French Expression of the Day: Au sens propre

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French Expression of the Day: Au sens propre
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

This is nothing to do with being clean.


Why do I need to know au sens propre?

Because if you want to talk about the dictionary definition of something, you may need to specify this.

What does it mean?

Au sens propre - roughly pronounced oh sahns proh-pruh - translates ‘in the proper sense’ or ‘the proper meaning’. 

In English, we would say the ‘literal’ sense or meaning, in reference to the official dictionary definition of a word or phrase. 

In French, you can say sens littéral as well, but you’re more likely to hear sens propre.

This is in contrast to le sens figuré (figurative meaning), which might be the metaphorical or poetic sense. 


In a French dictionary, you might see the abbreviation fig - this tells you that the following definition refers to the figurative sense of the word or phrase.

The word propre is most often used to mean clean, but it can also mean 'proper' in the sense of someone who is of irreproachable moral character.

Use it like this

J'étais collée à mon siège pour regarder le discours... au sens propre, j'étais assise dans quelque chose de collant. - I was glued to my seat watching the speech...literally, I sat in something sticky.

Je pense pas qu’on doit prendre sa blague au sens propre. - I don't think we should take his joke literally.


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