Category Archives: French language

Bons mots: savoir-faire

200_s  posted by Simon Kemp

We already know what ‘savoir-faire’ means, don’t we? After all, it’s part of the English language.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that it usually refers to…

the ability to speak or act appropriately in social situations.

They give a few examples of usage, including this one from 1924:
He had, it seems, spent previously some months at Deauville and Paris… and there acquired that polished French and developed that savoir-faire, both so typical of him.’
And this one, about the British Queen Mother in 2000:
‘Her savoir-faire was as much instinctive as learned.’

It’s about sophistication, elegance, good manners and suave self-assurance. It basically means this:



Well, yes, that’s what it means in English, but would you be surprised to learn that that’s not what it means in French?

According to the Larousse dictionary, savoir-faire means:

compétence acquise par l’expérience dans les problèmes pratiques, dans l’exercice d’un métier.

… in other words, it’s know-how (a term that’s also used in French as a synonym for savoir-faire).

So not so much them…


as him:


It can mean being handy with putting up shelves, or good with IT, or having organizational skills. Savoir-faire in French is any kind of practical competence (especially job-related) that you’ve learned by experience.

 So, if savoir-faire in French means know-how, what’s the French for savoir-faire (in the English sense of the word)?

It’s savoir-vivre.

Savoir-vivre is defined in the French dictionary as:

Connaissance et pratique des règles de la politesse, des usages du monde.

…which is basically the same idea of social sophistication that we saw in the original English dictionary definition of savoir-faire.
Bizarrely, then, when you’re translating between the two languages:
if you see savoir-faire in an English text you should probably translate it as savoir-vivre in French
and if you see savoir-faire in a French text you should probably translate it as know-how in English.
How did this odd situation come about?
Well, it seems that when the term first came into English, it had the same meaning as in French. The Oxford Dictionary first records it being used in 1788 in the following line:

‘I have a very great opinion of your savoir faire, especially in the articles of sugar and rum; but for your savoir vivre—none.’

It’s pretty clear that both savoir-faire and savoir-vivre are being used here in their original French senses of know-how and sophistication respectively.

Over the course of the next century or so, savoir-faire in English gradually came to get its present overtones, either because English speakers associated the French with being sophisticated, or because being able to drop French words into your English conversation was itself seen as a sophisticated thing to do. Probably a little of both.

It’s actually quite a common phenomenon. A word that’s fairly ordinary and neutral in French, will come over all sleek, sexy and stylish once it’s borrowed by the English.

It happened with le savoir-faire.

It happened with un je-ne-sais-quoi, which means ‘a certain something I can’t quite put my finger on’ in French, and ‘a certain stylish and sophisticated something I can’t quite put my finger on’ in English.

It happened with un rendez-vous, which in French is the normal, and entirely neutral word for an appointment. If a French person has un rendez-vous with their dentist, it likely involves fluoride gel and oral hygiene tips; if an English speaker has a rendez-vous with a dentist, we expect roses, wine and sugar-free chocolates.

And it happened with la lingerie, which to French people means pants of both the lacy, exotic variety and the sensible, practical, keeping-everything-warm-through-the-winter kind. (It also refers to women’s nightwear of all sorts, and to places where underwear and nightwear are manufactured, sold or stored).


There are several other examples. Can you think of any?

If a language can have an inferiority complex, then it seems English might have got one. If it’s trying to express a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, a kind of effortless, stylish, savoir-faire, then  only French will do.


Un Grand Pain Rond

pain-rondposted by Simon Kemp

The most distinctive thing about the sound of spoken French is its use of so-called nasal vowels. These are quite literally vowel sounds that come out of your nose: part of the air you’re breathing out as you speak has to go through your nostrils, rather than all through your mouth, as with the more common oral vowels. French is unusual in being so keen on them. English doesn’t have any, and nor do German or Spanish.

In fact, there are only three European languages — French, Portuguese and Polish — that actually make them part of the language to the extent that they have oral and nasal versions of the same vowel, and speakers and listeners distinguish between them.

So, in French, the words




use the oral and nasal versions of the same vowel.

