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Ten essential French phrases you'll definitely need every day

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Ten essential French phrases you'll definitely need every day
Photo: Deposit photos
12:42 CET+01:00
These 10 expressions will help you sound less like a walking French textbook and more like an actual human being when you’re speaking French.

When it comes to having a chat in another language learning formal vocabulary and grammar rules will only get you so far. After a point, what you really need to know are the little interjections that allow you to keep the conversation flowing and add a bit of personality to what you’re saying.  

The following examples are all commonly used in everyday French conversations.

You will, most likely, never find them in a French textbook, but if you’re around French speakers you are guaranteed to hear them multiple times a day.

And the more you use them the more natural your French conversations will start to sound.

Ça y est

French Word of the Day: 'Ça y est!'

Why do I need to know ça y est? 

Ça y est is one of those expressions that pops up all the time in spoken French, and sounds deceptively simple.

So, what does it mean?

Ça comes from cela meaning ‘it’ and est is a form of the verb ‘to be’. would usually refer to a place but, in this instance, just acts as a connector between the two other words.

So, literally, it means ‘it is there.’ But the words are pronounced all together as one so it sounds more like "sigheeay" than ça y est.

But while the individual words might be familiar, just piecing them together won’t really help you get to grips with how to use (or understand) this expression.

Ça y est is mostly used to acknowledge either the beginning or end of something. You'll often see it written with an exclamation mark because it expresses relief or excitement.

When used before an event it can help to give a feeling of anticipation. You might hear commentators use it before a sports match or a friend use it before they go on holiday to mean something like ‘here we are’ or ‘this is it’ or ‘we're off’.

Using ça y est at the end of event normally implies a bit of relief that it’s over. You might hear someone use it after they’ve just finished doing something difficult or that took a while meaning ‘all done!’, ‘finished!’ or ‘that's it!’, or ‘at last!’

For example you could say Ça y est, j'ai fini. to mean ‘That's it, I'm finished.’

This expression is less used in writing although you might come across it written informally as “sayez” in a text message.

Ca y est can also be used as a question to ask if someone has finished or if they have understood something. So in English it would be translated to ‘got it?’

Examples

Ça y est, je suis en vacances !
That's it. I’m on holiday !

Ça y est. C’est parti.
Here we go. They’re off !

- Tu as fini ? – Oui, ça y est !
Have you finished ? – Yes, I’m done !

Ça y est, j’ai trouvé mes clés!
I’ve done it, I found my keys !

 

Du coup

French Word of the Day: Du coup... Du coup... Du coup...

Why do I need to know du coup?

This is one of those French words that's difficult to translate and yet you'll hear it peppered throughout conversation when you're in France.

In fact, if you're listening in on a chat between two French people, sometimes it sounds as if du coup features in almost every other sentence. 

So, what does it mean?

This French term literally means ‘of the blow’ but in conversation it is used to mean ‘so that means’, ‘consequently’, ‘as a result’, ‘so’ and ‘and so’. 

And it is (very) frequently used as a vague filler phrase which pops up in conversation similarly to how ‘like’ peppers the speech of an American teenager.

French language blogger Marc Olivier said, ‘Chances are, if you take 'du coup' out of an average conversation, you won't lose anything.’

It can bewilder French learners who don't understand how to use it or when it's appropriate but as it's so popular with native speakers, if you start using it regularly you'll start to sound like a local. 

Of course, that's if you can say it correctly. As many French people have pointed out, anglophones can have trouble with the ‘ou’ sound in du coup.  And you don't pronounce the 'p' of course.

Origin

There are some who trace the origin of du coup from tout d'un coup, meaning ‘suddenly’

According to some sources, it was used by the French working class before World War II before disappearing and later reappearing in the early 2000s.

Some French linguists have described the spread of the word as ‘a virus’ in the language.  

Examples

J'ai eu un problème avec ma voiture ce matin et du coup, je suis arrivé en retard au boulot.

I had a problem with my car this morning, so that meant I arrived at work late.

(from wordreference.com)

Alors du coup, Jacques est allé acheter une baguette.

So, Jacques went to buy a baguette. 

Alternatives 

en conséquence - consequently, hence

donc - therefore, so 

de ce fait - because of this, consequently 

 

C'est parti

French Expression of the Day: C'est parti

Why have we chosen C'est parti?
 
C'est parti is a useful little phrase that crops up all the time... right at the beginning of things. 
 
So, what exactly does it mean?
 
C'est parti literally means ‘it has left', but it is commonly used in spoken French to get something going or to say that something has started.
 
