The most common and embarrassing French language problems laid bare by Twitter

So anyone who has been a French language learner will know that it doesn't always go entirely smoothly, and sometimes you end up confused, confusing or just downright mortified.

The most common and embarrassing French language problems laid bare by Twitter
Photo: Giulio_Fornasar/Depositphotos
We all have our own personal horror story of the time we got some French very wrong – often revolving around that cruelest of false friends excité (let's just say that it does not mean excited in the sense of you're looking forward to meeting the new boss).
But it may comfort learners to know that at least they are not alone in this, and the Twitter hashtags #frenchproblems #franceproblems and #frenchlanguage have been laying bare the sheer scale of the confusion that exists out there.
Le or La? The need to get your genders right for French nouns leads to all sorts of problems and mockery, even when you are rightfully complaining about your issues with France as this tweet below reveals.
Here are a few of our favourites, from mishearing words, mispronouncing something crucial to the knotty social problems like using tu and vous that are blissfully absent in English.
Of course the simplest error is getting the word totally wrong and saying something wildly different to what you actually wanted to convey.

The French word la gomme might sound like it means chewing gum, but it actually means eraser. 

The word avocat can, confusingly, mean both a lawyer or an avocado in French. Hopefully the context will help you decide which is which.

The French verb râper means to grate, which is why you often see bags of fromage râpée in the supermarket. The French word for rape is violer.
Then there's the pronunciation, which can be a minefield for both Anglophones speaking French and French people speaking English.
This rugby league fan was presumably trying to offer his congratulations to Perpignan based club Catalan Dragons, the current holders of the Challenge Cup. But the French word for champions – les champions – sounds very similar to les champignons – the mushrooms.
In French sometimes a word is more than just a word, sometimes its about conveying social status as well.
The words tu and vous both mean you, but while tu is informal and used for someone you are friendly with or someone who is significantly younger than you, vous is used as a mark of respect and is considered polite with someone who is either older or who you don't know very well. (See below for a handy flow chart explaining further).
Similarly, salut is informal and should only be used with people who are friendly with, while bonjour is more formal. If you're trying to be friendly and get a bonjour back you can consider yourself snubbed.
And speaking of the word salut, it can sound like another word in French Salaud, which means “bastard”. Don't mix them up. In fact there are many French words that sound the same and you really don't want to mix them up. Cou (neck) and queue (slang for penis), par example.
Then there's that old favourite, the French numbering system which has been baffling English-speakers for decades. 
And finally, don't assume that French is going to be the same in all Francophone countries
PS If you're still confused about the tu/vous issue, someone also tweeted this handy explainer which will at least give you a laugh as you wrestle with the problem.


Member comments

  1. My worst… when I arrived and need wood treatment for the very empty house…
    Very minimal french (this was twelve years ago) and I asked at the counter of the local brico something roughly approximating to “je ermm… voudrais ermm… uh.. le preservatif pour mon bois?” Well it broke the ice…

  2. I once told people I went on my holidays to the mountains between France and Spain – the “Periné”, and an English-speaking friend, whose dog had just had babies, was speaking to a French person saying that she had “2 chiots and et 3 chiottes”.

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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.


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


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 


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 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.