There are four nasal vowels in standard French. The four vowels of the phrase in the title, in fact:

un (also in brun, humble and parfum)

grand (also in ampoule, encre and empêcher)

pain (also in vin and impossible)

rond (also in on, ombre and maison)

Here you can hear them pronounced and see the phonetic symbol for each of the four sounds:

And here are three interesting little facts about French nasal vowels:

  • You can often spot people from the south of France by the way they say their nasal vowels. In Provence and the Midi, they often sound as if they have an English -ng at the end of it, so il vient sounds a bit like il vieng, le lapin like le lapeng. There are some lovely accents méridionaux in this trailer for the Provence-set film, Manon des sources. Listen, just before the one-minute mark, how the nasal vowels of destin (destiny) and bons à rien (good-for-nothings) come out in a strong southern accent, when the villain of the piece says: ‘Ce sont ceux qui sont bons à rien qui parlent d’un destin,’ (‘Only good-for-nothings talk about destiny’).


  • While standard French has four nasal vowels, some French dialects distinguish five or even six different ones. In the Champagne region, for instance, some speakers pronounce pain and pin differently, even though the dictionary says they should sound the same.


  • A more widespread and growing tendency, though, is to actually ditch one of the four nasal vowels, and make do with just three. Surprisingly, it’s the sound in un, which in the Paris region and increasingly across northern France is disappearing, replaced by the sound from pain. (Given that pronouncing the word un was probably one of the first things you had to learn when you began studying French, you’re within your rights to feel a little aggrieved at this.) At some point in the not-too-distant future, the two sounds are likely to be indistinguishable in standard French, making words like brin (a twig) and brun (brown) into homophones.


You can find out more about these and many other quirks of the French language in Henriette Walter’s wonderful book, Le Français dans tous les sens, also available in English as French Inside Out.

Plus, if you’re interested in how language works, how it develops, and how diverse it is across the communities which speak it, then you can explore some linguistics in a modern languages degree. At Oxford, linguistics courses are available as options within any modern languages course, or as half of a degree in modern languages and linguistics, which you can learn about here.

Great French Lives: Jean Nicot


posted by Simon Kemp

Jean Nicot has left his mark on both the French and English languages. He is, as you’ve already guessed, the man who gave his name to nicotine, the highly addictive, mood-altering substance that’s the essential chemical ingredient in cigarettes, cigars, snuff,  and those stick-on patches you use when you’re trying to give up the other ones.

‘How did Nicot come to give his name to this most dangerous of parasympathomimetic alkaloids?’ I hear you ask.

Because he was the man who introduced tobacco to the French court in the sixteenth century.

‘Was he then a swashbuckling adventurer, bringing exotic herbs and spices from far-off lands new-discovered across the Atlantic Ocean?’

Not exactly.

‘Where did he bring it back from, then?’


‘But the tobacco itself came from somewhere more exciting?’

From his back garden, actually.

‘Grown from seeds he got from…?’

A seed salesman.

‘Who got them from…?’




Jean Nicot (1530-1604) was a courtier at the court of King François II, who was sent as an ambassador to Portugal in 1559 to negotiate a marriage between the six-year-old king of Portugal and a five-year-old French princess. It didn’t go too well, and he was eventually forced to flee the country two years later.

Before he ran away, though, he had time to plant a crop of tobacco from some seeds bought from a Flemish merchant, and in 1660 he sent some dried, powdered tobacco leaves to the French king’s mother. He told her to get the king to snort the powder because it would cure his migraines. History does not record whether or not it worked.

Tobacco did, though, quickly become highly fashionable among well-to-do French people keen to imitate royal habits. After a while, they even discovered you could smoke it. It was often known as l’herbe de Nicot, and Nicot’s name became permanently associated with it. (This was possibly helped by the fact that Nicot was keen on renaming tobacco as ‘Nicotiane’, and later in life compiled one of the first ever French dictionaries.) When the plant came to get a Latin name, it was called Nicotiana tabacum in his memory, and from there its chief psychoactive chemical took the name nicotine.

Right to the end of his life, Jean Nicot was convinced that tobacco was a medicine and that he was doing everyone a favour by starting the trend for it.

French culture would never be the same again.


Tu Tweetes?


Last week, we offered you a helpful guide towards when you should use tu and when to use vous in conversation with a French speaker. This week, there’s news that these guidelines are falling apart, social chaos is breaking out, and it’s all the fault of social media. Twitter in particular.