If you followed last summer's football World Cup (won by Les Blues, of course) you will have heard this expression all the time from commentators, moments after kick off as a way of saying ‘and they're off!'
 
In more everyday circumstances you might hear it used at work to mean something like ‘let's go' or ‘here we go'. 
 
For example, C'est aujourd'hui le lancement de notre project. C'est parti! (Our new product launches today. Here we go!).
 
As this expression is informal you may well also hear it used regularly between friends or family members at the start of small events like car journeys, holidays or even a meals, such as Tout le monde est prêt? C'est parti! (Is everybody ready? Let's get going!)
 
C'est+ the past participle (in this case, of the verb partir) is a pretty common structure in French but despite the fact that it contains a past participle, c'est parti can only be used in this form to describe things that are happening in the present moment.  
 
Examples
 
From the headline above:
 
Foire Internationale de Metz: C'est parti pour dix jours - Metz International Fair - Here we go for ten days!
 
C'est parti pour cinq jours au soleil! - It's time for five days of sun!
 
On va au déjuner? - C'est parti! - Shall we go for lunch? - Lets go!
 
Tant pis
 
French Expression of the Day: Tant pis
 

Why did we choose tant pis?

It's a expression that you'll hear frequently used in everyday conversation. On top of that, it's one that's almost impossible to guess the meaning of and sometimes it's not even clear which context to use it in because you'll hear it said in such a variety of tones. And you need to know how to pronounce it.

So, what does it mean?

Literally speaking, tant pis means 'so much the worse'. 

The reason why it can be said in different tones depending on the situation is that it can mean something fairly mild like 'oh well' but it can also mean 'tough' or 'tough luck'. 

It can express a disappointed resignation and it can also be an expression that is full of accusation.
 
When used in the most extreme sense, the English equivalent of tant pis would be an angry 'too damn bad' or 'tough'.
 
But most commonly, you'll see it said with a casual shrug and a smile to mean 'oh well' or never mind'.
 
That means that it's important to be comfortable you know how to use it properly before you try it out, in case you end up sounding more rude than you meant to.
 
It's pronounced more like "ton pee" that tant pis, but definitely has nothing to do with urine.

Alternatives 

A synonym in French could be c'est dommage, or quel dommage (what a shame) and  if something disappointing or sad has happened a more appropriate synonym would be c'est dur (that's hard).

Examples

Il n'y a plus de lait. Tant pis, je boirai mon café noir! - There is no more milk. Oh well! I'll drink my coffee black. 

Si ça ne t'intéresse pas, tant pis pour toi, je le proposerai à quelqu'un d'autre. - If it doesn't interest you, too bad for you, I'll suggest it to someone else.

(The above two examples are from wordreference.com)

C'est tant pis pour lui. - That's just too damn bad for him.

 

 

Bref

French Word of the Day: bref

Why do I need to know the word bref?

You might never learn this word in French class but as soon as you get to France you’ll hear it everywhere you go. In fact bref is so widely used it was the name given to a popular French TV sketch.

Learning to use this little word will help you keep up in French conversations and make your own spoken French more natural. 

What does it mean?

The adjective bref (of brève in feminine) officially means ‘brief’ or ‘short’ and comes from the word brièvement meaning ‘in a short space of time’. In a sentence you might hear it used like Voici un bilan bref de notre reunion. (‘Here’s a short assessment of our meeting.’)

In writing you might also see en bref (meaning ‘in summary’) used to introduce a concluding sentence or paragraph. 

But you’ll most commonly hear bref (or enfin bref or bon bref) used as a kind of filler word thrown in to keep conversations moving. 

When used in spoken French bref means something like ‘in a nutshell’, ‘basically’ or ‘anyway.’

For example, if the same points are being repeated over and over again in a discussion, bref could be used to summarize what’s been said and move the conversation on, like Enfin bref, le travail n’est pas encore terminé. Ça va nous prend combine de temps de le finir? (‘So basically, the work isn’t done yet. How long will it take us to finish it?’)

Or, if someone realises the story they are telling has started to get a bit longwinded or people are already familiar with it, they might use bref to stop themselves rambling on and summarise what they are saying, like bref, je n’avais pas trop de retard enfin. (‘Anyway, I didn’t arrive too late in the end.’)

So, how can I use bref in conversation?

Ça nous a fait deux mois d’organiser cette réunion. Enfin bref, je vais aller la voir la semaine prochaine. 

It’s taken us two months to organise this meeting. Anyway, I’m going to see her next week.

Bref, tu me comprends. 

Anyway, you understand. 

Bref, ça ne s'est pas très bien passé. 

