This is a short guide (or cheat sheet) for beginners to French about the word order.
This was originally in my reply to someone asking about the word order for French on the Memrise forums.
1. It’s fundamentally Subject-Verb-Object.
Example: J’ai un chien. (I have a dog.)
2. There can be subject-verb inversion when asking questions.
Example: As-tu un chien? (Do you have a dog?) But not in Est-ce que tu as un chien?
There is inversion in Quand allez-vous à la bibliothèque? (When are you going to the library?)
3. Negation requires two words, ne and another negative word such as pas.
Ne comes after the subject; pas comes after the conjugated verb.
You also have others like plus (not any more), rien (nothing), personne (nobody), and they all fill the same position as pas.
Example: Je n’ai pas de chien. (I don’t have a dog.)
Things to take note of:
- Ne contracts to n’ before vowels, as per the example above.
- In colloquial speech, the ne is usually dropped. People would say: J’ai pas de chien.
- The order is slightly different for compound tenses.
- For pas, it goes before the past participle (allé(e) in this case): Je ne suis pas allé(e) à la fête. (I did not go to the party).
- However, with personne, it goes after the past participle (vu): Je n’ai vu personne. (I didn’t see anyone.)
4. Adjectives generally go after nouns.
Manteau bleu is correct, not bleu manteau.
There are exceptions that go before, like grand (big), petit (small), jeune (young), and so on.
They are commonly known as the Beauty Age Goodness Size (BAGS) adjectives.
Another thing is that some adjectives can go before or after, and the placement changes the meaning.
The classic example is ancien, which means either “old” (if placed after the noun) or “former” (if placed before the noun).
Example: une usine ancienne (= an old factory) vs. une ancienne usine (= a former factory, which means that the place was a factory in the past, but no longer is one now)
5. Object pronouns generally go before the verb.
Things like le, lui, en all go before the verb.
This is also true for compound tenses like the passé composé.
Example: J’achète une voiture. Je l’achète. (I buy a car. I buy it.)
If there are two verbs, it goes before the verb that it makes sense to attach the pronoun to.
Double Pronouns: I think that as a beginner, you do not need to worry about things like double pronominalisation yet, but if you want to check it out, I put up a page about French Double Pronouns that tells you the order if there is more than one pronoun in the sentence.
6. For reflexive verbs, the reflexive pronoun goes before the conjugated verb.
Present: Je me lève. (I get up.)
Present (negative): Je ne me lève pas tôt. (I don’t get up early.)
Passé Composé: Hier, je me suis levé(e) à 10 h. (Yesterday, I got up at 10 am.)
Passé Composé (negative): Hier, je ne me suis pas levé(e) tôt. (Yesterday, I didn’t get up early.)
So this is it, a short post about word order in French.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below. 🙂