In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section French Grammars

  • Introduction
  • French Grammars for the School System
  • First French Grammars Written by Linguists
  • Functionalist Grammars for French
  • Dependency Grammar for French
  • Transformational French Grammars
  • Lexicon-Grammar for French
  • Generative Grammars for French
  • French Grammar Beyond Generative Grammar
  • French Grammar in a Comparative Perspective
  • The Grammars of Spoken French
  • French Grammar in Some Linguistic Textbooks

Linguistics French Grammars
Anne Abeillé
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0255


This article focuses on the 20th and 21st centuries, which have seen a growing number of grammars devoted to the French language. Some aim at a scholastic audience, while others aim at a wider public. Some are prescriptive, usually based on literary texts; others are descriptive, incorporating spoken and informal uses; and still others are theoretically oriented, using French as an illustration of the theory advocated. Some are mostly devoted to morphology and syntax while others integrate semantics and discourse. Some include comparisons between French and other languages. Most French grammars started with a terminology inherited from Latin grammars, and both the list of terms and the analyses have evolved thanks to the development of linguistic theories and also to consider colloquial uses and spoken French. Particular points of interest are descriptions of determination (with the category “determiner” appearing only after 1960), negation, the pronominal system, and relative clauses.

French Grammars for the School System

Many grammar books have been written in relationship to the school system, which is centralized in France: grammatical terms are listed in a “nomenclature officielle” (official listing) published by the Ministry of Education. This official terminology only has definite (le ‘the’ and indefinite articles un ‘a’) and no determiners, and considers possessives (mon “my”), interrogative (quel “which”), and demonstrative (ce “that”) as adjectives, as in Latin. Weak personal pronouns (je “I”) are referred to as “reduced,” and strong ones (moi “me”) “full.” Negation (ne . . . pas “not”) is considered a compound adverb, and other negative words (jamais “never,” personne “nobody”) as “semi-negations.” Mixing syntactic and semantic criteria, subjects can be “apparent” (impersonnel “il”) or “real”; complements are direct and indirect objects, “attribution” (for à phrases with transfer verbs), agent (for by phrases with passives), and “circumstantials” (for adjuncts). Verbs are distinguished between plain verbs, auxiliaries, and semiauxiliaries (for periphrases such as commencer à (“begin to”). The list of coordinating conjunctions is quite long, with connectives such as en effet (“in fact”), ainsi (“so”), c’est pourquoi (“this is why”), etc. The school grammars in this section focus on written French (to teach orthography) and on the literary genre (to aid in understanding the classical authors, or to write like them). The aim is to set a standard so as to avoid certain uses stigmatized as colloquial or vulgar. Rat 1965 is typical of this tradition. Gaiffe, et al. 1936 is innovative in starting with sentence structure and not with parts of speech, as is Wagner and Pinchon 1992 in its inclusion of authors from the 20th century. Chevalier, et al. 2002 is the first grammar to use the methods of structural and transformational linguistics.

  • Chevalier, Jean-Claude, Claire Blanche-Benveniste, Michel Arrivé, and Jean Peytard. 2002. Grammaire Larousse du français contemporain. Paris: Larousse.

    This grammar, originally published in 1964, is a follow up of Gaiffe, et al. 1936. It is based on literary examples but includes authors such as Aragon, Prévert, Sartre, and de Gaulle. It uses some commutation tests, and transformational rules from modern linguistics. As a compromise on official terminology, they call possessives and demonstratives “determinating adjectives.”

  • Gaiffe, Félix, Ernest Maille, Ernest Breuil, Simon Jahan, Léon Wagner, and Madeleine Marijon. 1936. Grammaire Larousse du XXe siècle. Paris: Larousse.

    This grammar was a pillar of the French school system. After chapters on the lexicon, phonetics, and orthography, it is innovative in starting with the sentence followed by the study of lexical categories and with traditional parts of speech. It is normative and lists the constructions to be avoided, such as en face la gare (“in front the station”) instead of en face de la gare (“in front of the station”). In an indirect way, it documents certain variations.

  • Rat, Maurice. 1965. Grammaire française pour tous. Paris: Garnier.

    This book, originally published in 1955, is traditional, aiming “to define the good use which is maintained by the best writers of the time, throughout a constant evolution of the language.” It cites no author from the 20th century except Anatole France. Contains a first part on words (250 pages) including phonetics and orthography, and a much smaller second part (fifty pages) on clauses and sentences, including punctuation.

  • Wagner, Robert-Léon, and Jacqueline Pinchon. 1992. Grammaire du français classique et moderne. Paris: Hachette.

    This grammar, originally published in 1962, is for high schools and universities. It mixes examples from classical (17th, 18th centuries) and modern literature (19th, 20th centuries). It marks with an asterisk stigmatized data considered “vulgar,” for example, questions with est-ce que. Like Damourette and Pichon 1911–1956, the authors privilege structure over meaning: two sentences can mean the same without having the same structure and vice versa.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.