The Basics of French Word Order with Inversion

Couple holding hands in cafe bar
Cultura RM Exclusive/Twinpix/Getty Images

The order of words in a French sentence can be very confusing, due to dual-verb constructions; object, adverbial, and reflexive pronouns; and negative structures. The basics of this are discussed in the compound verb and dual-verb lessons, but inversion further complicates matters.

Inversion is commonly used to ask questions: the subject and verb are inverted and joined by a hyphen.

Tu lis - Lis-tu?

Vous voulez - Voulez-vous ?

A.  Simple (single) verb constructions

The pronouns precede the verb and the negative structure surrounds that group: ne + pronouns + verb-subject + part two of negative structure.

Lis-tu ?Are you reading?

Le lis-tu ?

 Are you reading it?
Ne lis-tu pas ?  Aren't you reading?
Ne le lis-tu pas ?  Aren't you reading it?
Ne me le lis-tu pas ?

  Aren't you reading it to me?

B.  Compound verbs (conjugated auxiliary verb + past participle)
The pronouns directly precede the inverted auxiliary/subject and the negative structure surrounds that: ne + pronouns + auxiliary verb-subject + part two of negative structure +past participle.
As-tu mangé ?  Did you eat?
L'as-tu mangé?  Did you eat it? 
T'es-tu habillé?  Did you get dressed?
N'as-tu pas mangé?  Didn't you eat?
Ne l'as-tu pas mangé?  Didn't you eat it?
Ne t'es-tu pas habillé?  Didn't you get dressed?
Ne l'y as-tu pas mangé?  

Didn't you eat it there?

C.  Dual-verb constructions (conjugated verb + infinitive)
The negative structure surrounds the inverted conjugated verb/subject and the pronouns are placed between the second negative word and the infinitive: ne + conjugated verb-subject + part two of negative structure + preposition (if any) + pronoun(s) + infinitive.
Veux-tu manger?

  Do you want to eat?

Veux-tu le manger?  Do you want to eat it?
Veux-tu te doucher?  Do you want to take a shower?
Ne veux-tu pas manger?  Don't you want to eat?
Ne veux-tu pas le manger?  Don't you want to eat it?
Ne veux-tu pas te doucher?  Don't you want to take a shower?
Continuerons-nous à travailler?  Will we continue to work?
Continuerons-nous à y travailler?  Will we continue to work there?
Ne continuerons-nous pas à travailler?  Won't we continue to work?
Ne continuerons-nous pas à y travailler?  

Won't we continue to work there?

Sometimes the object pronoun precedes the first verb - in French, the object pronoun has to go in front of the verb it modifies (see dual-verb lesson for more info). If there is a second pronoun, that gets placed as in C above.

Promets-tu d'étudier?  Do you promise to study?
Me promets-tu d'étudier?  Do you promise me that you'll study?
Ne promets-tu pas d'étudier?  Don't you promise to study?
Ne me promets-tu pas d'étudier?  Don't you promise me that you'll study?
Ne me promets-tu pas de l'étudier?  Don't you promise me that you'll study it?