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Tick tock: 15 French expressions for talking about time

From soon to maybe to indefinitely to possibly, via the 'night of time' French has a lot of time-related phrases that don't translate literally, but will have you sounding like a true local if you use them. We break them down for you here.

An old watch belonging to the deceased French play-write, Molière.
Time can be an elastic construct in the French langauge. Photo by BERTRAND GUAY / AFP)

If you’re arranging to meet someone at a set time then that’s fairly simple (although remember that the French like to use military time in everyday conversation, so dinner is at vingt heure (20.00) rather than huit heure) but French also has a huge number of phrases to deal with less specific timeframes.

Charles Baudelaire, the celebrated French poet of the 19th century, once wrote: Souviens-toi que le Temps est un joueur avide// Qui gagne sans tricher, à tout coup ! c’est la loi.

The line, which appears in his a piece called L’horloge (The clock), translates as: “Remember that time is voracious player// That wins without cheating, every time! It’s the law.” 

Which maybe explains the plethora of French time-related phrases.

Not all of them can be directly translated into English, but once understood, carry a real resonance. 

Here is a pick of our favourites: 

À la bonne heure 

This expression, pronounced “a la bon er”, literally means “at the good/correct hour”.

It can be used for something that happens to schedule, but also has a more nuanced meaning. 

À la bonne heure can be used as a general expression of approval or agreement. For example: 

Il ne veut plus que je vienne à son restaurant? À la bonne heure! – “he doesn’t want me to come to his restaurant anymore? Fine!” 

T’as pu te libérer un moment? À la bonne heure, nous allons pouvoir causer – “you were able to escape for a moment? Good, we will be able to talk” 

À l’heure 

Pronounced “a lur”, this expression literally means “at the hour”.

But a better translation is “on time” – if you see this next to your train on the departure board, it means that all is good. 

Est-ce qu’on va arriver à l’heure? – Will we arrive on time?

Dans les prochains jours

There is no cryptic meaning to this one. Pronounced “don lay prosh-an joors”, this expression means “in the coming days”.

It’s often used by politicians to announce a change that will be coming into effect shortly, but where there is no definite start date yet. It’s usually translated as ‘in the next few days’, soon or shortly.

Nous pourrions finalement résoudre ce problème dans les prochains jours – We could finally resolve this problem in the next few days. 

Dans quelques instants

This is a more immediate version of dans les prochains jours. Literally translating as “in some moments” it means that something will happen imminently or in the next few minutes. The other version of it is dans quelques minutes, which means the same thing.

You’ll often hear this one on public announcements.

Dans quelques instants, le train de Marseille retardé arrivera au quai 5 – In a few moments, the delayed Marseille train will arrive at platform 5  

Jusqu’a nouvel ordre

Pronounced “juska noo-vel ord-ra”, this phrase literally means “until the new order” and originates in the military. 

These days it’s used everywhere and a more accurate translation is “indefinitely” or “until further notice”. 

Les règles resteront en vigueur jusqu’à nouvel ordre – The rules will remain in place until further notice

En temps voulu

Pronounced “on tom vou-lu”, this expression literally translates as “in wanted time”.

However, a more accurate translation would be “in due course” or “in good time”.

‘J’annoncerai ma décision en temps voulu’, déclare Emmanuel Macron – ‘I will announce my decision in due course’, says Emmanuel Macron

Dans le temps 

Pronounced “don luh tom”, this expression is translated literally as “in the time”. 

But a better use is “over time”, if you want to suggest that something happens over a set period.

Nous tenons compte aussi de la croissance des capacités humaines de production dans le temps – We are also taking into account the growth of humanity’s capacity for production over time

Dans le temps, j’espère ouvrir un magasin – In time I hope to open a shop

Depuis la nuit des temps

This expression is roughly the equivalent of “since the dawn of time”, but literally means “since the night of time”, it means something has been happening for a very long time. 

Pronounced “duh-pwee la nwee day tom”, you can use it like this:

Depuis la nuit des temps, les hommes succombent au charme des illusions – Since the dawn of time, men have succumbed to the charm of illusions

Par les temps qui courent

Pronounced “par lay tom kee core”, this expression literally means by the time that is running. 

A more accurate use is “nowadays” or “these days”.

Par les temps qui courent, The Local est le meilleur des médias en France – These days The Local is the best media outlet in France

Tic tac

The French equivalent of ‘tick tock’, this is used to mean that time is passing or that time is running out.

Such as the below message from a French feminist collective ‘Tic tac le patriarcat’ – Time’s up for the patriarchy.

‘Time’s up for the patriarchy’ reads this sign. Photo: The Local

On verra

Not strictly time-related but you will hear this one a lot if you’re discussion the future or making predictions. It means ‘we will see’ and is a god one to express caution or doubt about something that is being predicted.

Marine Le Pen sera-t-elle la présidente française ? On verra – Marine Le Pen will be the next French president? We’ll see.

French also has a few phrases that relate to time in a less specific sense. Here are a few of our favourites.

Avoir son quart d’heure de célébrité

This expression, pronounced “ah-vwar sohn car-dur duh celebri-tay”, is roughly the equivalent of “having fifteen minutes in the limelight” or “fifteen minutes of fame”. 

Literally, it translates as “to have his/her quarter of an hour of celebrity”. 

J’ai eu mon quart d’heure de célébrité – I had my fifteen minutes of fame 

Le cinque à sept 

Un cinq à sept, pronounced “sank a set”, is a classic French expression to describe an affair, although these days it’s not very widely used.

The expression, which literally translates to ‘five to seven’, comes from the hour at which work days ends 5pm, and the time is dinner is served at home, 7pm – a two hour window in which to meet your lover. 

J’ai rendez-vous avec mon cinq à sept après le boulot ! – I have a rendez-vous with my lover after work!

Ils ont réservé une chambre pour un cinq à sept, c’est évident. – They booked a room for an affair, this is so obvious.

Le plus clair de son temps

This expression is used to mean “the most of his/her time”. 

It is pronounced “luh ploo clare duh sohn tom” and is difficult to translate directly. 

Temps in French is the word for “weather” and the word for “time”. So a literal translation would be “the brightest part of his weather/time” but it really means the majority of your time.

You should use it like this:

Il passe le plus claire de son temps à dormir – He spends most of his time sleeping

Je passe le plus claire de mon temps à la bibliothèque – I spend most of my time at the library

Vivre de l’air du temps

This expression, pronounced “vive-ra duh lair doo tom”, translates literally as “to live in the air of the time”.

A better translation is “to live in the spirit of the moment” or “to live in the zeitgeist”. 

Les hippies vivaient dans l’air du temps – Hippies were living in the moment

Cette approche semble dans l’air du temps – This approach seems like it is in the spirit of the moment

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