SHARE
COPY LINK

FRENCH LANGUAGE

9 French grammar tricks that will make you sound like a local

It's common when arriving in France to discover the vocabulary you learned at school is totally different to how most French people speak. Well, the same goes for grammar. These are some of the common grammatical structures that French people use for day-to-day chat.

Michel Drucker on the set of TV show
Michel Drucker on the set of TV show "Vivement Dimanche" in 2004. Learn how to use "vivement" in everyday conversation. Photo: Franck FIFE / AFP.

While connectors like “Bien que” and “Cependant” will look good in an academic essay, these aren’t necessarily the first words native French speakers will reach for in everyday conversation.

From linking words to sentence tags, following these tips will help you to sound more French.

Et si

Literally “and if”, this is used at the beginning of a sentence to mean “what if…”, or “how about…”. It’s practical in written and spoken French because it adds a good dose of rhythm, and once you’ve used it once you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. It’s perfect for those brainstorming meetings where the conversation is turning round in circles and you want to introduce a new idea.

Example: Et si on restait dans l’hôtel un jour de plus ? – What if we stayed in the hotel a day longer?

Comme quoi

This one literally means “like what”, but it’s a really versatile expression which can mean “which just goes to show”. Macron a été élu président à 39 ans, comme quoi l’âge n’est pas un obstacle – Macron was elected president at 39, which just goes to show age is no obstacle.

Sometimes you can use it on its own as an interjection without even needing to finish the thought, as in: Le PSG est l’un des clubs les plus riches du monde mais il n’a même pas gagné la Ligue 1 en 2021. Comme quoi. – PSG are one of the richest clubs in the world but they didn’t even win Ligue 1 in 2021. It just goes to show…

When placed in the middle of a sentence, comme quoi becomes a synonym for disant que (saying that). It’s a common, snappy means of conveying the contents of a message, whatever the medium, and locals will be suitably impressed if you use it instead of clunkier alternatives. For example: Elle m’a envoyé un message comme quoi elle est bien arrivée en Allemagne – She sent me a message saying she had arrived in Germany.

Quoi

You can also use quoi on its own, after pretty much any statement you make, and you can’t get much French than that. These days, you’ll often hear the word tagged onto the end of a sentence, where it serves to add emphasis rather than giving any further meaning. For example: Ca se fait pas, quoi ! – I mean, that’s unacceptable!

It can also be used with ou, as in the often-used tu es malade ou quoi ? – it literally means ‘are you sick or what?’ but it’s used as an argument or insult and is better translated as ‘are you going mad?’ or just ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’

Quoique

Further proof of the versatility of quoi. The term quoique (formed using the words “what” and “that”, because, French…) can be used at the beginning of a sentence followed by the subjunctive, to mean, “Although…” In that case it works like the term Bien que…

READ ALSO Knotted stomachs to flipping out: 10 French phrases to use when you’re stressed

But that’s not the usage we’re interested in (we’re not cruel enough to make you learn the subjunctive). A much simpler way to use it, which is also how most people use it in conversation, is to put it at the end of a statement. Here, it means “then again…” and serves to cast doubt over whatever you’ve just said.

Je devrais être chez moi toute la journée demain. Quoique. – I should be at home all day tomorrow. Actually…

Figure-toi

This is the imperative form of the verb se figurer, meaning “to imagine”. Figure-toi, like its plural/polite cousin figurez-vous, means you are ordering someone to picture something, although really what you’re saying is, “Would you believe it?”. It’s one of those small connecting phrases that add a bit of colour to the story you’re trying to tell, and make you sound like you’ve been gossiping in French your whole life.

Tu sais que Thomas s’est remis avec Mathilde, alors figure-toi que je l’ai vu en train de danser avec Charlotte – You know Thomas got back together with Mathilde, so would you believe that I saw him dancing with Charlotte?

Si jamais

“If ever”. This one is pretty self-explanatory, and French people use it all the time, but it’s not necessarily something you will have learned at school since it’s mostly reserved for spoken French.

