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.

What Is an Inversion

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. If there is a second pronoun, that gets placed as in C above.

  • Promets-tu d'étudier?   Do you promise to 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?
  • Me promets-tu d'étudier?   Do you promise me that you'll study?