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French Expression of the Day: Entre guillemets

It might sound like someone giving you directions, but in fact in-between guillemets is not a place.

French Expression of the Day: Entre guillemets
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know Entre guillemets?

Because you might want to quote someone while speaking French at some point.

What does it mean?

Entre guillemets – pronounced ahn-truh ghee-may – literally means ‘in or between quotation marks,’ because the word ‘guillemet’ in French refers to this punctuation symbol ” known in English as the quotation mark.

It is used in the same way the English word “allegedly” or “quote, unquote” might be, as it is meant to assign a part of your oral sentence to someone else. You might also use this interchangeably with the English term “so-called” to shed some doubt on a situation or to distance yourself from a quote that is not your own.

You probably will not see the phrase entre guillemets written, as it is almost exclusively used for spoken language.

In the sense that entre guillemets, depending on the context, could be used to express doubt or distance the speaker from the next phrase, you might hear someone use this expression to subtly express disagreement.

If you’re still a bit lost for when to use this expression, just think about when you feel tempted to add air quotes to something you want to say, and then go from there.

Use it like this

Oui, “on a le droit à un compte bancaire,” entre guillemets, mais il est en fait très difficile d’obtenir qu’une banque vous accepte en tant qu’Américain en France. – Yes, we have ‘the right to a bank account’ allegedly, but in reality it is quite difficult to get a bank to accept you as an American in France. 

Il est, entre guillemets, “interdit de se baigner dans le canal,” mais les gens le font assez souvent. –  It is allegedly forbidden ‘to swim in the canal,’ but people do it often.

You can find a full explanation of French punctuation terms here.

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For members


French Expression of the Day: Mettre le holà

This might look like a mix of Spanish and French, but it is definitely not Franish.

French Expression of the Day: Mettre le holà

Why do I need to know mettre le holà?

Because you might need to do this if your friends go from laughing with you to laughing at you. 

What does it mean?

Mettre le holà – pronounced meh-truh luh oh-la – literally means to put the ‘holà’ on something. You might be thinking this must be some clever mix of Spanish and French, but ‘holà’ actually has nothing to do with the Spanish greeting. 

This expression is a way to say that’s enough – or to ‘put the brakes on something.’

If a situation appears to be agitated, and you feel the need to intervene in order to help calm things down, then this might be the expression you would use. Another way of saying it in English might be to ‘put the kibosh on it.’

While the origins of ‘kibosh’ appear to be unknown, ‘holà’ goes back to the 14th century in France. Back then, people would shout “Ho! Qui va là?” (Oh, who goes there?) as an interjection to call someone out or challenge them. 

Over time this transformed into the simple holà, which you might hear on the streets, particularly if you engage in some risky jaywalking. 

A French synonym for this expression is ‘freiner’ – which literally means ‘to break’ or ‘put the brakes on,’ and can be used figuratively as well as literally. 

Use it like this

Tu aurais dû mettre le holà tout de suite. Cette conversation a duré bien trop longtemps, et il était si offensif. – You should have put a stop to that immediately. That conversation went on for too long, and he was so offensive. 

J’ai essayé de mettre le holà à la blague sur ma mère, mais ils étaient sans pitié. – I tried to put a stop to the joke about my mother, but they were merciless.