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Zut alors! The French phrases you learn but don't really need

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Oliver Gee - [email protected]
Zut alors! The French phrases you learn but don't really need
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There are French words and phrases you are taught at school or in phrase books you are convinced you need, but in reality the locals hardly ever use them or at least not in the way you thought.


So you've arrived in France and you're ready to test out your French. 

But zut alors (more on this phrase soon) - what you've learned isn't the same language that real-life French people actually use. 

Here's a guide to some phrases that you could leave in your text book - or indeed in the Hollywood movies - if you want to pass as a French person. 


Zut alors

Ok, we used this phrase above, but sarcastically. The only place you'll find this exclamation is in British tabloid headlines whenever there is a mildly shocking story about France. 

The phrase, which is an old fashioned way to say "darn" or "shoot", is pretty much confined to use by grandmas and Asterix comics. The shorter version "zut" is used more frequently - especially by parents in front of their kids.

Sacre bleu

Here's another one you're much more likely to see in a British newspaper than in France. But don't bother using it unless you're the kind of person who says "golly gosh" in English. It has had its time.

The reason the English presume all the French say this phrase can perhaps be blamed on Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, who was very fond of the phrase. And he was Belgian anyway. 

Je voudrais... "I would like" (in restaurants and bars)

If you've ever studied French, you've possibly been told that this is the only way to ever possibly order a drink or a meal in a cafe, bar, or restaurant. 

"Je voudrais un café", easy, right? The thing is, while the French sometimes order things like this, there are actually other ways of ordering something that are far more common. 

We stress: there's nothing incorrect about saying "je voudrais"... but you risk standing out like a tourist, especially if your French accent is in the developmental stage. 

Try "je vais prendre", "je prendrai", or "je prends". If you want to be really formal, try "Est-ce que je pourrais avoir". 

READ ALSO What does the way you order coffee in French say about you?

Comme ci, comme ça

Literally meaning "Like this, like that", this phrase is the text book way to respond to many questions if you want to say the equivalent of "so so" in English.

However, the phrase is used in French as seldom as "so so" is used by native English speakers. 


"French people in general don't use it all that much... It's true that it's VERY present in the books," says self-confessed "comme si, comme ça" user Camille Chevalier-Karfis, a French language expert and founder of the site

If you want to describe something as "so so", there are alternatives: "pas top", "sympa sans plus", or just try a Gallic shrug. 

'Va te faire cuire un oeuf'... and other outdated expressions

Benjamin Rey, who runs the Ilini website for language learning, warns that French slang can die quickly. 

"If I say 'va te faire cuire un oeuf' (meaning 'go away', or literally, 'go and cook an egg'), it will definitely sound dated. And also funny, which may be your intention. But be careful if humour isn’t your intention," he says. 

"Nowadays you should say 'laisse-moi tranquille' or more harshly 'fous-moi la paix'," he says.

The same can be said for other French expressions you come across. Probably better just to use the ones you hear the locals using.

'Puis-je'... and other extreme formalities 

You're going to come across as being overly formal if you're not careful, says Rey. Once again, there's nothing wrong with being formal at the right time - but that's not all the time. 


"A friend told me that she asked her teacher how to say 'I'd be grateful if you could...'. Her answer was 'Je vous saurais gré de bien vouloir...'. This is correct, but very formal (as it would be in English).

"You should simply say 'Est-ce que tu pourrais…'/'Pourriez-vous' or ‘J’aimerais que tu/vous…’ (which is more direct)."

French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis, founder of, says extreme formality is one of the biggest problems for her students.

"I personally never use 'puis-je' - only 'est-ce que je pourrais', for example," she says. 

It's also crucial not to talk like you would write, she says, as written French and spoken French can be quite different.

"Répétez s'il vous plaît" - Please repeat that

While some phrase books might tell you to use this phrase when you don't understand something, do it with caution. 

"The basic 'répétez s'il vous plaît' should be avoided unless you didn't hear well the first time around," says French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis.

"When you say 'repeat please', the person will just repeat exactly the same thing."

"Furthermore, 'répétez' is an order, it's a bit harsh for everyday situations. Say something like 'désolé, je n'ai pas bien compris' ('Sorry, I didn't quite get it') which will encourage the person to rephrase their sentence."

Mais non!

It's easy to use "Mais non !" incorrectly, says Chevalier-Karfis.

"We do use it in French, but not at the end of each sentence... Actually it's quite a strong negation, usually showing an emotion such as surprise, shock or total disagreement."


"Same goes with 'mais oui' which is like 'why, yes, of course' giving the impression that what was said was super obvious."

Je m'appelle ...
It's one of the first things you learn at school, "Bonjour, je m'appelle ..." for "my name is". 
You may indeed ask "comment tu t'appelles ?" for "what's your name?", and the correct way to answer is to say "Je m'appelle"...
Of course there's nothing wrong with sticking to what you know but it's uncommon in everyday life to use the verb appeller to introduce yourself.
Instead you are more likely to just simply say your name in response.

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ...

Hopefully, no one actually believes that French people go round bars using words made world famous by Christina Aguilera, which translate to "do you want to sleep with me?"  

But what people may not realise is that it's actually a weirdly formal way of saying it, and more like written French - so certainly not the smoothest way to charm a French person.

You'd hope too that by the time you were asking someone to go home with you, you'd have moved on to the informal "tu" form of "you" (instead of vous).

This phrase is unfortunately reserved mostly for tourists trying to impress the French. And guess what, the French have heard it before and aren't typically impressed (so we hear). 


If you've ever used this to get the attention of a waiter in France, we're sorry to tell you but your food may not have arrived at your table entirely uncontaminated.

As any Pulp Fiction fan knows, garçon means boy - or at least literally.

Using the word garçon to refer to a waiter comes from the phrase "garçon de café", which refers to career waiters - but these days that's very rarely used and it comes across as pretty patronising to address a fully grown man as 'boy'

"Excusez-moi" or a gesture works just fine to get their attention, and if you need to address your waiter directly you can call him Monsieur.


You might find it strange that such a common word like mademoiselle is a contentious issue in France. But it truly is.

The distinction traditionally marks out whether a woman is married or not, which is pretty sexist because the same distinction isn't applied to men. 

The word has been banned from French administrative forms and feminist groups want it phased out altogether. 

It's usually OK if you're talking to a very young woman (late teens or early 20s) but for anyone older than that it's safer to stick with Madame.

Is it time for the French to finally ditch the word mademoiselle?


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