Is French logical? 5 things that are not!

Is there such a thing as a logical language?” a student once asked me during our lesson. Great question – to which I unfortunately don’t have the answer. “Booo!” Well, sorry – I just don’t.

However, I do happen to know a thing or two about the languages I teach and in this blog post I propose that we look at 5 illogical aspects of French. For a bit of fun.

The fact of being “illogical” should not be blamed on the language itself. Most languages are very old beings that went through an evolution that was either natural or the result of a grammatical legislation.

Sometimes, we find ourselves stuck with a spelling that doesn’t reflect the modern-day pronunciation such as after the Great Vowel Shift in the years 1400 to 1700. In this case, it is the absence of legislation that allowed the sound and the spelling to follow two different paths.

In the case of French there are quite a few cases of grammatical legislation that lead to some seeming incoherences. We have letters that have no practical purpose other than the fact than the word comes from Latin such as the “X” in Croix/Crux.  We also have “circumflexes” on the “ê” such as fenêtre/fenestre which reflects an older pronunciation.

All things considered, I would defend French as a rather logical language, especially compared to English. The pronunciation, the grammar and the conjugation are quite orderly and once a student “gets it”, it is with a high degree of probability they will acquire a solid “core” French that allows them to speak in most situations.

For all the qualities that French possesses, the following 5 examples expose surprising things that the French language does and for which there seems to be no clear reason. “It’s just one of those things”, as goes the saying.

 1. Mon amie / Mon école

French does not very much like to see vowels sitting side by side. And it especially does not like E and A in close proximity! Whereas other languages deal with it perfectly well, the French language has many ways of avoiding this imaginary problem such as the use of apostrophes :   

1. “Je aime”…………  becomes “J’aime”.
2. “La auto”…………. becomes “L’auto”

Only “Tu” has the right to sit next to a vowel : “Tu aimes”. (We don’t need to drop the U here)

This would seem like an acceptable rule until we realize that in the case of the possessive articles “ma” “ta” and “sa”  we don’t drop the letter A as “La” does despite “La” being quite identical to “ma, ta , sa”. Indeed, it’s one rule for “La” and it’s another rule for “ma/ta/sa”.  

The “normal” rule for “La” works as follows:

3. La amie……………becomes “L’amie”.

As example 3 shows, French used to apply this logic to “Ma mie” or even “M’amie”  but the grammarians worked out that it might be a better idea to adopt a different solution and bring in a masculine possessor to avoid this conflict of the 2 vowels. (instead of just dropping the A)

Because of this more recent rule, we bring in the masculine possessor: mon/son/ton if the word starts with a vowel.

4. Mon amie……….and not “ma amie” 
5. Son école……….and not “sa école” 
6. Ton image………and not “ta image”  

For those who don’t yet see the glaring problem, these are the only cases in which a masculine possessor (mon) is used for a feminine word. This contradicts the internal logic of French which we are only doing to make the pronunciation “easier” – a very questionable construction of the mind in itself.

2. The place of pronouns

Pronouns move around in French and do not remain in the same place as the word they are replacing ! To make this clearer, let’s see the difference between English and French:

1. I can see the bird…………I can see it.    
2. Je vois l’oiseau……………Je le vois.

As we can see, the pronoun “it” has remained in the same spot as the word “bird”. But in French, it moved in front of the verb “see”.

A possible reason might be to avoid confusions and to properly help people understand that the sentence is over.  Saying “Je vois le” might cause people to wonder what it is we are seeing and to believe the sentence isn’t finished.   “Le what?” The word “LE” is both a pronoun AND and article. By placing “LE” in front of the verb, it might serve to make clear that it is the pronoun LE and not the article. We end on a verb, therefore the sentence is finished.

To add to the fun, once we bring in a modal verb (pouvoir, vouloir, devoir)  the pronoun now goes in the middle and does no longer goes in front of the modal verb as Old French used to do.    