Basically, it didn’t go well.

(the example above comes from wordreference.com)

Mince

French Word of the Day: Mince

Why have we chosen mince?

Mince is one of the many tricky false friends that you come across in French and one that is used a lot in everyday conversation. 

So, what does it mean?

Mince means slim, slender or thin in the physical sense (for people and objects) but it also has an alternative euphemistic usage.

Mince! is shouted out by French speakers who want to stop themselves from using the gros mot (swear word) merde.In the same way as English speakers bite their lip and say ‘ssssugar!’ or ‘ssshoot!’ rather than yelling ‘shit!’, or Germans say the just as harsh-sounding ‘Scheibenkleister’ rather than screaming ‘Scheisse!’.

According to Wordreference, you also have at your disposal the equally mild Mince alors!, used in a similar way to zut! to express surprise like in British English 'Blimey!', Aussie English 'Crikey!' or American English 'Holy cow!'.

Mince alors can also express disappointment, a bit like saying 'Damn!' in English. For example, Mince alors! J’ai oublié de debrancher mon fer à repasser! as in 'Damn! I forgot to unplug my iron'.

There’s also the very handy expression ce n’est pas une mince affaire which translates as 'it’s no mean feat' or 'it’s no trivial matter' as well as mince espoir, which means a 'slim chance.'

In a similar vein, mince can be used as an adjective to refer to something meager or poor, such as Vince a obtenu de minces résultats pour un tel effort (Vince got poor marks considering how much effort he put in).

You can also talk about ‘a family of low financial means’ as une famille de mince revenus, to define something or someone as scant or meager in terms of wealth.

Alternatives

Alternative euphemisms include miel and mercredi.

 

Dis donc

French Word of the Day: Dis donc!

Why have we chosen dis donc?

This is an expression you'll hear used a lot in everyday conversion and it's great to drop in here and there yourself if you want to sound authentically French. 

So what exactly does it mean?

Dis donc has several translations into English. 

While it literally means 'say then' it would really be equivalent to 'wow', 'goodness', 'hey!', 'well,' and 'listen' and is usually used to express surprise or admiration. 

But it can also be used to reinforce a negative comment, such as in the following example: Dis donc, tu es à ma place, là! (Hey! you're in my spot!).

You can also tack on other words to give the expression a slightly different meaning. 

For example, Bah, dis donc! might sound more like a noise likely to come from a percussion instrument but if you use it in French conversation it means 'Well, I never!' or 'You don't say!'.

Similarly, Eh bien, dis donc! can also mean 'Well, I never!' or 'You don't say!' and if used in an ironic way means 'Oh don't mind me!' and 'That's quite alright!'. 

It's also worth noting that dis donc is the tu form of this expression, the plural or formal vous form is dites donc and you're much more likely to hear it conversation than in written form. 

Examples

Je ne savais pas qu'on pouvait passer par là dis donc! 

Well, I didn't know we could go this way.

Dis donc, tu es très en beauté ce soir! 

Wow, you look very beautiful this evening!

(The above two examples come from wordreference.com)

Dites donc, j'ai vu vos grandparents samedi soir. 

By the way, I saw your grandparents Saturday night.

 

Quand même

French Expression of the Day: Quand même

Why do I need to know quand même?

Quand même seemingly can be (and is) thrown into conversations all over the place to mean a range of different things.

Getting to grips with expressive phrase will add liven up your French conversation skills.

What does it mean?

The translation of quand même (‘when even’) doesn’t make it easy to glean the meaning of this expression and, given that it can mean so many things, intonation and context are key to understanding it in conversation.

One of the most common uses of quand même is to show you’re surprised by something (the same way you might use ‘really?’ in English.) This can be in a positive or negative sense.  

For example, tu peux gagner €2000 (‘you could win €2000’) or ça va coûter €2000 (‘it’ll cost €2000’) could both elicit a surprised Quand même! in response.

Another meaning for quand même is ‘even so’ or ‘anyway.’ In a sentence you might hear it used like Je pense qu’il est déjà parti, mais je vais y aller quand même. (‘I think he’s already left but I’m going to go there anyway.’)

You might use Merci quand même (‘thanks anyway’ or ‘thanks for trying’) with someone who attempts but fails to help you with something. Pay attention to intonation though, because this phrase can also be used sarcastically if someone hasn’t made enough of an effort to help.

Another use for quand même is an intensifier to add emphasis to an opinion like c’est beau, quand même (‘it’s really beautiful’) or c’est quand meme difficile (It’s really difficult.)

