Apprendre la Langue Française (101e partie): reconnaître les phrases

Source: Berlitz French Grammar Handbook

A sentence is a spoken or written utterance that has a subject and a predicate.  When talking we often say things that are not sentences, but in writing we usually try to use complete sentences.  The way a sentence is put together is known as its syntax.

Generally speaking the subject is the word or phrase whose action or state the sentence is describing.

Le ferry part de Douvres à sept heures. The ferry leaves Dover at seven o’clock.

Nous sommes heureux de partir en vacances. We are happy to be going on vacation.

Il pleut. It is raining.

The verb may be used in a form known as the passive, which means that the subject of the verb, instead of doing the action of the verb, becomes the receiver of the action.

Tous les passagers sont accueillis par l’equipe du bateau. All the passengers are welcomed by the crew of the ship.

Sometimes the subject is omitted but understood. This happens in command forms.

Prenez vos places dans le restaurant, s’il vous plaît.  Take your places in the restaurant, please.

The predicate consists of the whole of the rest of the sentence, excluding the subject. It must have at least a main verb, that is, a verb in one of the simple tenses. This verb agrees with the subject; that is its form changes to match the subject.

Le bateau arrive. The ship arrives.

Les passagers regagnent leurs voitures. The passengers return to their vehicles.

However, most predicates have more than the minimum requirement of a main verb.

Les passagers regagnent leurs voitures avec impatience. The passengers return to their vehicles impatiently.

There are three types of complete sentence:

  • statements, which are the basic form;
  • direct questions;
  • commands.

All three types must have a main clause; they may also have any number of subordinate clauses.

A main clause is the key grammatical element of a sentence to which any other parts are connected. It can often stand by itself, though of course it may not make much sense on its own.  The main clause does not necessarily open the sentence, though it often does.

Les Robinson cherchent une boulangerie. The Robinsons look for a bakery.


Une fois qu’ils sont sortis du port, les Robinson ont cherché une boulangerie, parce qu’ils adorent le pain français. Once they are out of the clock area, the Robinsons look for a bakery, because they love French bread.

A subordinate clause is always dependent on a main clause, whose meaning it completes or expands. It is linked to the main clause by one of three types of word:

  • a subordinating conjunction (such as une fois que and parce que);
  • a question word, such as (where), pourquoi (why), quand (when), or combien (how much); and
  • a relative pronouns such as qui (who/which), or que (whom/which).

John Robinson demande à un passant où se trouve la boulangerie la plus proche. John Robinson asks a passerby where the nearest bakery is.

Le passant, qui habite le quartier, donne les indications au visiteur anglais.  The passerby, who lives in the neighborhood, gives directions to the English visitor.


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