Le Monde, the BBC and the Guardian have all been discussing the issue recently, sparked off by a twitter spat between French journalists. Here’s part of Le Monde’s take on the drama (vocab in bold given below the extract):

Il y a un peu plus d’un an, un utilisateur de Twitter, @peultier, journaliste au, a été mal inspiré : il a tutoyé Laurent Joffrin. Les deux confrères ne se connaissent pas, ne se sont jamais rencontrés. Cette audace formelle s’est déroulée sur Twitter. Il n’est pas rare que deux journalistes se tutoient dès leurs premiers échanges lorsqu’ils se rencontrent en reportage, un tutoiement confraternel en quelque sorte. Sauf que Laurent Joffrin, Laurent Mouchard de son vrai nom, est l’aîné de son interlocuteur, et lui est supérieur dans l’échelle sociale, puisqu’il est patron de la rédaction du Nouvel Observateur. 

Franz Durupt, alias @peultier, aurait-il tutoyé son aîné s’il l’avait croisé dans la « vraie vie » ? Sans doute pas. Et son accès d’audace virtuelle n’avait pas plu à Laurent Joffrin, peu séduit par ce décalage entre les bonnes manières et les usages en vogue sur les réseaux sociaux« Qui vous autorise à me tutoyer ? »avait rétorqué le patron du Nouvel Obs à l’impudent, sur une tonalité« volontairement balladurienne », a-t-il expliqué plus tard.


être mal inspiré: have a bad idea

le confrère: colleague, fellow (journalist); the adjective ‘confraternel’ (‘between colleagues’) comes up later

l’aîné de: older than

l’échelle sociale: the social scale

patron de la rédaction: editor-in-chief

croiser qqn: run into someone, come across someone

son accès d’audace virtuelle: his fit of virtual daring

le décalage: gap, mismatch

le réseau social: social media

rétorquer: retort

balladurien: reminiscent of former Prime Minister, Édouard Balladur (here, haughty and dignified)

The BBC explores the social niceties involved in online communication in French in a bit more detail. Here’s an extract:

The informal version of “you” in the French language – “tu” – seems to be taking over on social media, at the expense of the formal “vous”. As in many countries, online modes of address in French are more relaxed than in face-to-face encounters. But will this have a permanent effect on the French language?

Anthony Besson calls most people “vous”. As a young man, it is a sign of respect to those older than him, and he’s often meeting new people through his work in PR in Paris.

Yet this all changes on social media. “I always use ‘tu’ on Twitter,” Besson says. “And not just because it takes up fewer of the 140 characters!”

Lots of other French people do exactly the same.

“Tu” is normally for family and friends, but when you’re communicating through @ symbols, joining networks and tweeting under a pseudonym, a formal “vous” can seem out of place, even to someone you’ve never met.

“In the philosophy of the internet, we are among peers, equal, without social distinction, whatever your age, gender, income or status in real life,” Besson says.

Addressing someone as “vous” – or expecting to be addressed as “vous” – on the other hand, implies hierarchy.

It’s too early to say whether Twitter will change how French people talk in everyday life.

Historically, the biggest shifts towards “tu” occurred at the time of the French Revolution and during the social upheavals of May 1968.

“People who played an active role in May ’68 pleaded in favour of getting rid of the distance created by ‘vous’ and doing away with hierarchy,” says Prof Bert Peeters, of the French and Francophone Studies department at Macquarie University in Australia, co-editor, of Tu ou vous: l’embarras du choix – Tu or vous: an awkward choice.

“However, as they grew up and became mature adults, they realised that having just ‘tu’ in French was not adequate, or not part of being French, and ‘vous’ started coming back.”

Although “tu” is more common than it was pre-68, strict rules still govern its use.

“You would offend a lot of people if you used ‘tu’ and they didn’t know you. It is difficult to say whether social media will change this,” Peeters says.

“However, if people’s first contact is on social media and they start using ‘tu’, it would be awkward to use ‘vous’ in a different context. Once you start with ‘tu’, it is very hard and very rare to abandon it.”

