Ten naughty mistakes the French make in English

Yes, the English mess up the French language all the time. But when the French get English wrong it can sounds oh-so wrong.

Ten naughty mistakes the French make in English
Photo: Jonaycp/flickr

Learners of the French language can often make embarrassing, rude and silly mistakes. However, it is important to note that the French themselves can often leave us red-faced by some of their unfortunate mistakes, or more to the point the mispronunciations that they make in English.

Here are ten of the worst that you might have come across during your time in France, and for our French readers we've added some pronunciation tips to help you avoid making these gaffes in the future.

Sheet, not sh*t

If you’ve just moved in with your new French lover, don’t let your new-found domestic bliss be disturbed when you hear a shout from the other room: “Help me put this shit in the washing machine.” Your special one (probably) just wants a hand with the linen.

Pronunciation tip: A bed 'sheet' is pronounced with a long 'eee' sound.

Be careful what you're suggesting to put on the bed. Photo: Kayla Kandzorra/ Flickr

A fork, not f**k

You're out at a romantic restaurant to celebrate Valentine's Day and need an extra fork to share dessert. But before you can stop them your French partner has asked the astonished waiter for a f**k. You have to step in and apologize before the waiter obliges.

Pronunciation tip: For fork it's just the number ‘four’ rounded off with a ‘kuh’.

Think, number four. Photo: SwedishCarina/ Flickr

Beach, not b***h

The French famously love their summer holidays. But do your Gallic friends a favour and warn them about how they convey their enjoyment to avoid misunderstandings like this. “How was your trip to the Riviera with Sophie?” “Wonderful, we sat on the bitch all week.”

Pronunciation tip: The place with the sand and the sea is pronounced with a long e sound.

Sitting on the beach. Photo: Jonaycp/ Flickr

Fair enough, not furry muff

Getting the basics of any language right is one thing. But moving on to slang should be approached with care. French reader Farida tells us why:

“I once heard an English colleague say ‘furry muff’ instead of “fair enough”, and I started using it with clients on the phone, thinking it was cool. I was soon asked never to use it again.”

Pronunciation tip: If in doubt, leave it out. You don’t have to fit in right away.

Furry muff? Photo: David Goehring/ Flickr

'You're funny', not 'your fanny'

Pillow-talk is one area where French men excel. The accent, the poetry, the sweet nothings. But if you ask your very own Serge Gainsbourg: “What do you love most about me?” and he replies: “Your fanny”, have a sense of humour about it.

After all, that’s what he was trying to say – “You’re funny.”

Pronunciation tip: This mistake can be hard to avoid. Say the word 'fun' with a 'nee' on the end or just say 'hilarious'.

Not the kind of compliment you were hoping for. Photo: Timothy.tolle/ Flickr

Sticky, not stiffy

Back to those awkward moments in restaurants. Not many French people will end up leaving their partner red-faced because of a 'sticky toffee pudding' but it happens, as one reader explained:

“My French girlfriend was crazy about this dessert and ordered it whenever it was on the menu. The problem was she couldn't pronounce it correctly and kept asking for a 'Stiffy toffee pudding'.

Pronunciation tip: Just order the ice cream.

Sticky toffee pudding. Photo: Chatirygirl/ Flickr

No you 'can't', not c**t

You’re at a ticket machine in the Paris Metro, about to do some sight-seeing with your French guide. You ask if you can pay with your credit card, and the member of the staff replies “No, you c**t.”

Don’t immediately ask for a complaints form – the helpful employee was probably just trying to say, “No, you can’t.”

Pronunciation tip: It depends which part of the Anglo-speaking world you're in, but just to be safe you should pronounce 'can't' with a long vowel sound as if it was spelled 'carnt'. Or do as other Anglos (like Americans) do and say it just like the word “can” with a soft T at the end. 

How rude. Photo: dr_zoidberg/ Flickr

Peace and quiet, not p**s and quiet

A reader who lived in Britain with his French partner tells us he lost all credibility during an argument one night with some noisy neighbours when his girlfriend leaned out the window and shouted:

“Please just let us sleep in piss!” Needless to say they got no 'peace' after that.

Pronunciation tip: Same old mistake between a long 'e' sound and a short 'i' sound? 'Peace' rhymes with the way the French say Nice, and so does 'piece' as in 'piece of cake'.

Shhhh. Photo: DaMongMAn/ Flickr

Coke, not cock

Bill, a Canadian reader who works in Paris tells us he was shocked at what he was offered at a party one night. “I walked in, said hello, and the host shouted at me with a smile: ‘Do you want some c**k?’ I was a bit taken aback until I turned to see the bottle of coca cola in his hand.”

Pronunciation tip: An ‘e’ at the end of the word lengthens the vowel in the middle. Think ‘oh!’ for 'coke'.

Be careful what you offer. Photo: muammerokumus/ Flickr

Focus, not 'f**k us'

And lastly…. Sometimes learning a new language requires serious levels of concentration. Get one vowel sound wrong, and “Can you focus please?” becomes a very different kind of request, as this short, helpful video tutorial explains.

An original version of this story was published in March, 2013. 

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Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.