French Expression of the Day: À peine

The Local France
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French Expression of the Day: À peine
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

This French expression is one you'll come across regularly but it can be tricky to work out exactly what it means.


Why do you need to know à peine?

Because it is used all the time in French conversation, and you'll it a lot in written French.

What does it mean?

À peine - roughly pronounced ah pen - means 'with or to pain' or 'with or to effort'. 

Obviously this doesn't make much sense in English but when used in French conversation, it acts as an adverb meaning 'hardly', 'barely' or 'scarcely'. 

While the literal translation might seem completely useless at first, there is some sense to be made from it. 

Both 'pain' and 'effort' suggest doing something with difficulty so it makes sense that you would 'barely' or 'hardly' want to do it.

For example, if you're out with a friend and ready to have some lunch, they might try and delay it by saying J'ai à peine faim (I'm barely hungry).


And you can also say it as a reference to time - for example: Il est à peine midi (It's barely noon).

While the expression isn't necessarily an informal one, it can be used informally to express disbelief. In this case, you might say Je l’ai mangé moi-même (I ate it myself) - À peine! (Yeah, right!)

Use it like this

Ça s'aperçoit à peine - It's hardly noticeable.

C'est à peine croyable - It's hard to believe.

Ce chaton a à peine deux mois. - This kitten is barely two months old.

J’avais à peine terminé quand elle est arrivé. - I’d barely finished when she arrived.


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