you can take towards increasing your fluency in it.

The reason for this is that combining words creates an enormous number of phrases. Suppose you know 10 words like our (such as your, his, that) and 20 words for people and things (for example colleague, friend, letter). If you combine these words using the pattern your friend, there will be 10 words that can go in the first slot, the one occupied by your, and 20 that can go in the slot occupied by friend; so those 30 words will make 200 phrases (your letter, this colleague, that street) - that is, they will make nearly seven times as many phrases as there are single words. And if you add just four prepositions (for example with and by), you will turn those 200 phrases into 800 (in your letter, with my colleague) with virtually no additional effort.

The Language Engine gives you practice in combining words into phrases, and so develops your mastery of syntax and increases your fluency.

Syntax versus meaning

Not all phrases made by mechanically combining words will be useful. Some of them may not even make sense. Your white accident, for example, though a perfectly correct piece of syntax (determiner + adjective + noun) could only have a rather specialised meaning, arising from a particular and unusual context.

The Language Engine screens out many such infelicities, but it it not geared to nuances of meaning. You may feel that some of the examples it produces are doubtful.

However, it is bad policy to restrict your learning to phrases whose usefulness is immediately obvious. Since you cannot possibly learn in advance - still less memorise - all the phrases you will ever need, the only way of proceeding is to learn how to create any phrase, so that you can create the right one when you need it. In other words, you have to learn the mechanism, not the result, and that is what the Language Engine teaches.

Using the Language Engine


Type the following to get accented characters:

  a-circumflex   ^a   (caret followed by a)
  a-grave   \a   (backslash followed by a)
  c-cedilla   ,c   (comma followed by c)
  e-acute   /e   (oblique stroke followed by e)
  e-circumflex   ^e   (caret followed by e)
  e-diaeresis   "e   (double quotes followed by e)
  e-grave   \e   (backslash followed by e)
  i-circumflex   ^i   (caret followed by i)
  i-diaeresis   "i   (double quotes followed by i)
  o-circumflex   ^o   (caret followed by o)
  u-circumflex   ^u   (caret followed by u)
  u-diaeresis   "u   (double quotes followed by u)
  u-grave   \u   (backslash followed by u)

Dictionary, Tables, Rulebook

To build the phrases that it presents to the learner for practice, the Language Engine uses three sets of materials: a dictionary, a set of tables, and a rulebook. These materials are organised by word class. You can see the contents of any of them by clicking the relevant button in the Practice window.


'Explain' shows you the procedure that was used to create the phrase currently presented for practice. The procedure is held by the Language Engine in its rulebook, and executed from there.

The left-hand window, white with a tree diagram on it, gives an overview - click on any branch of the tree for more detailed information on that element. In the right-hand window, instructions that were acted on in this particular case are highlighted in white, while those that were not acted on remain green or yellow.

Dictionary flags

The Language Engine attaches markers or 'flags' to some words in its dictionaries, partly to eliminate noun phrases which would not make sense, and partly to ensure grammatical correctness. These flags ensure, for example, that a countable determiner is not attached to an uncountable noun, thus eliminating such phrases as *trois travail *three work.

You can see references to these flags when the Rulebook is displayed in the 'Explain' window, and you can examine the flags for any word by clicking on that word in the displayed Dictionary. However, you do not need to memorise these flags, and no further description of them is given.

Dummy entries

Three of the dictionaries in the Language Engine - those for numbers, persons and expressions of time - contain just a single dummy entry instead of lists of words. The reason is that the Language Engine computes all the required entries from just a few raw words, which it stores in its tables.

All the numbers, for example, are computed from the words for hundreds, tens and units, and all possible clock-times are computed from the words for hours and for various intervals before and after the hour. This enables the Language Engine to create a very large number of phrases from a small stock of raw words.

Phrase Structures

mon ami my friend -- Determiner + Noun

mon is a determiner, ami is a noun. Most French nouns, like English nouns, need a determiner in front of them if they are to make sense.

