French Expression of the Day: à peine

French Expression of the Day: à peine
Image: Deposit Photos
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?

It can be particularly difficult to work out how to use à peine and at the same time it's one you need to know both in terms of your own speaking and because it is used all the time in French conversation. 
You'll also see it used a lot in written French. 

So, what does it mean?

Literally à peine means 'to pain' 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 in reference to the 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.

For example, Je l’ai mangé moi-même (I ate it myself) – À peine! (Yeah, right!)

For help on how to pronounce peine, check out the video below.

Some other examples: 
Ça s'aperçoit à peine – It's hardly noticeable / You can barely see it.
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.

Member comments

  1. The fit with English is a little bit more direct sometimes than the author has described, in my opinion, for “a peine”.

    It is common in English to say, for example,

    “I am at pains to know what to think of this.”

    In French a (the preposition) can often mean “at” in English, so there is a direct correspondence with English for “a peine” sometimes. Just thought this was worth pointing out because it makes “a peine” a little easier to understand for a native English speaker.

  2. You say: “Literally à peine means ‘to pain’ or ‘to effort’.” This isn’t really true. As with all prepositions in French and English, prepositions can have various meanings, depending on context. In both languages, the most common literal meaning is often illogical (e.g. why is someone beaten ‘up’, why do we nod ‘off’, etc), so we shouldn’t expect it to be directly translatable. ‘À’ often means ‘with’, as in ‘à voix haute/basse/douce’, ‘pêcher à la ligne’, so a more comprehensible literal translation of ‘`a peine’ would be ‘with pain’.

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