So, frankly, it’s a social mine-field, especially if you’re tweeting someone from an older generation with more old-fashioned ideas about politeness than you. One thing you can definitely get right, though, is the lovely new French verb, tweeter. Here,, to finish, it is conjugated in all its forms:

Présent: je tweete, tu tweetes, il tweete, nous tweetons, vous tweetez, ils tweetent

Passé composé: j’ai tweeté,tu as tweeté, il a tweeté, nous avons tweeté, vous avez tweeté,ils ont tweeté

Imparfait: je tweetais, tu tweetais, il tweetait, nous tweetions, vous tweetiez, ils tweetaient

Plus-que-parfait: j’avais tweeté, tu avais tweeté, il avait tweeté, nous avions tweeté, vous aviez tweeté, ils avaient tweeté

Passé simple: je tweetai, tu tweetas, il tweeta, nous tweetâmes, vous tweetâtes,ils tweetèrent

Futur: je tweeterai, tu tweeteras, il tweetera, nous tweeterons, vous tweeterez, ils tweeteront

Subjonctif: que je tweete, que tu tweetes, qu’il tweete, que nous tweetions, que vous tweetiez, qu’ils tweetent

Fun with Grammar: ‘Tu’ or ‘Vous’?


posted by Simon Kemp

Ah, the eternal problem. To tutoyer your French conversation partner or to vouvoyer? Go too formal and you might come across as cold and distant. Go too familiar, and you might seem disrespectful. Which should you go for?*

*(Answer: if in doubt, go for ‘vous’, but don’t worry too much. The French person you’re speaking to will be so pleased to hear you make an effort to speak their language, they probably won’t care about any slips you make with the social niceties.)

And if you’ve been vouvoying your acquaintance for a while, at what point do you take the big step of a move to tu?**

**(Answer: generally speaking, leave it to the French person. They have a better idea than you do of how it all works!)

A flow-chart has been doing the rounds on the internet for confused would-be French speakers. (I picked it up here, on the LA Times site.) Simply follow through who you are and who you’re speaking to, and it will give you the answer for most situations.

It’s meant to be funny (there’s a special track for if you happen to married to a certain former French President ), but it’s actually surprisingly practical and on-the-money in its advice.

Behold, your francophone social anxieties resolved:



Handy as this is, unfortunately social media and online culture seem to be changing the rules of how all this works faster than even the French can keep up. We’ll stay with this topic next week to see how Twitter and Facebook are changing they way French people talk to each other.

Spot the Grammatical Error! (Tattoo Edition)

posted by Simon Kemp

You know those kinds of language exercises where you have to spot the grammar, spelling or punctuation mistake and correct it? Well, here’s one.  What makes this one a little different is that every one of the errors below has been permanently inked on skin by French tattooists. The lucky clients can either wear the mistakes for ever as a sort of walking grammar test, or negotiate to find out how much it costs to add an extra circumflex to an existing design.

Your task below: spot and correct all the errors in the tattoos pictured. (We’ll tell you how many mistakes there are to find.) Answers at the end of the post.

1. One grammar mistake to find:


2. One grammar/spelling mistake to find (not counting the colloquial shortening of “ne” to “n'”):


3. Three mistakes to find in this one:



1. ‘Si j’avais le choix entre toi et la vie, je te choisirais car tu est ma seule raison de vivre.’ Should be ‘tu es’, not ‘tu est’. The whole sentence means: ‘If I had to choose between you and life, I’d choose you as you’re my only reason to live.’

2. ‘La vie n’se respire qu’une seule fois, Et le bonheur ça se vie sans aucune loi.’ Should be ‘ça se vit’ (from ‘se vivre’, to be lived), not ‘ça se vie’. The sentence means: ‘Life is only breathed once. And happiness is lived without any laws.’

3. ‘Ma vie à commencée le jour ou tu es né.’ Should be: ‘Ma vie a commencé le jour où tu es né’ (‘a’ not ‘à’;  ‘commencé’ not ‘commencée’; and ‘où’ not ‘ou’). The whole sentence means: ‘My life began on the day you were born.’


How did you do?

5/5: Excellent! There may be a lucrative career for you as a French tattoo artist.

3/5 or more: Well done! You can perform a useful public service as a French tattoo corrector.

2/5 or less: Good try! Maybe take a dictionary along with you when getting any French tattoos of your own, though.


