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




accentsin many wordsonly in foreign words
articlesmore commonless common
capitalizationless commonmore common
conjugationsdifferent for each grammatical person
different only for third-person singular
contractionsrequiredoptional and informal
genderfor all nouns and most pronouns
only for personal pronouns
negationtwo wordsone word
prepositionscertain verbs require prepositions
many phrasal verbs
rhythmstress at the end of each rhythmic groupstressed syllable in each word, plus stress on an important word
Roman numeralsmore common, often ordinal  
less common, rarely ordinal

Other differences between French and English

false cognatesWords that look alike but don't necessarily mean the same thing
pronunciationMany differences, particularly vowels and the letter R
punctuationDifferent uses and spacing
silent lettersMany 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 orderAdjectives, adverbs, negation plus pronouns may cause problems.