Essential French Grammar – Formal vs. Informal
Informal French is used primarily in oral communication between friends, peers, and family members, whereas formal French is typical of official and polite situations. The two uses each have their own characteristics in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary, and, of course, grammar. Some of the main grammatical points are below, which can help you distinguish between formal and informal French.
Presence or absence of ne in negative sentences
Ne is present in almost all negative expressions in formal French:
- Il ne fume jamais. "He never smokes."
- Sa mère ne viendra pas demain. "Her/His mother will not come tomorrow."
- Elle n'est plus là. "She is not there anymore."
In colloquial usage though, ne frequently is omitted, as you can see in this chart:
|You don't understand.
||Tu ne comprends pas.
||Tu comprends pas.
|He never comes.
||Il ne vient jamais.
||Il vient jamais.
|She didn't eat anything.
||Elle n'a rien mangé.
||Elle a rien mangé.
Ne also is usually absent from negative commands in informal French. Therefore, Ne pleure pas! ('don't cry') becomes Pleure pas! in informal French. Here are some other examples:
- Ne le mange pas! > Le mange pas! (Don't eat it!)
- Ne faites pas ça!> Faites pas ça! (Don't do that!)
There is more than one way of asking questions. Inverting the subject and the verb is one of the grammatical processes used to ask a question. Inversion happens frequently in formal French, but happens less often in informal speech. Thus, Où allez-vous? ("Where are you going?") is formal and very polite, while Tu vas où?, without inversion, is typical of informal French.
Some pronouns are not used in informal French, whereas others are absent from le français soutenu. The chart below shows the informal equivalent of formal pronouns.
Tu/vous (when addressing someone)
These pronouns demonstrate different degrees of closeness between two people.
Vous is used when talking to someone who has a superior social status (teacher, authority figure, older people) or simply someone you do not know very well. Tu, on the other hand, is used when talking with a relative, a friend, a colleague, a pet, or a child.
Je ne vous connais pas.
S'il vous plait.
Qu'est-ce tu fais?
Je ne te connais pas.
S'il te plait.
Both pronouns are the equivalent of "it" in English. Ça is used in informal speech and is absent from formal French.
Cela fait longtemps qu'il n'est pas venu.
Elle n'a pas fait cela pour l'argent.
Ça fait longtemps qu'il n'est pas venu.
Elle n'a pas fait ça pour l'argent.
These pronouns are the equivalent of "we" and "us". On is a strange pronoun; like je, tu, and il, it functions only as a subject. This pronoun must be followed by a singular verb, and is always used with a singular adjective.
In informal speech, nous is commonly replaced by on.
|Nous + first-person plural verb
Nous allons au cinéma.
Nous + first-person verb + plural adjective
Nous sommes fatigués.
|On + third-person singular verb
On va au cinéma.
On + third-person verb + singular adjective
On est fatigué.
The impersonal il is frequently, but not always, omitted in informal French.
Il ne faut pas oublier.
Il n'y a pas de problème.
|Il can be omitted
Faut pas oublier.
Y a pas de problème.
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