These and many more French grammar fails are to be found at

Crash Course III: Vandertramping


posted by Simon Kemp

Some verbs are special. Learning French, you soon get to know about the small list of verbs that don’t behave like the others when you put them in the passé composé. They conjugate with être instead of avoir, and their past participle agrees with the subject of the verb. So rather than ‘ils ont donné’ or ‘elle a fait’, you get ‘ils sont partis’ or ‘elle est tombée’. They are the Mrs Vandertramp verbs, and they are these:

Monter (elle est montée)

Retourner (elle est retournée)

Sortir (elle est sortie)

Venir (elle est venue)

Aller (elle est allée)

Naître (elle est née)

Descendre (elle est descendue)

Entrer (elle est entrée)

Rester (elle est restée)

Tomber (elle est tombée)

Rentrer (elle est rentrée)

Arriver (elle est arrivée)

Mourir (elle est morte)

Partir (elle est partie)

Good old Mrs Vandertramp, the helpful mnemonic-lady made up of the initial letters of all the special verbs. Except… something about her has always bothered me. Why is there only one ‘D’ in the name, when both descendre and devenir are on the special-verb list? Presumably it’s because devenir is just venir (which is in the name), plus a prefix. But in that case, why does the mnemonic include both entrer and rentrer? And if it includes rentrer, why not revenir, remonter, redescendre, redevenir, retomber, repartir, ressortir (note the extra ‘s’ in that one), and renaître? Adding in Mrs Vandertramp’s husband to make ‘Dr & Mrs’ (as in the image at the top of the post) is hardly going to solve that problem.

No, if you want a mnemonic that covers all the subject-agreeing être-conjugating verbs, you’re going to have to memorize this one:

Arrrrrrrrrrr, Stamp DVD Men !

…which, funnily enough, is also the official motto of the International Association for Video Piracy.

video pirate
A video pirate yesterday


There is another version of the Mrs Vandertramp mnemonic which I learned at school: the less memorably named Mrs Daventramp, who just includes a letter for each of the thirteen basic verbs, missing out any which are the same with an added prefix. It means you don’t have to include any of  the endless ‘re-‘ prefixes, but also means you still have to be careful not to forget about devenir and redevenir (to become again or turn back into), which are included in the V for venir. Alternatively, if you want to strip out all the ‘re-‘ prefixes and leave in all the rest, you could acquaint yourself with Mr D. M. Vaderpants, who has descendre and devenir in his name, but none of the superfluous ‘re-‘ derivatives.


Vaderpants (2)
Mr D. M. Vaderpants yesterday.


The problem with all of these mnemonics is that in some ways they actually make things more difficult than they really are. The special verbs naturally form into groups, either by being opposites in meaning or by adding prefixes, and the mnemonics split up these groups and shuffle everything around randomly. In fact, with a bit of fiddling about, we can reduce the Mrs Vandertramp verbs to a simple list of five, plus the related verbs to each of them. The verbs are Naître, Sortir, Partir, Aller and Monter. Behold, the N-Spam verbs!

Naître, plus its opposite, mourir, and with a prefix, renaître.

Sortir, plus its opposite, entrer, and their prefixed versions, ressortir and rentrer.

Partir. What’s the opposite of depart/leave/go? Obviously, it’s arrive/return/stay. The three verbs arriver, retourner and rester are all opposites of partir. Plus, there’s the prefix version, repartir (to set out again, not to be confused with répartir, to share out).

Aller, plus its opposite, venir, and the two prefixes, devenir and revenir.

Monter means to rise or ascend, and also has two opposites: fall (tomber) or descend (descendre), plus a prefixed version of all three: remonter, redescendre, retomber.


N-Spam. Like N-Dubz, but with spam.

Really though, unless you’re going to carry a piece of paper around with you and refer to it whenever you need to say something in the passé composé,  these lists are only useful to get you started. What you need to do is keep speaking, listening, and reading in French until ‘elle est tombée’ sounds right and natural to you, and ‘elle a tombé’ sounds weird and wrong. Once you get to that point, you’re thinking like a French person. Mrs Vandertramp has become a part of you, and will live somewhere inside your head for evermore.



To finish with, a few extra notes and complications, as Mrs Vandertramp is never quite as straightforward as people might like her to be.

