Belgians want to ditch ‘absurd’ French grammar rule (and they might be right)

French-speaking Belgium has announced its desire to officially scrap an "obsolete and absurd" element of French grammar and maybe they have the right idea.

Belgians want to ditch 'absurd' French grammar rule (and they might be right)
Photo: AFP

Learners of French will no doubt sympathize with the Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles, the organisation that represents French-speaking Belgium.

On Monday two French-speaking Belgian academics Arnaud Hoedt et Jérôme Piron, supported by the federation, expressed their desire to scrap a complex rule of French grammar: the past participle agreement for the verb avoir (to have).

Unlike when used with the verb être- to be (where past participles must show agreement with the pronoun) the past participle normally doesn't change when used with the verb avoir, eg. j'ai mangé, nous avons vu, tu as joué (I have eaten, we have seen, you have played).

But there are exceptions.

The rule states that if the direct object comes before the past participle, the past participle should agree in gender and in number with that direct object.

The example the Belgians give is: “Les crêpes que j'ai mangées”, where the past participle of manger (to eat) takes the plural and feminine form to agree with the direct object “les crêpes”. However if the direct object was after the past participle the agreement doesn't apply so it would be “J'ai mangé les crêpes.”

(Yes we are supporting the Belgians on this one.)

In a tribune in French newspaper Liberation the Belgian academics basically say the rule is “obsolete and complicated beyond the absurd”. According to reports the grammar rule is “an archaic survivor inherited from medieval monks, imposed by the poet Clement Marot at the court of Francis 1st” in the 16th century.

They want to scrap all the exceptions to the rules so that the past participle doesn't ever change when used with avoir. In other words it would be “Les crêpes que j'ai mangé”. 

The rule tends to only really affect written French because when it's spoken there is normally no difference between the pronunciation of the past participles.

READ ALSO: Belgian French: How it differs to the French spoken in France

Belgian French: How it differs to French spoken in France

The organisation which said it has consulted the International Council of the French Language (Cilf) and the Belgian version of the General Delegation of the French Language (DGLFLF) wants to ditch the agreement and keep the past participles the same.

“In school, children ask: why before and not after? Often, teachers know how to explain the rule but not why it exists. The incoherence of the traditional rules prevents them from giving meaning to their teaching,” the academics say.

“It would be so much more beneficial…to teach our children everything that allows them to master the language rather than to retain the most arbitrary parts of its writing code”.

We wait to hear what the “immortals” at the Academie Francaise have to say about it but it appears the Belgian academics are not too bothered about the opinion of the guardians of the French language.

“Not being composed of linguists the Academy has never managed to produce decent grammar so cannot act as a reference,” they said.

Some in France think the Belgians might have a point, with Nice Matin signing off their article on the subject with the line “perhaps the Belgians are not wrong”.

And if they are going to change a few of the more complicated French grammar rules, below is a lit of a few other changes that could be made that would no doubt bring a smile to the faces of French language learners, including adopting the Belgian number system instead of the French one.

READ ALSO: How France could make learning French easier

How France could make learning French easier

Member comments

  1. I must admit that I do find some of the French grammar rules somewhat illogical, but the numbering system is just plain crazy and needs simplifying.

  2. Yes indeed – and once again we can look to Belgium for a way forward 🙂 They’ve got septante, octante and nonante to follow soixante. I’ve no idea why ‘four twenties nineteen’ was ever regarded as a great way to express 99. Give me nonante-neuf any day!

  3. I love French grammar as it is.Mastering it is a intellectual high. One problem…egg stinks, which a number of French friends don’t seem to know the meaning.
    Remember,”If it isn’t clear…..”

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Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.