Major Differences Between the French and English Languages

sign being translated from French to English
Nazar Abbas Photography / Getty Images

The French and English languages are related in a sense, because French is a Romance language descended from Latin with German and English influences, while English is a Germanic language with Latin and French influences. Thus, they share some similarities, most notably the same alphabet and a number of true cognates.

Perhaps more important, though, are the many differences, both major and minor, between the two languages, such as a long list of false cognates—words that look similar but have vastly different meanings. French and English have hundreds of cognates (words that look and/or are pronounced alike in the two languages), including true cognates with similar meanings, false cognates with different meanings, and semi-false cognates—some similar and some with different meanings.

But it seems that false cognates confound us most. For instance, assister in French nearly always means "to attend" something, while "assist" in English means "to help." And formidable in French means "great" or "terrific," nearly the polar opposite of the English meaning, which is "dreadful" or "fearsome."

Here are some brief explanations of the major differences between French and English, with links to further information.

A Comparison of Characteristics

French

English

accents in many words only in foreign words
agreement yes no
articles more common less common
capitalization less common more common
conjugations different for each grammatical person
different only for third-person singular
contractions required optional and informal
gender for all nouns and most pronouns
only for personal pronouns
liaisons yes no
negation two words one word
prepositions certain verbs require prepositions
many phrasal verbs
rhythm stress at the end of each rhythmic group stressed syllable in each word, plus stress on an important word
Roman numerals more common, often ordinal
less common, rarely ordinal
subjunctive common rare

Other differences between French and English

false cognates Words that look alike but don't necessarily mean the same thing
pronunciation Many differences, particularly vowels and the letter R
punctuation Different uses and spacing
silent letters Many in both, but not the same letters
singulars and plurals
The grammatical number of nouns may be different.
spelling equivalents Patterns in spelling differ in the two languages.
word order Adjectives, adverbs, negation plus pronouns may cause problems.