Finally, quand même can also mean… finally. For example, J’ai fait le ménage. - Ah, quand même! (- ‘I’ve done the cleaning.’ – ‘Finally!’)

How can I use quand même?

Tu arrives, quand même! ça fait une heure que je t'attends.

You’ve finally arrived! I’ve been waiting an hour.

Un amis, c'est quelqu'un qui vous connaît bien et qui vous aime quand meme.

A friend is someone who knows you well and likes you anyway.

Timide, moi? Oh non, quand même pas.

Me, shy? No, not really.

(The above examples are from wordreference.com)

 

Ça marche

French Expression of the Day: Ça marche

Why have we chosen ça marche?

This is one of the most commonly used expressions in French and you will hear it everywhere in general conversation. 

And you will also hear it restaurants and bars when you've finished placing your order.

But, like other expressions we've looked at, it's one that isn't always taught in French classes.

So, what does it mean?

Ça marche pronounced 'sa marsh' literally means 'that runs' or 'that works' which is why you'd be forgiven for not having a clue what it meant the first time you heard it. 

In conversation, it means a few different things. 

In everyday conversation it conveys the meaning of 'Ok, that works', 'that's fine', 'that works for me' and 'Ok, great!'. 

You'll also hear it said all the time by waiters when you've finished ordering. In this context it means 'Coming up' or 'Coming right up'. 

You can also use it as a question. So, by saying to someone Ça marche? you're asking them 'Does that work for you?' or 'Is that ok for you?'.

Similarly if you want to say something doesn't work, you can say: non, ça ne marche pas (no, that doesn't work).

Sometimes you'll hear it used as part of the expression: ça marche comme sur des roulettes (it runs like clockwork). 

Alternatives

In some cases, you'd be able to get away with d'accord! (ok!) but there isn't an exact equivalent that is quite as versatile as ça marche.

Examples

Alors, tu viens m'aider à déménager samedi? - Ça marche! 

So, are you coming to help me move on Saturday? - That works! 

(The example above comes from wordreference.com)

Et apporte quelque chose à boire. - Ça marche! 

And bring something to drink. - Ok!

Une omelette et un verre de vin blanc, s'il vous plaît. - Ça marche. 

An omelette and a glass of white wine, please. Coming right up.

N’importe quoi

French Expression of the Day: N'importe quoi!

Why do I need to know this expression?

It's a great phrase to use if you are involved in an argument with someone in France. In fact if your language level is limited and you don't agree with the person you are arguing with you could just about get away with repeating n'importe quoi over and over again. Until your opponent gives up and goes to bed.

But it also has other important meanings.

What does it mean?

Literally n'importe quoi means 'no matter what' and it's pronounced more like 'n'amporter kwah'.

But it has a few different uses that can be translated as 'anything', 'whatever', 'nonsense', 'rubbish' or even 'bullshit!'.

For example you could say je ferais n'importe quoi pour apprendre français, which would translate as 'I'd do anything to learn French'.

But when it comes to arguing or disagreeing with someone you would use n'importe quoi when you want to suggest what someone has said is a load of rubbish or nonsense.

For example if someone says Le Brexit est un bon idée you would be within you rights to say n'importe quoi or even tu dis n'importe quoi (you are talking nonsense) unless of course you think that Brexit is a good idea. 

It can also be translated in a few other ways with a similar meaning: Maintenant tu dis n'importe quoi (now you are just making things up) or Evie tu dis n'importe quoi (Evie, you're just not making any sense.)

And if you really want to stress that what the other person has said is really bonkers you can say it slowly like n'im... port...e quoi!

And you can also abbreviate it in speech and in text messages to just n'imp in the right environment. Such as discussing last night's drunken antics you could say hier soir, j'ai fait n'imp, which could translate as 'last night I was a complete chump'.

It can also be used in response to what people have done as well as what they have said. For example you could say Theresa May vous faites n'import quoi, meaning Theresa May 'you're doing it all wrong', or 'you're making a mess of it'. Unless you believe of course that she has played a blinder.

And you'll often hear parents saying something to their misbehaving children along the lines of arrete de faire n'importe quoi, which could translate as 'stop acting up' or 'stop messing around'.

Some other examples: 

Il mangera n'importe quoi.

He will eat anything.

Je peux ecrire sur n'importe quoi. 

I can write about anything.

- Les cochons peuvent voler - N'importe quoi 

-  Pigs can fly. - Bullshit

Tu dis vraiment n'importe quoi.

You are really talking crap.

- Qu'est-ce que tu veux manger? - Ça m'est egal, n'importe quoi. 

- What do you want to eat? - I'm easy, anything.

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