  • Where English can use the noun by itself to denote an unspecified quantity (friends appeared, water was drunk), French requires a partitive determiner such as des: des amis (some) friends, de l'eau (some) water.
  • Town names don't take the definite article the in French any more than they do in English: Paris Paris, not *le Paris *the Paris. Other determiners are however possible: notre Paris our Paris.

The determiner agrees with its noun.

à une heure at one o'clock -- Preposition + Time

à is a preposition meaning at, and the rest of the phrase denotes the time.

The Language Engine covers clock times with five-minute separations (five minutes past the hour, ten minutes past the hour, etc.), and uses the twelve-hour system (3.00 p.m. is three o'clock, not fifteen hundred hours).

  • The hour is specified using the numerals 1 to 11, followed by heure(s): une heure one o'clock. If the numeral has a distinctive fem. form, it agrees with heure(s). heures is plural if the hour is greater than 1: deux heures two o'clock. Midday and midnight, however, are midi and minuit respectively, without heure.
  • Five-minute divisions are expressed by the plain numeral, e.g. cinq, vingt-cinq. Quarter-hours and half-hours are expressed by quart and demie (demie is fem. to agree with heure).
  • Time after the hour is denoted by et and, time before the hour by moins less. If the time is one quarter before the hour, however, moins le quart is used, rather than moins quart.
  • Minutes before or after the hour can be followed by the word minutes, and there are variations with quart such as moins un quart. The Language Engine does not deal with these features.

cet ami-ci this friend here -- NounPhrase + EmphaticParticle

The emphatic particles are ci and , and they are used only with the determiner ce this. They are invariable, and are joined to the noun by a hyphen.

un ami one friend -- Numeral + Noun

The Language Engine covers the numerals 1-199. The rules for expressing numbers in French are messy, and not accurately stated by all commentators. Learners need to know about counting in twenties as well as tens, removing a final s, and joining numbers together.

  • For numbers up to 60, French follows English in using a word for the tens followed by a word for the remaining units: vingt-deux twenty-two, cinquante-trois fifty-three. But for numbers in the range 60-99, French takes the nearest twenty below and then adds a word for any remainder: soixante-douze (60+12=) 72, quatre-vingt-seize (80+16=) 96.
  • The final s on quatre-vingts is removed when there is a remainder beyond 80: quatre-vingts 80, quatre-vingt-un 81.
  • Numbers are joined by hyphens, or joined by the word et, or simply juxtaposed:
    1. The normal procedure is to use a hyphen: quatre-vingt-dix-sept 97.
    2. et is used between the tens (or twenties) and the units whenever the remainder is 1: vingt et un 21, soixante et un 61. It is also used in soixante et onze 71, but not in quatre-vingt-un 81 or quatre-vingt-onze 91.
    3. After cent, neither a hyphen nor et is used: cent un 101, cent vingt-cinq 125.
  • un and compounds ending in un agree with their nouns: une ville one town, vingt et une personnes 21 persons.

le premier ami the first friend -- Determiner + Numeral + Noun

Ordinal numerals (first, second, etc.) are made from cardinal numerals (one, two, etc.) by the following process:

  • Normally, add ième to the cardinal: sixième.
  • cinq adds u after its final q, and neuf changes its final f to v: cinquième, neuvième.
  • The ordinal of un 1 is premier. But if the 1 is a remainder forming part of another number, then un becomes unième in the normal way: vingt et unième.

The two ordinal numbers that begin with vowels, huitième and onzième, are exceptional in that they do not require the prevocalic form of preceding determiner: la onzième question.

premier is only ordinal that agrees with its noun: les premières heures the first hours.

mes deux amis my two friends -- Determiner + Qualifier + Noun
la semaine prochaine next week -- Determiner + Noun + Qualifier

Qualifiers can come between the determiner and the noun, or after the noun:

  • Most qualifiers come between the determiner and the noun, as in mes deux amis: mes is a determiner, and deux (along with all the other numerals) is a qualifier.
  • Note that tel follows the normal rule in coming between the determiner and the noun: un tel ami such a friend. The French word order is different from the English.
  • When dernier, passé and prochain are used to relate a period of time to the present moment, they follow the noun: le lundi prochain next Monday (starting from now). In all other cases they come between the determiner and the noun: le prochain lundi the next Monday (starting from some other time), la prochaine maison the next house (in a series). These words therefore appear in the dictionary twice, once with a flag saying that they follow the noun, and once without.