1. All the Vandertramp verbs are intransitive, meaning they don’t have an object: you can go, but you can’t go something, in the way that you can do something, eat something, see something. Some of the verbs on the list in fact have a transitive version. ‘Monter’ can be used intransitively as a Vandertramp verb, ‘elle est montée’ (she went up), but also transitively, meaning either to go up something, or to take something up. In that usage, it’s no longer a Vandertramp verb, but conjugates with avoir: elle a monté l’escalier;  elle a monté les valises dans la chambre. You can also use five other verbs from the list in the same way: (re)descendre quelque chose (go/bring down something), remonter quelque chose (go back up something/wind something up), rentrer quelque chose (bring something in), retourner quelque chose (turn something over), and (res)sortir quelque chose (take something out).

2. Retourner gets a proper place on the Vandertramp list, unlike rentrer, revenir, remonter, redescendre, redevenir, retomber, repartir, ressortir and renaître, which are optional extras. That’s because the others are all Vandertramp verbs even without the re- prefix, but not retourner. The verb tourner does exist in French, but it’s conjugated with avoir: elle a tourné la clef/la clef a tourné.

3. There’s one more Vandertramp verb we haven’t mentioned. Décéder, a more formal synonym for mourir, is not as commonly used as the other ones, so often gets overlooked, but it works in just the same way as the rest of them.

4. There are four other verbs in French, which, while not actually being part of the Vandertramp list, might perhaps be described as Vandertramp-ish. Accourir (to rush up) and apparaître (to appear) can take être or avoir, as you prefer, with no change in meaning. The same goes for passer (to pass), which is more often treated as a Vandertramp verb than not. (The exception is the phrase ‘passer pour’, to pass as or be taken for, which always takes avoir: ‘il a passé pour intelligent’ – ‘people believed he was clever’.) Lastly, demeurer is a Vandertramp verb when used in the sense of ‘remain’ (elle est demeurée fidèle), but not in the sense of ‘live (somewhere)’ (elle a demeuré à Marseille).

5.  Oh, and one other thing about monter: as well as taking avoir when used transitively, it can also take avoir when it means that the level of something has risen: le fleuve a monté; les prix ont monté. In this sense, it’s being the opposite of the non-Vandertramp verb, baisser, rather than of descendre.

6. Lastly, there are no other Vandertramp verbs. Reflexive verbs  take être in the passé composé too, but they don’t agree with the subject, as we talked about here. Also, you may occasionally think you’ve come across an extra Vandertramp verb in a sentence like ‘la ville est tout à fait changée’, but that’s because past participles can sometimes be used as  adjectives, just as you’d say ‘la ville est tout à fait différente’. In the passé composé, changer takes avoir and doesn’t agree with the subject: elle a beaucoup changé récemment. 

Mrs Vandertramp yesterday.

Crash Course II: Countable Cake

Today’s task is to make this cake:

To assist you, you will be provided with a state-of-the art kitchen, plus a glamorous French movie star to pass you the ingredients as you need them. You can choose between Gaspard Ulliel or Ludivine Sagnier:



There are two slight issues with Gaspard and Ludivine. The first is that neither of them speaks a word of English, so all your instructions will have to be in French. (To be fair, Gaspard is able to tell people in English that he’s nert going to be ze person ′e is expected to be any more, but that’s frankly more of a hindrance than a help in a baker’s assistant. You should maybe have gone for Ludivine.) Secondly, like many film stars, they’re actually not that bright, and need to be told clearly and precisely what to do and when to do it.

To start with, then, you’re going to have to show them each of the ingredients. Go through the list below with your chosen assistant.

Voici le sucre. (the sugar)

Voici la tablette de chocolat. (the chocolate bar)

Voici les pépites de chocolat. (the chocolate chips)








Voici un bol. (a bowl)

Voici une cuillère en bois. (a wooden spoon)

Voici des oeufs. (some eggs)

Voici du beurre. (some butter)

Voici de la farine. (some flour)

That list, as you may have noticed, covers all the articles French uses. There are definite and indefinite articles for masculine and feminine, singular and plural, countable and uncountable nouns. If you’re not familiar with that last distinction (also known as ‘count’ and ‘mass’ nouns), it’s simply that in English and French, some things can be counted (one egg, two eggs/un oeuf, deux oeufs) and some things can’t ( you can have some flour/de la farine, but you can’t have two flours/deux farines).

As in English the definite article le/la gets used for both countable (the egg/l’oeuf) and uncountable (the flour/la farine) nouns.  The indefinite article un/une can ONLY be used for countable nouns (an egg/un oeuf), which is why we need to use the alternative du/de la, sometimes called the partitive article, for uncountables (some flour/de la farine).

