Top 10 Beginning French Mistakes

Eating lunch on grass
Blend Images - Mike Kemp/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

When you start learning French, there's a lot to remember - new vocabulary, all kinds of verb conjugations, strange spelling. Just about everything is different. It's normal to make mistakes, but it's in your best interest to try to fix them as soon as possible. The longer you make the same mistake, the harder it will be for you to get it right later on. With this in mind, this article discusses the most common French mistakes made by beginners, so that you can fix these problems right from the beginning.

Gender

In French, all nouns have a gender, either masculine or feminine. This can be a difficult concept for English speakers, but it's non-negotiable. You need to learn vocabulary with either a definite or indefinite article so that you learn the gender of each word with the word itself. Getting the gender of a word wrong can lead to confusion at best and a completely different meaning at worst since some words have different meanings depending on their gender.

Accents

French accents indicate the correct pronunciation of a word and are required, not optional. Therefore, you need to make an effort to learn what they mean, which words they are found in, and how to type them. Study my accents lesson so that you know what each accent indicates. (Note in particular that ç never precedes e or i). Then look at my typing French accents page to choose between the various methods to type them on your computer.

To Be

Although the literal French equivalent of "to be" is être, there are numerous French expressions that use the verb avoir (to have) instead, such as avoir faim - "to be hungry," and some that use faire (to do, make), like faire beau - "to be nice weather." Take the time to memorize and practice these expressions so that you get them right, right from the beginning.

Contractions

In French, contractions are required. Whenever a short word like je, me, te, le, la, or ne is followed by a word that begins with a vowel or H muet, the short word drops the final vowel, adds an apostrophe, and attaches itself to the following word. This is not optional, as it is in English - French contractions are required. Thus, you should never say "je aime" or "le ami" - it is always j'aime and l'ami. Contractions never occur in front of a consonant in French (except H muet).

H

The French H comes in two varieties: aspiré and muet. Although they sound the same (that is, they are both silent), there is an important difference: one acts like a consonant and the other acts as a vowel. The H aspiré (aspirated H) acts like a consonant, meaning that it does not allow contractions or liaisons. The H muet (mute H), on the other hand, is just the opposite: it requires contractions and liaisons. Making vocabulary lists with a definite article will help you remember which H is which, such as le homard (H aspiré) vs l'homme (H muet).

Que

Que, or "that," is required in French sentences with a subordinate clause. That is, in any sentence that has one subject introducing another, que must join the two clauses. This que is known as a conjunction. The trouble is that in English this conjunction is sometimes optional. For example, Je sais que tu es intelligent can be translated as "I know that you're intelligent," or simply "I know you're intelligent." Another example: Il pense que j'aime les chiens - "He thinks (that) I like dogs."

Auxiliary verbs

The French past tense, le passé composé, is conjugated with an auxiliary verb, either avoir or être. This shouldn't be too difficult, as the verbs which take être include reflexive verbs and a shortlist of non-reflexive ones. Take the time to memorize the list of être verbs, and then your auxiliary verb problems will be solved.

Tu and Vous

French has two words for "you," and the difference between them is pretty distinct. Vous is plural - if there is more than one of anything, always use vous. Aside from that, the difference has to do with closeness and friendliness versus distance and respect. Read my tu vs vous lesson for a detailed description and numerous examples.

Capitalization

Capitalization is much less common in French than in English. The first person singular subject pronoun (je), days of the week, months of the year, and languages are not capitalized in French. See the lesson for a few other common categories of French terms which are capitalized in English but not in French.

"Cettes"

Cette is the singular feminine form of the demonstrative adjective ce (ce garçon - "this boy," cette fille - "this girl") and beginners often make the mistake of using "cettes" as the plural feminine, but in fact this word does not exist. Ces is the plural for both masculine and feminine: ces garçons - "these boys," ces filles - "these girls."