It’s a great way of putting a suggestion out there without any pressure, or making a standing offer, such as N’hésite pas à me dire si jamais tu passes à Paris – Don’t hesitate to tell me if you’re ever in Paris.

It can also be translated as “If by chance…” For example: Je finis tôt aujourd’hui si jamais tu voudrais aller prendre un verre – I finish early today if by chance you fancy getting a drink.

It can be used on its own, too, where the rest of the sentence is implied, as in: Il reste une place dans ma voiture si jamais – There’s still one space in my car if ever (you decide you want a lift).

READ ALSO 11 of the most common French translation fails

Ne serait-ce que

This is one of those you’ve probably heard a hundred times without ever realising how it’s spelled. That’s because French people usually say it quickly, making it sound like there are three syllables – “Ne s-race que” – instead of five.

Although seeing it written down and grasping the meaning are two different things, because it can feel like you’re using a bunch of unnecessary words, as the French are admittedly wont to do.

It means “even if it’s only”, and if you can get the pronunciation down and use it at the right moment, you’re half way to being awarded citizenship.

An example: Personne n’en a douté ne serait-ce qu’un instant – Nobody suspected it, even for a moment.

Or, as the poet Jacques Prévert said, Il faudrait essayer d’être heureux, ne serait-ce que pour donner l’exemple – It’s important to try to be happy, if only to set an example.

Avoir beau

This is where the difference between être (to be) and avoir (to have) becomes incredibly important. Whereas je suis beau means “I’m handsome”, j’ai beau refers to the futility of human existence.

It’s always followed by another verb, and means that no matter what you do, your efforts will be in vain. For example:

J’ai beau essayer, la porte ne veut pas s’ouvrir – Try as I might, the door doesn’t want to open.

Le patron a beau avoir promis d’augmenter les salaires, les salariés n’y croient pas – The boss may well have promised to increase wages, but the workers aren’t convinced.

Vivement

Perhaps you’ve been warned not to say Je suis excité (I’m excited) because it can have sexual connotations in French, and so you find yourself repeating J’ai hâte (I can’t wait) whenever you’re looking forward to something.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but what distinguishes native speakers, beyond the accent and lack of mistakes, is the ability to draw upon a wide range of vocabulary and sentence structures to convey slightly different meanings.

The colloquial term vivement will be a welcome addition to your repertoire. It’s like the English “Bring on…” Commonly used when you’ve just about had enough, for example: Vivement les vacanes ! – Roll on the holidays!

Member comments

  1. Living in Brittany, I found the article above re tips of speaking French very interesting and helpful, thank you.

  2. Regarding your comment “we’re not so cruel as to make you learn the subjunctive,” I feel that the subjunctive is useful, provides shades of expression not available with the indicative. It’s a shame that the English language hardly ever uses it.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

PROPERTY

Plumbing Emergencies in France: Who to call and what to say

Plumbing ermergencies are common in France, so here's our guide to what to do, who to call and the phrases you will need if water starts gushing in unexpected areas.

Plumbing Emergencies in France: Who to call and what to say

How do I find a reliable plumber and avoid getting scammed?

First, try to stick with word-of-mouth if you can. Contact trusted individuals or resources, like your neighbours and friends, or foreigner-oriented Facebook groups for your area (ex. “American Expats in Paris”). This will help you find a more reliable plumber. If this is not an option for you, try “Pages Jaunes” (France’s ‘Yellow Pages’) to see reviews and plumbers (plomberie) in your area. 

Next, educate yourself on standard rates. If the situation is not an emergency, try to compare multiple plumbers to make sure the prices are in the correct range. 

Finally, always Google the name of the plumber you’ll be working with – this will help inform you as to whether anyone else has had a particularly positive (or negative) experience with them – and check that the company has a SIRET number.

This number should be on the work estimate (devis). You can also check them out online at societe.com. If you want to be extra careful you can also ask to see their carte artisan BTP (craftsman card). 

READ MORE: What is a SIRET number and why is it crucial when hiring French tradesmen?

Who is responsible for paying for work?

If you own the property, you are typically the one who is responsible for financing the plumbing expenses.