Now it’s time to get baking! As you require each item, you need to tell your glamorous assistant that you need it, using the construction ‘j’ai besoin de’, I need, or literally translated, I have need of. That will mean combining the French de, meaning of, with each of the possible French articles.


J’ai besoin du sucre. (I need the sugar)

J’ai besoin de la tablette de chocolat. (I need the chocolate bar)

J’ai besoin des pépites de chocolat. (I need the chocolate chips)









J’ai besoin d’un bol. (I need a bowl)

J’ai besoin d’une cuillère en bois. (I need a wooden spoon)

J’ai besoin d’oeufs. (I need some eggs)

J’ai besoin de beurre. (I need some butter)

J’ai besoin de farine. (I need some flour)

As you can see, it’s basically a matter of grammar maths, of knowing what you get when you add de/of to each of the three definite articles, the three indefinite articles, and the two partitive articles (the reason there are only two partitive articles is because uncountable nouns don’t have plurals). Here’s the arithmetic laid out:


de+le = du

de+la=de la

de+les= des

de+un= d’un


de+des= de

de+du= de

de+de la= de

As usual, the French have confused things by having different words that look and sound identical scattered through the system. So du, de la and des can either mean ‘some’ or ‘of the’ depending on their function in the sentence. This doesn’t help the learner who’s trying to memorize how it all works. One thing that may help, though, is to notice that in the last three sums on the list, where you’re adding ‘de’ to ‘du/de la/des’, the ‘de’ simply takes precedence over the ‘du/de la/des’, which disappears.

If you have all that straight, there are two further advanced baking manoeuvres you may like to try in order to complete the lesson. Firstly, what happens when your feckless celebrity whines that they don’t have the ingredient you need (je n’ai pas…)? (Answer below.)






Definite articles work the same way in negative sentences (I don’t have the…) as they do normally : Je n’ai pas le sucre. Je n’ai pas la tablette de chocolat. Je n’ai pas les pépites de chocolat. However, ALL the indefinite and partitive articles (I don’t have a/any…) are replaced by de: Je n’ai pas de bol. Je n’ai pas de cuillère en bois. Je n’ai pas d’oeufs. Je n’ai pas de beurre. Je n’ai pas de farine.

And finally, what difference does it make if the hapless screen-idol hands you a substandard item, and you’re forced to tell them to give you another one/the other one (use ‘autre’) ?







Adding an adjective before the noun makes no difference to seven of the eight sentences: Donne-moi l’autre sucre; donne-moi l’autre tablette de chocolat, etc. The one exception is with ‘des’ meaning ‘some’, which changes to ‘de’ before an adjective. So you’d say ‘Donne-moi des oeufs’ for ‘give me some eggs’, but ‘donne-moi d’autres oeufs’ for ‘give me some other eggs’. (This rule isn’t always strictly obeyed by French speakers, by the way, but you need to use it if you’re speaking or writing formally.)

I hope that was useful. At least Gaspard seems to have enjoyed it.

gaspard ulliel

Crash Course: Disagreements

348a28e5822c6162b07d2ca083440621posted by Simon Kemp

It’s the Easter holidays, which means revision time for many of you. Adventures on the Bookshelf is always keen to help, so over the next three weeks, here are our posts on three particularly tricky aspects of French grammar. You can find our full archive on language by clicking the ‘French language’ category tab above the title.

First up, this sentence:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe.

It means, ‘She’s broken her leg’, or literally, ‘She’s broken the leg to herself.’ French grammar tests are always full of women breaking their legs, cutting their fingers, washing their faces, not due to a worrying obsession with female body parts, but to see whether you’ll translate it correctly as:

Elle s’est coupé le doigt.

Elle s’est lavé le visage. (etc.)

…or whether you’ll succumb to the temptation to add an extra ‘e’ to those past participles. So why is it cassé, coupé and lavé, not cassée, coupée and lavée? To answer that, we need a little excursion into the rules of French agreement.

As you probably know, past participles in French, like the ‘cassé’ of ‘elle s’est cassé la jambe’, agree with a preceding direct object. (There is the exception of the sixteen special verbs whose past participle agrees with the subject — Elle est allée, Ils sont tombés, etc — but they don’t concern us here.)


