Declarative sentences and word order in French

What is a declarative sentence?

A declarative sentence (une phrase affirmative simple) makes a statement, gives an opinion, shares a thought, declares a fact etc. Declarative sentences usually have the following word order: subject – verb – object. In French, as in English, the subject has to come at the beginning of the sentence.

Read on for a summary of everything you need to know about word order in French declarative sentences. Once you’re done, why not put your newfound knowledge to the test in the free exercises?

Example

Le chien attrape la balle.

In French, just like in English, it is impossible to change the position of the subject (the dog) and the object (the ball) without completely changing the meaning of the sentence.

If we switch the positions, we understand something completely different:
La balle attrape le chien.
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Word order in French sentences

Normal word order is: subject – verb – object. If one clause has both a direct object and an indirect object, the direct object usually comes before the indirect object.

Subject Verb Direct Object Indirect Object
Sandrine a montré le chemin à ses amis.Sandrine showed her friends the way.

However, if the direct object has a relative clause attached to it, then the indirect object usually comes first.

Subject Verb Indirect Object Direct Object Relative Clause
Elle a montré à ses amis le chemin qui mène à sa maison.She showed her friends the road that leads to her house.

Direct/Indirect Objects

The object of a sentence is the recipient of the action expressed by the verb. There are two kinds of objects; direct and indirect.

  • A direct object (complément d’objet direct) is an object that receives the action of the verb directly. It is never preceded by a preposition. A direct object responds to the questions who? or what?.
  • An indirect object (complément d’objet indirect) is separated from the verb by the prepositions à or de. We can identify an indirect object via the questions to whom?, with whom?, to what? etc.

To avoid repetition, we can replace objects with object pronouns. In this case, the object pronoun comes before the verb.

Example:
Elle me l’a montré.She showed it to me. (indirect object, direct object)
Elle le leur a montré.She showed it to them. (direct object, indirect object)

Whether the direct object or the indirect object comes first depends on the pronoun. In order to get the order right, we just need to look at the following diagram of object pronouns:

What is la mise en relief?

Mise-en-relief is emphasis. We can use certain expressions to emphasise the most important part of a sentence in French:

  • C’est … qui …
    Example:
    Alex a mangé la dernière part de gâteau.Alex ate the last piece of cake.
    C’est Alex qui a mangé la dernière part de gâteau.It was Alex who ate the last piece of cake.
  • Ce qui/ce que … c’est/ce sont …
    Example:
    Ces chaussures plaisent beaucoup à Julie.Julie really likes these shoes.
    Ce qui plaît beaucoup à Julie, ce sont ces chaussures.What Julie really likes are these shoes.
  • Using a pronoun to repeat the subject:
    Example:
    Françoise aime beaucoup nager.Françoise really likes swimming.
    Françoise, elle aime beaucoup nager.Françoise, she really likes swimming.

Adverbs

Adverbs and adverbial phrases can come at the beginning of a sentence, in the middle, or at the end.

Example:
Demain, Charles ira faire du vélo.
Charles ira demain faire du vélo.
Charles ira faire du vélo demain.Charles will ride his bike tomorrow.

Adverbs are placed in a sentence according to their importance. If they are put at the end of a sentence, their importance is emphasised.

Example:
Elle n’a pas pu aller au parc d’attraction à cause de sa jambe cassée.She couldn’t go to the amusement park because of her broken leg.
À cause de sa jambe cassée, elle n’a pas pu aller au parc d’attraction.Because of her broken leg, she couldn’t go to the amusement park.

To Note

Sentence structure can change in some circumstances. If a sentence begins with aussi, à peine, peut-être, or sans doute, the verb comes before the subject.

Example:
Sans doute ne pleuvra-t-il pas demain.It surely won’t rain tomorrow.