Ever wanted to describe something? Maybe compares one thing to another? Or point something out to someone? Well, you’ll probably need an adjective then. And that is what Hour 7 of Alpha Teach Yourself French in 24 Hours (ATYF) is all about. Well, that, and the necessary extension, adverbs, which describe actions or states.
Five different types of adjectives are identified, all but two of which are addressed in this lesson. The first is descriptive adjectives. There are also possessive adjectives (not covered here, though we have already seen them at work in Essential French (EF). There are demonstrative adjectives, which we have seen in EF in a substantive form, but which are described here as adjectives in their own right. There are indefinite adjectives. And lastly, there are interrogative adjectives (to be handled in another Hour).
Adjectives attach to a noun, coming either before (between it and the article) or after it, though at times they can stand alone, as we have seen frequently enough with the expression C’est… There is a short list of adjectives that are commonly found preceding the noun. They are often either short or related to size. Most other adjectives follow the noun, especially when they have a high syllable count. And many of those that are found in front of the noun can also be placed after the noun, with a change in meaning from literal (behind the noun) to figurative (in front of the noun). Unfortunately, ATYF contradicts itself as it describes and illustrates this behavior, frustrating a careful reader (like myself). These include:
- ancien, -nne, old (literal) or former (figurative)
- brave, brave (literal) or good (figurative)
- vieux, vieil, vieille, aged (literal) or protracted, long-time (figurative)
- cher, expensive, costly (literal) or dear (figurative)
- grand, -de, tall (literal) or great (figurative)
- pauvre, poor, without funds (literal) or poor, unfortunate (figurative)
More than one adjective can be used with any given noun, before or behind. So une grande valise rouge “a large, red suitcase” is perfectly acceptable. If multiple adjectives are placed either before or after, they are usually connected with the conjunction et “and”, as in une grande et nouvelle valise “a large, new suitcase” or une valise rouge et carrée “a square, green suitcase”. Can we do something like une grande et nouvelle valise rouge et carrée? Not sure! But even in English, too much description can begin to get confusing. So careful, I imagine.
Most adjectives are descriptive. This can be seen in the fact that ATYF moves from discussing adjectives in general to positioning of adjectives without even clearly stating that it has also moved on to descriptive adjectives! Descriptive adjectives provide information like size, color, character, quality, quantity (remember, numbers are adjectives), state or activity.
Rather than divide adjectives up along these lines, a better division is the aforementioned position they usually hold (before or after the noun). So for starters, this is a breakdown of adjectives that precede and follow the noun:
|Often Precede||Often Follow|
Note that three of these adjectives, beau, nouveau and vieux have special masculine singular forms (bel, nouvel and vieil, respectively) used before vowels (and the mute/unaspirated h).
Past Participles as Descriptive Adjectives
Participles are verbal adjectives. And past participles are used more frequently in French than in English, which depends more on relative clauses to describe nouns. We have not yet seen past participles, but this is an introduction. Certain verbs are more likely to be used as participles. Each of the verb families has a distinctive adjective ending:
- -er: replace the infinitive ending with -é (msc.) or -ée (fem.)
- -ir: replace the infinitive ending with -i (msc.) or -ie (fem.)
- -re: replace the infinitive ending with -u (msc.) or -ue (fem.)
ATYF does not actually describe the fact that these vary with gender explicitly, but does show it in a limited number of examples. The sheer fact that they are adjectives suggest that they might, if nothing else.
We’ve already seen the demonstrative adjective, though it was identified as the “demonstrative pronoun”. However, everything said about the demonstrative pronoun (ce/cet, cette, ces) is true of the demonstrative adjective. The only difference is that the demonstrative adjective precedes a noun, and the demonstrative pronoun stands alone (or you could consider it a substantive, as I have mentally categorized it). In essence, it’s the same thing in two different contexts. In either case, it means “this” or “that”, or in the plural “these” or “those”.
So is it “this” or “that”? Usually context will make clear. When it does not, you can follow the noun with the suffixes -ci “here” and -là “there” (the ‘-‘ is part of the suffix).
- Ce monsieur est gentil. “This/that man is nice.”
- Ce monsieur-ci est gentil. “This man (here) is nice.”
- Ce monsieur-là est gentil. “That man (there) is nice.
Indefinite adjectives are hard to “describe”. They include things like “some”, “many”, “few”, “each” that allow one to be non-specific while still pointing things out. The following are notable. Many of them are only available in the plural or singular:
- autre another
- d’autres (pl. only) some (others)
- certain, -ne certain, some; use instead of the indefinite plural article des when specific items in mind
- chaque (sg. only) each
- différents (pl. only) different
- divers diverse
- maint many (a/an)
- même same
- plusiers (pl. only) several
- quelconque any…(whatsoever)
- quelque a little (not much), a few (not many)
- tel such (as), like
Comparative and Superlative Adjectives
Comparatives (“more ___ [than ___]”) are often quite easy to form in French. Superlatives (“the most ___ [of ___]”) as well are simple usually, simply making use of an article in agreement with adjective and noun when present. Here are the expressions:
- comparative (more): plus + adj. [+ que + noun.phrase]
- comparative (less): moins + adj. [+ que + noun.phrase]
- comparative (equal, same): aussi + adj. [+ que + noun.phrase]
- superlative (most): le/la/l’/les + plus + adj. [+ de + noun.phrase]
- superlative (least): le/la/l’/les + moins + adj. [+ de + noun.phrase]
Moins, plus and aussi do not have to change to agree. Also, there are two words that stand out for having special forms for their comparative. Bon “good” becomes meilleur “better”, while mauvais “bad” becomes pire “worse”.
Adverbs modify verbs, rather than nouns, and describe how, where, or when and action occurs. They do not vary to agree with number and gender as adjectives do. Often, an adverb can be formed form an adjective by simply taking the feminine form and adding -ment. But this is not always the case. Many others are not formed from an adjective at all.
Some common adverbs are peu “few”, ici “here”, souvent “often”, trop “too” and beaucoup “a lot”. Many of the time expressions we have already seen are adverbs, such as aujourd’hui, demain and hier.
Adverbs are placed directly after the verb. In the case of time and place adverbs like demain, they can be set off at the beginning of a sentence just as “Tomorrow, …” would be in English. So, Demain, je vais à Paris. “Tomorrow, I am going to Paris.”; this particular example also demonstrates using the present tense as a simple future… But the normal and expected position of an adverb is following the verb.
Comparative and Superlative Adverbs
Comparative adverbs are even easier to form than comparative adjectives, since you don’t have to make the adverb agree with a noun! Similarly with superlatives. Here are the expressions:
- comparative (more): plus + adv. [+ que + noun.phrase]
- comparative (less): moins + adv. [+ que + noun.phrase]
- comparative (equal, same): aussi + adv. [+ que + noun.phrase]
- superlative (most): le plus + adv. [+ de tous]
- superlative (least): le moins + adv. [+ de tous]
Moins, plus and aussi do not have to change to agree, just as with adjectives. Since there is no agreement, the adverbial superlative always uses the singular masculine definite article le. The expression de tous “of all” can be added to the superlative if desired.