‘Où est ta voiture?’

‘Je l’ai vendue.’

There’s an ‘e’ on the end of the participle, ‘vendue’, because the ‘l’ is the direct object of the verb vendre (I sold it), because it’s feminine (the ‘l’ is a ‘la’, referring to ‘la voiture’), and because it precedes the word vendue in the sentence.

On the other hand, there’s no agreement here:

J’ai vendu ma voiture.

because there’s a direct object, ‘ma voiture’, but it comes after the participle in the sentence.

And there’s no agreement here:

Je leur ai vendu ma voiture.

because the ‘leur’ preceding the participle is an indirect object (I sold my car to them.)

OK so far?


The problem comes when you have something in the sentence that’s clearly a preceding object of the verb, but you’re not sure whether it’s direct or indirect. Sometimes it’s easy to tell, because they’re obviously two different words. The French direct object pronouns, le, la and les (him/her/it, them) are clearly different from their indirect equivalents, lui and leur (to him/to her/to it, to them).

But more often than not, they’re spelled and pronounced the same. The direct object, ‘us’ in French is ‘nous’, and the indirect object, ‘to us’ in French is also ‘nous’. Even so, they’re still two different words every bit as much as the bark on the outside of a tree is different from the bark that next door’s dog does when you’re trying to get to sleep. Here are the direct object pronouns in French:

me —- me

te —- you

le —- him/it

la —- her/it

nous —- us

vous —- you

les —- them

And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to me

te —- to you

lui —- to him/to her/to it

nous —- to us

vous —- to you

leur —- to them

The same rules apply for pronouns with reflexive verbs, which are the ones where the object of the verb is the same as the subject (i.e. when you’re doing things to yourself). Here are the direct object pronouns for reflexive verbs:

me —- myself

te —- yourself

se —- himself/herself/itself

nous —- ourselves

vous —- yourself/yourselves

se —- themselves

And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to myself

te —- to yourself

se —- to himself/to herself/to itself

nous —- to ourselves

vous —- to yourself/to yourselves

se —- to themselves

With the reflexive pronouns, as you’ll have noticed,  every single one of them looks the same in direct and indirect forms. It’s a cunning ploy by the French to confuse language learners as much as possible.


So, finally, back to our original sentence. The key to understanding how it works is to remember that there are two different ‘se’s. There’s the direct object ‘se‘:

Elle s’est lavée. – She washed herself.

Here, ‘se’ (herself) is the direct object of the verb laver. (What did she wash? She washed herself.)

And there’s the indirect object ‘se‘:

Elle s’est lavé le visage. – She washed the face to herself

…which is just the French way of saying that she washed her face, I know, but the literal translation helps me keep the grammar straight in my head. Here, ‘se‘ (to herself) is the indirect object of the verb laver.

(By the way, it’s important not to get distracted by the fact that reflexive verbs take être rather than avoir in the perfect tense: ‘Elle s’est lavé le visage’. That doesn’t make them part of that list of sixteen verbs with past participles that agree with the subject — aller, tomber, etc. — which also  take être. Reflexive verbs follow the same rules of agreement as avoir verbs.)


And the same goes for:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe. – She broke the leg to herself.

The verb has a direct object, la jambe (What did she break? The leg), but it is not preceding the participle: it comes after.

And the verb has a preceding object pronoun, the reflexive pronoun ‘se’, but it is not a direct object: it’s an indirect object (to herself).

Therefore, there’s no preceding direct object.

Therefore, no agreement.

Therefore, cassé.

Thank you, and good night.

More translation fails

posted by Simon Kemp

As a teacher of translation studies, it’s always heartening to see evidence that it’s not time to hang up our dictionaries and hand the job over to Google Translate quite yet. Following on from this delightful example from a while back, here are a couple more cases where calling in someone with a few basic language skills might have come in handy…



(‘De rien’ can be translated as ‘you’re welcome’, but only in the specific sense of ‘that’s OK, it was no trouble’, responding to thanks.)





This one is an Irish menu. The person who took the photo has highlighted the comedy German translations, but doesn’t seem to have noticed what happened to ‘turkey and ham pie’ and ‘battered cod’ when they went into French.

Both images are from here, which has lots more translation fails into English and German.