French Grammar Guide for non-francophones

ADJECTIVES (e.g.: bon, grande, petit, intelligent, excellente)

An Overview of French Adjectives

Adjectives are used to describe nouns. They must agree in gender and number with nouns (e.g.: des choses importantes). Most adjectives come after the noun. However, many common adjectives precede the noun. To use French adjectives correctly you need to know: a) the most common adjectives; b) how to form masculine, feminine and plural adjectives; c) how to show agreement with nouns; and d) where to place the adjective.

Forms

Masculine and Feminine

French adjectives are either masculine or feminine (depending on the kind of noun they modify). The most common way to form a feminine adjective is to add an "-e" to a masculine adjective, e.g.: haut/haute, lent/lente, grand/grande. Note that for some forms, there is no difference between the masculine and feminine, e.g.: pauvre, facile, proche, habile.

Other common changes are:

  • -eux > -euse, e.g.: dangereux> dangeureuse
  • -if > -ive, e.g.: actif > active
  • -ier > ière, e.g.: premier > première

Still, many frequent adjectives involve less predictable changes. Some of the most common ones you should know are presented in the following table:

masculine feminine English
bon bonne "good"
beau belle "beautiful"
gentil gentille "kind"
vieux vieille "old"
dernier dernière "last"
gros grosse "big"
bas basse "low"
faux fausse "false"
sec sèche "dry"
blanc blanche "white"
long longue "long"

There is one small group of masculine adjectives that change form when the next word begins with a vowel sound, e.g.:

  • beau > bel, e.g.: un bel homme
  • vieux > vieil, e.g.: un vieil ami
  • nouveau > nouvel, e.g.: un nouvel ordre

Plural Forms

The most common way to make an adjective plural is simply to add "-s" to it. For example, gentil > gentils, pauvre > pauvres.

However, masculine adjectives that end in -au usually take -x in the plural, e.g.: beaux and nouveaux.

Colours

Colour adjectives agree in gender and number, just like other adjectives, e.g.: une voiture bleue, des chemises blanches. The two main exceptions to this are:

  • if the colour is derived from a noun, e.g.: une orange > des serviettes orange
  • if it is a sub-type, e.g.: des chapeaux bleu foncé

Adjective Agreement

Since adjectives describe nouns, they share features with them. As you know, nouns can be masculine (e.g.: un livre) or feminine (une chose) and they can also be singular or plural. The form an adjective takes reflects this. For example, if you use the adjective important to describe the feminine plural noun choses, it must show both feminine and plural agreement, e.g.: des choses importantes (where the "e" indicates feminine and the "s" indicates plural).

In the examples we have just seen, the adjective and noun are side by side. However this is not always the case. Often enough, the adjective and noun may be separated by a word, e.g.: Ma mère est américaine or by several words, e.g.: La personne qui travaille avec ma mère est canadienne. Regardless of the distance that separates a noun and its adjective, they must agree in gender and number.

Adjective Placement

The vast majority of French adjectives come after the noun, e.g.: 

  • un livre intéressant
  • un travail difficile
  • une chemise blanche
  • un étudiant américain

However, a number of highly frequent (and relatively short) adjectives are used before the noun. The most frequent of these are bon, beau, meilleur, jeune, petit, long. For example,

  • un bon ami
  • un beau tableau
  • le meilleur prof
  • un jeune enfant
  • un petit problème
  • une longue histoire

 

Meaning and Place

A small number of adjectives change meaning, depending on whether they precede or follow a noun, e.g.:

ancien = "former" or "very old", e.g.:

  • un ancien prof ("a former prof")
  • un prof ancien ("a very old prof")

brave = "simple" or "courageous", e.g.:

  • un brave ami ("a simple friend")
  • un ami brave ("a courageous friend")

certain = "sort of" or "sure", e.g.:

  • un certain doute ("sort of a doubt")
  • un doute certain ("a sure doubt")

grand = "great" or "tall", e.g.:

  • un grand musicien ("a great musician")
  • un musicien grand ("a tall musician")

pauvre = "unfortunate" or "poor", e.g.:

  • un pauvre enfant ("an unfortunate child")
  • un enfant pauvre ("a child without money")

propre = "own" or "clean", e.g.:

  • ma propre maison ("my own house")
  • une maision propre ("a clean house")
 
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