Follow This Word Order for Correct French Sentences

Placement for Dual-Verb Sentences, Pronouns, and Negatives

The well-educated French have no problem acing sentence structure
The well-educated French have no problem acing sentence structure. ONOKY - Fabrice LEROUGE/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

The order of words in a French sentence can be confusing, especially if you have, as we do, dual-verb constructions, object and adverbial pronouns, and negative structures. Here, we're going to take a look at all of these and suggest the best positioning of words so that you don't end up with French sentences that make no sense.

Dual-Verb Constructions

Dual-verb constructions consist of a conjugated semi-auxiliary verb, such as pouvoir and devoir (called modal verbs in English), vouloirallerespérer, and promettre, followed by a second verb in the infinitive.

The two verbs may or may not be joined by a preposition. 

Dual-verb constructions have a slightly different word order than compound verbs tenses. Word order is important because, if you get it wrong, the sentence will read like nonsense in French.

Object and Reflexive Pronouns

Object and reflexive pronouns are usually placed between the two verbs and after the preposition
(if any) that follows the conjugated verb. Adverbial pronouns are always placed in this position.

  • Je dois me les brosser. > I need to brush them.
  • Je vais te le donner. > I'm going to give it to you.
  • Nous espérons y aller. > We hope to go there.
  • Je promets de le manger. > I promise to eat it.
  • Il continuera à t'en parler. > He'll continue to talk to you about it.

Sometimes the object pronoun should precede the first verb. In order to determine this, think about which verb is being modified. Why? Because in French, the object pronoun must go in front of the verb it modifies.

 The wrong place may give you a grammatically incorrect sentence or may even change the meaning of the sentence. Consider the examples in this chart.

Correct Pronoun Placement

XIl aide à nous travailler.XHe's helping work us.
 Il nous aide à travailler. He's helping us work.
XElle invite à me venir.XShe's inviting to come me.
 Elle m'invite à venir. She's inviting me to come.
XJe promets de te manger.XI promise to eat you.
 Je te promets de manger. I promise you that I'll eat.
 Je promets de le manger. I promise that I'll eat it.
 Je te promets de le manger. I promise you that I'll eat it.

Negative Constructions

Negative structures surround the conjugated verb and precede the preposition (if any).

Correct Negative Structure Placement

Je ne vais pas étudier.I'm not going to study.
Nous n'espérons jamais voyager.We never hope to travel.
Je ne promets que de travailler.I only promise to work.
Il ne continue pas à lire.

He's not continuing to read.

Pronouns Plus Negative Construction

In a sentence with both pronouns and a negative structure, the order is:

ne + object pronoun (if applicable) + conjugated verb + part two of negative structure + preposition (if any) + object pronoun(s) + adverbial pronoun(s) + infinitive

Correct Placement of Pronouns and Negative Structures

Je ne vais jamais te le donner.          I'm never going to give it to you.
Nous n'espérons pas y aller.We don't hope to go there.
Il ne continue pas à y travailler.He isn't continuing to work there.
Je ne promets pas de le manger.I don't promise to eat it.
Je ne te promets pas de le manger.I don't promise you that I'll eat it.
Je ne te promets pas d'y aller.  I don't promise you that I'll go there.