Qualifiers agree with their noun (except that most numerals have no distinct fem. form).

un ami heureux a happy friend -- NounPhrase + Adjective
un bon ami a good friend -- Determiner + Adjective + Noun

In French, generally speaking, adjectives follow the noun as in un ami heureux. Some adjectives, however - typically somewhat conventional ones - precede the noun (un bon ami).

The adjective agrees with the noun it qualifies.

de mes amis (some of) my friends -- PartitiveParticle + NounPhrase
de bons amis (some) good friends -- PartitiveParticle + Adjective + Noun
beaucoup de mes amis a lot of my friends -- Quantifier + PartitiveParticle + NounPhrase
beaucoup d'amis a lot of friends -- Quantifier + PartitiveParticle + Noun

A partitive expression is one that is introduced by the partitive particle de, generally translated as some.

  • The partitive particle de can be followed by a determiner (mes in de mes amis). If the phrase is plural, however, and an adjective precedes the noun, and the determiner is les, then the determiner is omitted: des amis friends, but de bons amis good friends.
  • A partitive expression may or may not be preceded by a quantifier. There is no quantifier in de mes amis and de bons amis, whereas beaucoup de mes amis and beaucoup d'amis include the quantifier beaucoup (with the result that de can no longer be translated as some).
  • When a partitive expression follows a quantifier, the determiner (mes in the example) may or may not be present, according to meaning.

Note that, among the quantifiers, plus means either more or no more according to context, and that whereas un peu means a little, peu by itself means not much.

Some commentators use partitive in a more restricted sense, and do not include all the patterns quoted here.

tous mes amis all my friends -- Quantifier + NounPhrase

The quantifier tout precedes the determiner, and is the only quantifier that is not followed by the partitive particle: tous mes amis. tout agrees with its noun.

avec mon ami with my friend -- Preposition + NounPhrase

Combining nouns with prepositions (avec is a preposition; mon ami is a noun phrase) adds enormously to your fluency.

A number of French prepositions consist of several words of which the last is de or à, so you may need to use a contraction with them. à + le becomes au, for example, changing *quant à le billet into quant au billet as far as the ticket is concerned. This is the only adjustment you need to make when putting a preposition in front of a noun phrase.

avec moi with me -- Preposition + Pronoun

Just as you can put a preposition in front of a noun (avec mon ami with my friend - avec is a preposition) - so you can put a preposition in front of a pronoun: avec moi with me.

The form of the pronoun used after a preposition (e.g. moi) is the one grammarians call disjunctive. You can add -même(s) to this form to make it emphatic. The Language Engine calls moi the form with strong valency and moi-même the form with emphatic valency.

A few prepositions - some of the ones that end in de - use a different construction when they are used with a pronoun: not *à droite de moi but à ma droite. English has the same preference, using on my right instead of *at the right of me. The Language Engine does not deal specifically with this feature - it omits the incorrect form, but does not practise the alternative.


A word that qualifies a noun. An adjective qualifies a noun by specifying one of the features of the thing that the noun refers to. In une auto jaune a yellow car, for example, auto is a noun; the thing that the noun refers to is a car; colour is one of a car's features; and jaune yellow is an adjective specifying that feature.

Agreement is a procedure, in French, whereby all the words that relate to a given noun take different forms according to the noun's gender and number. In ton vieux père your old father, for example, père is masculine and singular, and ton and vieux are in their masc. sing. forms; whereas in tes vieilles maisons your old houses, maisons is feminine and plural, and tes and vieilles are the fem. plur. forms of ton and vieux. English follows a similar procedure with some words, but only for number, not for gender. In this potato is good and these potatoes are good, for example, this and is change to these and are to reflect the plurality of potatoes.

