9 French grammar tricks that will make you sound like a local

Michel Drucker on the set of TV show
Michel Drucker on the set of TV show "Vivement Dimanche" in 2004. Learn how to use "vivement" in everyday conversation. Photo: Franck FIFE / AFP.
It's common when arriving in France to discover the vocabulary you learned at school is totally different to how most French people speak. Well, the same goes for grammar. These are some of the common grammatical structures that French people use for day-to-day chat.

While connectors like “Bien que” and “Cependant” will look good in an academic essay, these aren’t necessarily the first words native French speakers will reach for in everyday conversation.

From linking words to sentence tags, following these tips will help you to sound more French.

Et si

Literally “and if”, this is used at the beginning of a sentence to mean “what if…”, or “how about…”. It’s practical in written and spoken French because it adds a good dose of rhythm, and once you’ve used it once you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. It’s perfect for those brainstorming meetings where the conversation is turning round in circles and you want to introduce a new idea.

Example: Et si on restait dans l’hôtel un jour de plus ? – What if we stayed in the hotel a day longer?

Comme quoi

This one literally means “like what”, but it’s a really versatile expression which can mean “which just goes to show”. Macron a été élu président à 39 ans, comme quoi l’âge n’est pas un obstacle – Macron was elected president at 39, which just goes to show age is no obstacle.

Sometimes you can use it on its own as an interjection without even needing to finish the thought, as in: Le PSG est l’un des clubs les plus riches du monde mais il n’a même pas gagné la Ligue 1 en 2021. Comme quoi. – PSG are one of the richest clubs in the world but they didn’t even win Ligue 1 in 2021. It just goes to show…

When placed in the middle of a sentence, comme quoi becomes a synonym for disant que (saying that). It’s a common, snappy means of conveying the contents of a message, whatever the medium, and locals will be suitably impressed if you use it instead of clunkier alternatives. For example: Elle m’a envoyé un message comme quoi elle est bien arrivée en Allemagne – She sent me a message saying she had arrived in Germany.

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Quoi

You can also use quoi on its own, after pretty much any statement you make, and you can’t get much French than that. These days, you’ll often hear the word tagged onto the end of a sentence, where it serves to add emphasis rather than giving any further meaning. For example: Ca se fait pas, quoi ! – I mean, that’s unacceptable!

It might feel awkward the first couple of times you use it, but soon it’ll be as natural as brushing your teeth in the morning. Besides, there’s no reason to feel self-conscious – the French throw quoi around everywhere.

Quoique

Further proof of the versatility of quoi. The term quoique (formed using the words “what” and “that”, because, French…) can be used at the beginning of a sentence followed by the subjunctive, to mean, “Although…” In that case it works like the term Bien que…

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But that’s not the usage we’re interested in (we’re not cruel enough to make you learn the subjunctive). A much simpler way to use it, which is also how most people use it in conversation, is to put it at the end of a statement. Here, it means “then again…” and serves to cast doubt over whatever you’ve just said.

Je devrais être chez moi toute la journée demain. Quoique. – I should be at home all day tomorrow. Actually…

Figure-toi

This is the imperative form of the verb se figurer, meaning “to imagine”. Figure-toi, like its plural/polite cousin figurez-vous, means you are ordering someone to picture something, although really what you’re saying is, “Would you believe it?”. It’s one of those small connecting phrases that add a bit of colour to the story you’re trying to tell, and make you sound like you’ve been gossiping in French your whole life.

Tu sais que Thomas s’est remis avec Mathilde, alors figure-toi que je l’ai vu en train de danser avec Charlotte – You know Thomas got back together with Mathilde, so would you believe that I saw him dancing with Charlotte?

Si jamais

“If ever”. This one is pretty self-explanatory, and French people use it all the time, but it’s not necessarily something you will have learned at school since it’s mostly reserved for spoken French. It’s a great way of putting a suggestion out there without any pressure, or making a standing offer, such as N’hésite pas à me dire si jamais tu passes à Paris – Don’t hesitate to tell me if you’re ever in Paris.

It can also be translated as “If by chance…” For example: Je finis tôt aujourd’hui si jamais tu voudrais aller prendre un verre – I finish early today if by chance you fancy getting a drink.

It can be used on its own, too, where the rest of the sentence is implied, as in: Il reste une place dans ma voiture si jamais – There’s still one space in my car if ever (you decide you want a lift).

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Ne serait-ce que

This is one of those you’ve probably heard a hundred times without ever realising how it’s spelled. That’s because French people usually say it quickly, making it sound like there are three syllables – “Ne s-race que” – instead of five.

Although seeing it written down and grasping the meaning are two different things, because it can feel like you’re using a bunch of unnecessary words, as the French are admittedly wont to do.

It means “even if it’s only”, and if you can get the pronunciation down and use it at the right moment, you’re half way to being awarded citizenship.

An example: Personne n’en a douté ne serait-ce qu’un instant – Nobody suspected it, even for a moment.

Or, as the poet Jacques Prévert said, Il faudrait essayer d’être heureux, ne serait-ce que pour donner l’exemple – It’s important to try to be happy, if only to set an example.

Avoir beau

This is where the difference between être (to be) and avoir (to have) becomes incredibly important. Whereas je suis beau means “I’m handsome”, j’ai beau refers to the futility of human existence.

It’s always followed by another verb, and means that no matter what you do, your efforts will be in vain. For example:

J’ai beau essayer, la porte ne veut pas s’ouvrir – Try as I might, the door doesn’t want to open.

Le patron a beau avoir promis d’augmenter les salaires, les salariés n’y croient pas – The boss may well have promised to increase wages, but the workers aren’t convinced.

Vivement

Perhaps you’ve been warned not to say Je suis excité (I’m excited) because it can have sexual connotations in French, and so you find yourself repeating J’ai hâte (I can’t wait) whenever you’re looking forward to something.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but what distinguishes native speakers, beyond the accent and lack of mistakes, is the ability to draw upon a wide range of vocabulary and sentence structures to convey slightly different meanings.

The colloquial term vivement will be a welcome addition to your repertoire. It’s like the English “Bring on…” Commonly used when you’ve just about had enough, for example: Vivement les vacanes ! – Roll on the holidays!


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  1. Living in Brittany, I found the article above re tips of speaking French very interesting and helpful, thank you.

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