Verb agreement in French
L’accord des verbes
Salut, and welcome to our lesson about agreement in French, at Language Easy! It’s a chapter that requires your attention. This is part one : the general cases ; part two is about the agreement of the past participle. Maybe you also want to read again our article about French verbs to get a reminder before you start with this lesson.
Allez, on y va !
What is verb agreement in French?
Qu´est ce que l´accord des verbes?
Agreement in French (l’accord) is the art of choosing the right termination for the verbs, adjectives or other words, in terms of grammatical persons, gender and number, according to their subject or referent.
In this article, we will concentrate of the agreement of the verbs with their subject, however some of the the considerations that we’ll have here are also applicable to other grammatical forms (agreement of the adjectives for example).
General case for the agreement in French
Le cas général pour l´accord
French verbs must agree in number and in grammatical person with their subject, whether this subject is expressed or not.
To illustrate, let’s consider this example:
- Les gladiateurs frappent, esquivent, puis contre-attaquent farouchement.
The gladiators strike, dodge, then counter-strike with ferocity.
- Naturellement, le gladiateur le plus faible est vaincu.
Naturally, the weaker gladiator is vanquished.
Note that in the first sentence, the subjects of the second and third verbs are not expressed to avoid the repetition, but the agreement happens the same nonetheless.
French verbs carry the mark of the gender only in the form of the past participle, which has the value of an adjective. In this case, it must agree in gender with the subject of the verb, like any adjective would.
So, here are a few examples:
- Marie est fatiguée, elle a beaucoup travaillé.
Marie is tired, she has been working a lot.
- Ils sont probablement très pressés d’arriver.
They are probably in a hurry to arrive. (literally, squeezed)
The past participle is frequently used in compound tenses along with the auxiliaries être or avoir, like the narration tense: j’ai mangé, or je suis sorti. You can read our article about the agreement of the past participle.
Mutiple subjects and gender
Sujets multiples et genre
If a verb has two or more subjects, and they are all of the same gender, then the agreement is with that gender. If both the genders are present, then the agreement is masculine.
However, I personally believe otherwise; in my understanding, it is actually the neutral form that is used – and this neutral form happens to be exactly the same as the masculine form. Interestingly, in Latin, which is the language from which French originates, the neutral form is distinct from masculine and feminine, and its declinations are very close to the declinations of the masculine. So, this could explain that the masculine took its place when the neutral gender was lost. Visit this article on Mediapart (en français).
Anyway, here are some examples of a grammatically correct gender agreement in French:
- Mille femmes et un homme sont assis sur un banc. (neutral masculine)
A thousand women and a men are sitting on a bench.
- Deux d’entre ces femmes sont enceintes. (feminine)
Two of these women are pregnant.
- Le pain et la confiture sont délicieux. (neutral masculine)
The bread and the marmelade are delicious.
Multiple subjects and grammatical person
Sujets multiples et personne grammaticale
If a verb has multiple subjects which are not at the same grammatical persons, then the verb is conjugated at the plural form, and, by order of priority:
- At the first person (Nous) if one of the subject is at the first person;
- At the second person (Vous) if one of the subject is at the second person;
- Else, at the third person (Ils / elles).
For instance, look at in how the following cases we would resolve the agreement in French:
- Toi et moi sommes amis. (2nd + 1st singular = 1st plural)
You and me are friends.
- Lui et toi êtes amis. (3rd + 2nd singular = 2nd plural)
He and you are friends.
- Elle et lui sont amis. (3rd + 3rd singular = 3rd plural)
He and she are friends.
- Eux, vous et moi, nous irons. (3rd plural + 2nd plural + 1st singular = 1st plural)
They, you and I are friends.
By the way, the order of the subjects here do have its importance. Not in a grammatical sense though; but we French people assume it’s a little rude to put oneself before the other (or one’s interlocutor before another third person) in such sentences. Hence, you will rarely hear someone say “moi et Jean”, or “toi et lui” in that order: it’s considered an mistake in terms of education.
Of course, French language and culture has a lot of contradictions. For instance, we prefer to say “vous et lui” rather than “lui et vous”, because the second one is a bit of a jaw-breaker:)
Multiple subjects and number
Sujets multiples et nombre
If a verb has multiple grammatical subjects and the action concerns all the subjects, and the agreement is plural.
- Jean, Pierre et Jacques sont amis.
= Jean, Pierre and Jacques are friends.
- Le citron comme l’orange sont des fruits d’été.
= Both lemon and orange are summer fruits. (Lit. “The lemon like the orange”)
If a verb has multiple grammatical subjects but the real subject of the verb is unique, then the agreement is with the corresponding grammatical subject.
For instance, it happens when all the subjects express the same idea, or express possible choices. The agreement is done with the subject the closest to the verb.
- Ton amour de Dieu, ta foi est forte.
= Your love of God, your faith is strong.
- Un appel, une carte postale sera bienvenue.
= A phonecall, a postcard will be welcome.
It also happens when one subject is real and the other one is for comparation or exclusion purpose: then the agreement is with the real subject.
- Ton amour, comme ta foi, est fort.
= Your love, like your faith, is strong.
- Plus que mon père, ma mère a été présente.
= More than my father, my mother was present.
The case of ni… ni (neither… or) and ou (or) isn’t always clear. In truth, all I can give you is some examples that all seem perfectly ok to me:
- Ni Jean, ni Marie n’est idiote. / Ni Jean, ni Marie ne sont idiots.
= Neither Jean nor Marie is an idiot.
- Jean ou Marie passera te prendre. / Jean ou Marie passeront te prendre.
= Jean or Marie will go and fetch you.
The case of collective nouns
Le cas des noms collectifs
Collective nouns (les noms collectifs), although singular, convey the idea of multiple entities (a group, a crowd…); similarly, we can refer to a fraction of a group using fraction words (half, part of…). So, in cases like these, do we choose to do the agreement with the collective / fraction noun, or with their complement?
- un groupe (s) de personnes (p)
a group of persons
- la moitié (s) des enfants (p)
half the children
When a singular collective or fractional noun is used before a plural noun, the agreement is done on either, keeping in mind that the meaning might differ between the two options.
You heard it, it’s up to you, hence the following sentences are all correct:
- Une partie des invités était en retard.
= Une partie des invités étaient en retard.
= Part of the guest were late.
- Une multitude d’oiseaux s’est rassemblée pour préparer la migration.
= Une multitude d’oiseaux se sont rassemblés pour préparer la migration.
= A multitude of birds gathered to prepare the migration.
I’ll let you think about the following sentence:
- Un quart (m,s) de la moitié (f,s) des foules (f,pl) de spectateurs (m,pl) … est parti / est partie / sont parties / sont partis.
C’est quoi, la suite ?
Et voilà, we reached the end of our lessons about verb agreement in French. There are quite a few more particular cases than the ones I mentioned here, however they’re what they are: very particular cases, and I choose not to list them here. However, I hope you’ll take this as an proof that French grammar is actually driven by the meaning! Don’t forget to read part two: the agreement of French past participles.
Allez, à bientôt !