Some pairs of words in French contract to form one word: à + le to the, for example, combine into au. The Language Engine looks up such contractions in its tables.

Countable and uncountable nouns
French, like English, distinguishes between countable nouns (e.g. deux rues two streets) and uncountable nouns (e.g. mon travail my work). Combinations of countable qualifier with uncountable noun, and vice versa, (*one work, *not much streets) are as incorrect in French as they are in English. The Language Engine screens out non-matching combinations by using a system of flags in its dictionaries.

A word which determines more precisely the reference of the noun which follows it. In ton ami your friend, for example, ton is a determiner.

Emphatic particle
The words ci and , used only with the determiner ce. For example cet enfant-ci this child (here).

Gender is an arbitrary way of classifying nouns in French. Every noun is of either masculine gender or feminine gender. Gender affects the way French forms phrases because of agreement. The gender of nouns denoting living beings corresponds reasonably closely to their biological gender, but the gender of inanimate objects and qualities is arbitrary. journal newspaper for example is masc., but lampe lamp is fem. When you learn a French noun, it is best to memorise its gender at the same time. The Language Engine works out the gender of a noun from the rules in its rulebook.

Noun phrase
A noun phrase is a phrase consisting of a noun and various words that qualify it. In toute cette langue this entire language, for example, toute and cette both qualify the noun langue, so the phrase is a noun phrase. French forms noun phrases in much the same way as English does, by adding other words to nouns: ta vielle maison your old house. However, although the two languages have much in common, there are many differences of detail.

A word denoting a thing, person or quality: nourriture food, mari husband, dommage damage.

Singular or plural. 'Singular number' means that the word denotes one item only; 'plural number' means that it denotes more than one. So billet ticket is singular because it denotes only one ticket, but billets tickets is plural because it denotes more than one ticket.

Numerals are numbers. The Language Engine covers the numbers 1 to 199, both cardinal (un one, deux two, etc.) and ordinal (premier first, deuxième second, etc.). The Language Engine has a dictionary for Numerals, which contains just one dummy entry.

Partitive particle
The word de, usually translated as some, as in de l'eau some water.

A preposition is a word that shows the temporal, spatial or logical relationship between the noun phrase that follows it and something else: après l'hiver after the winter, dans l'eau in the water, au sujet de votre mère regarding your mother (après, dans and au sujet de are prepositions; l'hiver, l'eau and votre mère are noun phrases).

Prevocal forms
Some French words have a special form used only before vowels ('prevocal' means 'coming before a vowel'). beau nice, for example, is bel before a vowel, and ma my, the fem. sing. form of mon, reverts to mon before a vowel. English has prevocal forms too: an eye, not a eye.

A word that can take the place of a noun phrase. So instead of avec sa troisième femme with his third wife we could say avec elle with her: elle is a pronoun taking the place of the noun phrase sa troisième femme. The Language Engine dictionary for Pronouns contains only a dummy entry.

A somewhat arbitrarily defined category, consisting of words that limit the reference of nouns: même is a qualifier in la même raison the same reason. Traditional French grammar makes no distinction between qualifiers and adjectives, but the Language Engine categorises qualifiers differently because they show small differences of behaviour from adjectives.

To qualify a word means to limit the meaning of that word. mauvais wrong in le mauvais après-midi the wrong afternoon limits the meaning of afternoon (it was't just any old afternoon, it was the wrong one).

A word denoting a quantity, such as beaucoup de a lot of, peu de not much of, tout all. Traditional French grammar prefers the term 'expression of quantity' to 'quantifier'.

An expression denoting time-of-day, such as huit heures eight o'clock. The Language Engine has a dictionary for Time with one dummy entry in it.

Word classes
To create noun phrases, the Language Engine needs to group words into classes. Some of the classes it uses - such as nouns and adjectives - are those of traditional French grammar, but others - such as qualifiers and quantifiers - are not. You do not need to understand the precise differences between these word classes. The allocation of words to classes is in any case somewhat arbitrary - tout all, for example, could just as well be called an adjective as a quantifier.

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