French Grammar Guide for non-francophones

DETERMINERS (e.g.: un, le, les, ma, ton, cette)

Questions about Determiners

Q: Why is it une chose and NOT un chose?

The word chose is feminine and must therefore be preceded by a feminine determiner (e.g.: une, ma, cette, la).

Q: Why is it cet homme and NOT ce hommeor cette homme?

This is an exception of sorts. The word homme is masculine (and the masculine word meaning "this" is usually ce). However, homme begins with a vowel sound (the h is silent). In order to make the pronunciation easier, t is added. This happens any time ce would normally be followed by a masculine word beginning with a vowel sound. Other examples of this type are cet été, cet hiver and cet enfant.

Q: Why is it Paul aime sa mère and NOT Paul aime son mère?

It doesn’t matter whether the person who is writing (or speaking) is a man or a woman. The gender of the possessive word (known as the determiner) depends on the following noun (the thing or person being possessed). So, for example if a boy named Paul is talking about his mother, he will refer to her as ma mère since the word mère is feminine. On the other hand, one writes Paul aime son père (since the word père is masculine). The same pattern is found when it is an thing that is possessed, e.g.: Paul a perdu son stylo, but Paul a vendu sa voiture.

Q: Why is it les personnes and NOT les personne?

Like English, French indicates plural nouns by adding an -s to the noun. For example, in English, one writes three books and in French one writes trois livres. There are several differences to keep in mind though. First, unlike English, the plural -s is not pronounced in French. Second, French indicates the plural on the preceeding word as well. Consider the following sentence: She returned the books, which translates as Elle a rendu les livres. As you can see, there are two markers for the plural in French (les and -s), while there is only one in English.

Q: Why is it l'eau and NOT le eau?

Generally speaking, French doesn't allow two vowels to be pronounced between words. In writing, this is reflected by the use of an apostrophe before vowels (usually written as i, e, u, o, a) and silent "h" (e.g.: l'homme). This tends to happen with only a handful of preceding words, such as: le, la, que, me, te, se, ce, ma, ta, sa. For example: l'impression, qu'il parte, cela m'intéresse, etc.

Q: Why is it mon amie and NOT ma amie?

It is true that the word amie is feminine, which means it would normally be preceded by ma, not by mon. However, the word amie begins with a vowel and French avoids the pronunciation of two vowels in a row. To achieve this, the form used is in fact mon, (or ton or son) which, in this context, ends with an "n" sound. A similar phenomenon occurs with adjectives. For example, in order to avoid a two-vowel sequence like *beau homme or *vieux homme, the adjective's pronunciation is based on the feminine form, though written differently: un bel homme, un vieil homme. A last example of this is the form ce which, when followed by a masculine noun that begins with a vowel, is written cet, e.g.: cet homme.

Q: Why is it le hibou and NOT *l'hibou?

This is an exception to the general rule and it can be a confusing one. In all French words that begin with h, this sound is silent. In other words, the first sound is actually the vowel that follows this letter. For example, the first sound in the word hiver is the "ee" sound of the i. As such, words that begin with the letter h tend to be preceded by l', e.g.: l'hiver or l'habit. Still, there are a number of words that begin with h that don't work this way. In other words, they are not preceded by l', they are preceded by the word le or la, e.g.: le hibou. Common words of this type are le homard, le héros, le haut, le hasard, la hanche. Words like this are said to begin with "h aspiré". However, this is somewhat misleading since there is in fact no h sound pronounced. These words simply don't participate in the general elision pattern typical of most words that begin with a vowel in French. They are exceptions because they allow two vowels to be pronounced in row.

Q: Why is it il s'est lavé les mains and NOT il a lavé ses mains?

With body parts, use the reflexive verb se laver. Note also that the determiner should be les rather than the possessive determiner ses.

Q: Why is it c'est le mien and NOT c'est le mon?

Determiners always come before nouns, they never come at the end of a sentence. Instead, use a possessive pronoun (le mien).

Q: Why is it cette information and NOT cet information?

Use cette before feminine words and cet before masculine words that begin with a vowel (e.g.: cet effort, cet homme).

 
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