However if you’re in a shared building, you must determine the cause and location of the leak. If you cannot find the origin of the leak, you may need a plumber to come and locate it and provide you with an estimate. You can use this estimate when communicating with insurance, should the necessity arise. 

If you are a renter, the situation is a bit more complicated. Most of the time, water damage should be the landlord’s responsibility, but there are exceptions.

The landlord is obliged to carry out major repairs (ex. Natural disaster, serious plumbing issues) that are necessary for the maintenance and normal upkeep of the rented premises (as per, Article 6C of the law of July 6, 1989). The tenant, however, is expected to carry out routine maintenance, and minor repairs are also to be paid by the tenant. If the problem is the result of the tenant failing to maintain the property, then it will be the tenant’s responsibility to cover the cost of the repair.

Legally speaking, it is also the tenant’s responsibility to get the boiler serviced once a year, as well as to maintain the faucets and joints, and to avoid clogging the pipes.

READ MORE: Assurance habitation: How to get home insurance in France

If you end up in dispute with your landlord over costs, you can always reach out to ADIL, the national Housing Association which offers free legal advice for housing issues in France. 

What happens if the leak is coming from my neighbour’s property?

Both you and your neighbour should contact your respective housing insurance companies and file the ‘sinistre’ (damage) with them.

If you both agree on the facts you can file an amiable (in a friendly fashion), then matters are much more simple and you will not have to go through the back-and-forth of determining fault.

If having a friendly process is not possible, be sure to get an expert to assert where the leak is coming from and file this with your insurance company.

As always, keep evidence (lists and photographs) of the damage. Keep in mind that many insurance providers have a limited number of days after the start of the damage that you can file. Better to do it sooner than later, partially because, as with most administrative processes in France, it might take a bit of time.

Vocab

Plumbing has its own technical vocabulary so here are some words and phrases that you’re likely to need;

Hello, I have a leak in my home. I would like to request that a plumber come to give me an estimate of the damage and cost for repairs – Bonjour, j’ai une fuite chez moi. Je voudrais demander qu’un plombier vienne me donner une estimation des dégâts et du coût de la réparation. 

It is an emergency: C’est une urgence

I have no hot water: Je n’ai pas d’eau chaude

The boiler has stopped working: La chaudière ne fonctionne plus.

I cannot turn my tap off: Je ne peux pas arrêter le robinet.

The toilet is leaking: Mes toilettes fuient.

The toilet won’t flush/ is clogged: Mes toilettes sont bouchées

There is a bad smell coming from my septic tank: Il y a un mauvaise odeur provenant de ma fosse septique

I would like to get my electricity / boiler safety checked: Je souhaiterais une vérification de la sécurité de mon installation électrique / de ma chaudière

I can smell gas: Ca sent le gaz

My washing machine has broken: Ma machine a laver est cassée

Can you come immediately? Est-ce que vous pouvez venir tout de suite?

When can you come? Quand est-ce que vous pouvez venir?

How long will it take? Combien de temps cela prendra-t-il ?

How much do you charge? Quels sont vos prix? / Comment cela va-t-il coûter?

How can I pay you? Comment je peux vous payer ? 

Here are the key French vocabulary words for all things plumbing-related:

Dishwasher – Lave vaisselle

Bath – Baignoire

Shower – Douche

Kitchen Sink – Évier

Cupboard – Placard

Water meter – Compteur d’eau

The Septic Tank – La fosse septique

A leak – Une fuite

Bathroom sink – Le lavabo

The toilet – La toilette

Clogged – Bouché

To overflow – Déborder

A bad smell – Une mauvaise odeur

The flexible rotating tool used to unclog a pipe (and also the word for ferret in French) – Furet 

Water damage – Dégât des eaux

The damage – Le sinistre

And finally, do you know the French phrase Sourire du plombier? No, it’s not a cheerful plumber, it’s the phrase used in French for when a man bends down and his trouser waistband falls down, revealing either his underwear or the top of his buttocks. In Ebglish it’s builder’s bum, in French ‘plumber’s smile’.

SHOW COMMENTS