3. I must see you………….Je dois vous voir.  (Not “Je vous dois voir” as in Old French)   

Except in certain uses such as:

4. Je vous dois 1000 euros…..:…..I owe you 1000 euros.  
5. Je vous sais généreux…………..I know you to be generous.   

As for pronouns used with direct and indirect verbs, there is yet another oddity in that only the subjects Il/Elle/Ils/Elles are affected by the switching between direct or indirect.  (An indirect verb is one used with à:  Example: donner à)

This will lead to different pronouns for IL/ELLE/ILS/ELLES according to the type of verb:   

6. Je le vois……………….I see him (direct verb) 
7. Je lui parle…………….I speak to him/her (indirect verb)  “le” has become “lui”
8. Il me parle…………….He speaks to me (indirect
9. Il me voit……………….He sees me. (direct)    
10. Je les vois…………….I see them (direct)
11. Je leur parle………….I speak to them (indirect) “les” has become “leur”
12. Il nous parle………….He speaks to us. (indirect)
13. Il nous voit…………..He sees us. (direct)

As we can see in this list, the other pronouns “Je” or “Nous” don’t change according to the fact that the verb is direct or indirect ! Only Il/Elle/Ils/Elles follow this odd behaviour  !

3. It is my brother /  It is my sister

Another odd rule in French is that you cannot define “Il/Elle/Ils/Elles” by a noun – although we can do this for all other pronouns.   

1. She is my sister……………..C’est ma soeur.  (It is my sister)
2. I am your sister…………….Je suis ta soeur.
3. He is a farmer………………C’est un fermier. (It is a farmer)
4. We are farmers…………….Nous sommes des fermiers.  

We need to bring in “C’est” if we are to speak of Il/Elle/Ils/Elles when we define them by a noun. We don’t say “She is a dentist”, we say “It is a dentist”!      

4. We can’t love objects!

Did you know that in French we can’t profess our love for an inanimate thing by using a pronoun? “Je l’aime” is only for people and not for towns, restaurants, films or animals !

Speaking about the town of Paris we cannot say “I love it” . Instead of saying “Je l’aime”, we have to say “J’aime Paris” or “J’aime bien”, You can’t look at a piece of furniture and say “Oh je l’aime!”. Furniture is inanimate and one does not “love” furniture in French.   

Why exactly? Because that’s just the way it is ! 

5. Unnecessary Negative Constructions

In French, negative constructions pop up even when there is seemingly no need for them, such as the “restrictive ne”. It may belong to more advanced French, but it is part of the language none the less and will have to be mastered at some point or other.   

1. Leave before I get angry………..Pars avant que je ne me fâche. 
2. I only have 2 euros…………………Je n‘ai que deux euros. 
3. You are only 17……………………….Tu n’as que 17 ans. 
4. It only takes 20 minutes………..Ca ne prend que 20 minutes. 
5. We need only 3 kilos……………..Il ne faut que 3 kilos.  

You would read sentence 1 correctly as “Leave before I NOT get angry” and 2 as “I NOT have only 2 euros”. Strange but all a part of the French grammatical charm!


Most languages probably have similar illogical aspects to them. We tend to overlook those in our native language and minimize their importance especially as we don’t remember them ever being a difficulty. But especially in English, I encounter daily oddities to which there are no practical reasons. Consider the following:

  • Why do we have the word “ought” if it almost means the same as “should” ? 
  • Why can’t we follow a modal verb by an infinitive? (I must to go)
  • Why not just limit the Present Perfect to “since “and “for”?
  • Why are questions built the same way except for 12 verbs?
  • Why are negatives built the same way except for 12 verbs?
  • Why does “information” have no plural? 
  • Why can’t we say “speaked” if we can say “walked”?  
  • What do letters mean in English? (Ex: The A in “banana”or “Japan”)
  • Why doesn’t English have one definite accent?
  • Why is “wishing” used in such a strange way?

Making the oddities feel “normal” is part of any language-learning process – just as native speakers do.  My whole life, I had been saying “mon amie” without ever stopping to think about the use of a masculine possessor for a feminine word. It wasn’t even mentioned in school. Native speakers of French just consider it “normal”.

Looking at French as a whole, I still hold the belief that it is a well-structured language that remains reasonable in its amount of surprises. And contrary to English, it offers the true possibility of speaking it in a way close to the natives – a feature that English certainly can’t boast about!

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