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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

French phrases that language learners just don’t get

International Francophonie Day: Even if you've lived in France for years, there are some French phrases and expressions that might still catch you out. Here are a just a few of the many that we often get wrong.

French phrases that language learners just don't get
Photo: Gustavofrazao/Depositphotos

C'est n'importe quoi

Ni'importe quoi is one of those terms we hear thrown into French sentences a lot, so we naturally try to do the same, but don't always get it right.

Often used to express exasperation, “C'est n'importe quoi!” can be a tough one for foreigners to grasp but usually means something like “That's nonsense/rubbish”. N'importe quoi by itself can also mean “whatever”.

Du coup

This filler phrase meaning something like “so” or “therefore” pops up in French conversation similarly to how “like” peppers the speech of an American teenager. It can bewilder French learners who don't understand how it can be so omnipresent yet have no actual meaning. 

In this case it's not that we use it incorrectly, but more that we never use it (but would really love to) because we haven't a clue when it's appropriate.

Photo: Sara Dinu/Flickr

Quand même
 
Two words with so many meanings.
 
“Quand même is a very common and versatile French expression,” writes Laura Lawless from the French language learning section of the site Thought Co. “You can hear it several times a day, every day, and each time you think you understand all of its meanings, another one seems to come along.”
 
The site has a few examples to illustrate their point:
 
  J'avais peur, mais je l'ai fait quand même.
   I was afraid, but I did it anyway (or but i still did it).
 
   C'est quand même difficile.
   It's actually quite hard.
 
   Quand même !
   Really! Honestly! (disbelief, outrage)
 
   Quel idiot, quand même !
   Really, what an idiot!

Désolé(e)

This word isn't used with nearly the same frequency as “sorry” in English. The French are far more likely to say “pardon” or “excusez-moi” for everyday blunders and save désolé for when they're truly sorry for something they did. 
 
Désolé… Photo: Flickr

Oh là là

First of all, it's not Ooh (là là) but Oh. In English this phrase has taken on a sexual innuendo, but that's not the case in French, where it's basically used for everything else. Here's a comprehensive guide on how to use these three little words.

Oh là là - How to really use the best three words in French

Visiter / rendre visite

English-speakers need to be careful not to mix these two up. “Visiter” is for a place, such as a monument or a city, while “rendre visite” is used when talking about people. If you just say you're going to visiter someone, it can have a sexual connotation. 

Sacré bleu

English-speakers might whip out this phrase to express astonishment thinking it makes them sound oh-so-French, but in reality it's extremely out-dated and almost never used by French people these days, except perhaps in jest.

J'ai chaud

In English it would sound ridiculous to say “I have hot” as opposed to “I'm hot” on a sweltering day. But in French saying “Je suis chaud” could land you in trouble, as it actually translates to “I'm horny”.

Bonjour

Bonjour seems like the simplest of French words — a no-brainer, right? Au contraire. Foreigners too often get it wrong by not saying it at all (which some argue is the root cause of why French people are said to be so rude). Read this to make sure you actually know how to use the most important word in French

And don't say it twice to the same person in the same day. Say “re-bonjour” instead.

This is by far the most important word in French

Adieu

Say this to a French person and you're wishing them a final farewell, as in you'll never see them again. Just stick with au revoir to sound a bit less dramatic.  

Plus
 
This tricky little word consistently stumps French learners because it can mean two opposite things – either “more” or “none”, depending on whether you pronounce the 's' or not (pronouncing the s means “more”). 

Putain

The greatest of French swear words is so ubiquitous that foreigners often overuse it and forget it's not meant to be used in polite company. Better safe than sorry with this one. 

Je suis plein(e)

“It's common to hear an Anglophone say after a good dinner: 'Ce dîner est excellent et maintenant, je suis plein(e),' French teacher at French a la Carte Florence Harang told The Local. “But Je suis plein(e) means “I am pregnant” (and is only actually used for animals, not humans). 

Saying J'ai bien mangé is far more appropriate for when you can't eat another forkful of Gallic grub.

C'est bon/c'est bien

Another couple of pesky phrases for French learners as we often confuse the two.

Camille Chevalier-Karfis, who runs the language learning website French Today says: “For this one, the answer is simple: memorise an example that rhymes. C’est bon means yummy. So remember “c’est bon le jambon” – ham is yummy.

C’est bien means approval, so 'c’est bien Julien' or Damien, or Félicien… pick a name you know!” 

C'est pas terrible

English speakers can be forgiven for getting confused with the word terrible in French, as saying “c'est pas terrible” actually means something is terrible, rather than isn't, as you would think at first.

Je suis confus
 
“At the question 'Vous comprenez?' ('Do you understand?') some English speakers might answer: 'Non, je suis confus' ” said Harang. “But in French this means “I am embarrassed”, not confused. They should say instead: 'Ce n'est pas très clair pour moi.'”

Au fur et à mesure

“The French expression au fur et à mesure (meaning “as/while/gradually”) is a perfect example of why you can't translate word for word from one language to another,” writes Thought Co's Laura Lawless.
 
“In this case, English speakers need but a single word to express something for which the French commonly use five.
 
“Fur is an old word meaning “rate,” and mesure means “measure” or “measurement.”
 
“Au fur et à mesure is less flexible than the English equivalents: you can only use it for active, progressive actions,” she added.
 
 
Je fais la vaisselle au fur et à mesure qu'il débarrasse la table.
 
I do the dishes as he clears the table.
 
Au fur et à mesure que la fête se rapproche, ma sœur s'inquiète.
 
As the party draws nearer, my sister is getting impatient.
 
If you are confused by fewer than five of these phrases then you're doing well.
 
But the problem is there are far more than 17 confusing phrases in French. Can you name any more?

 
By Katie Warren
 
Another version of this story was published in 2016

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

Masculine

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

Feminine

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 

Plural

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 

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.

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