Adverbs are words that describe how something is done. They can modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. In a previous lesson, we saw what happens when adverbs and adjectives get cozy with each other in the same sentence. Now we'll explore what happens when they get even cozier—when an adverb is formed from an adjective.
In English, adverbs often end in -ly: “comfortably,” “unfortunately,” “obviously,” etc. Likewise, many French adverbs end in -ment: confortablement (comfortably), malheureusement (unfortunately), évidemment (obviously).
Here’s an example of a French adverb in action, describing one of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld’s collections:
Une petite merveille de cohérence, de charme et de légèreté où la cliente perd facilement vingt ans.
A little treasure of coherency, charm, and lightness in which the wearer easily loses twenty years.
Caption 2, Le Journal: Défilé de mode - Part 3
So what's the one thing that English -ly adverbs and French -ment adverbs have in common? You guessed it—they all come from adjectives! Just take away the -ly and the -ment to get “unfortunate” (malheureuse), “easy” (facile), and “obvious” (évident).
However, this formula is a bit more complicated in French than in English. Facilement and confortablement can be neatly broken down into their separate components: the adjectives facile and confortable plus the ending -ment. But why do we have malheureusement and not "malheureuxment"? (Malheureux is the masculine form of malheureuse.) And why évidemment instead of "évidentment"?
The answer: French has a small set of rules for determining how to turn an adjective into an adverb. Once you learn them, you'll be able to spot the adverbs in any sentence effortlessly.
First take the masculine form of the adjective:
1. If the adjective ends in a vowel, simply add -ment.
We just saw some examples of this with facile + ment = facilement and confortable + ment = confortablement. Other common examples include:
vrai → vraiment (true → truly)
probable → probablement (probable → probably)
spontané → spontanément (spontaneous → spontaneously)
absolu → absolument (absolute → absolutely)
2. If the adjective ends in a consonant, add -ment to the feminine form of the adjective.
This is the case of malheureux/malheureusement. You’ll also see this rule at work in words such as:
religieux → religieusement (religious → religiously)
direct → directement (direct → directly)
réel → réellement (real → really)
léger → légèrement (light → lightly)
massif → massivement (massive → massively)
3. If the adjective ends in -ant or -ent, replace the ending with -amment or -emment, respectively.
So even though évident ends in a consonant, its adverbial form is not "évidentement," but évidemment. Likewise, you have:
constant → constamment (constant → constantly)
récent → récemment (recent → recently)
apparent → apparemment (apparent → apparently)
brillant → brillamment (brilliant → brilliantly)
A special note: the ending -emment has the same pronunciation as -amment. An easy way to remember this is to think of the word femme (woman), which is pronounced /fam/, not /fem/.
You can hear an example of this pronunciation in these two videos:
Ben la ville est petite et en même temps suffisamment grande pour qu’y ait à peu près tout.
Well the town is small and at the same time it’s big enough to have just about everything.
Cap. 19, Strasbourg: Les passants
Il était absolument impossible, évidemment, d’exprimer le moindre regret....
It was absolutely impossible, obviously, to express the slightest regret...
Cap. 33-34, Le Journal: Joëlle Aubron libérée
Although there are a few exceptions here and there, these are the basic rules for creating adverbs from adjectives in French. You can find a thorough list of these exceptions in this about.com article on the subject: http://french.about.com/library/weekly/aa060300m.htm
The one simple guideline underlying all three of these rules (which has no exceptions!) is that the adverbial ending -ment (or -mment) is always preceded by a vowel. So if you keep at least that in mind when constructing your adverbs, you should succeed brillamment!