Category Archives: French language

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.

There’s no ‘i’ in ognon


posted by Simon Kemp

There’s trouble in the French dictionary. As you might have heard, everything’s changing in French. No less than two thousand four hundred French words are losing accents or changing spelling in a drive to make French spelling simpler and closer to how it sounds when spoken.

Actually, nothing has to change unless you want it to. All 2400 simplifications are optional alternatives and  you can stick to the old spellings if you want to.

Also, strictly speaking, this isn’t a new thing. In fact, the Académie française came up with all of these changes way back in 1990. Officially, they’ve been accepted for the last twenty-six years. In practice, though, everyone has pretty much ignored what the Académie française said, and nobody has been using the new spellings. Now, though, for the first time, school textbooks are being printed using them. Once they start being taught in schools, the thinking goes, they’re part of French life, and as current schoolchildren grow up, they’ll gradually come to be used by everyone.

So what are the changes?

Firstly, circumflexes on the letters ‘u’ and ‘i’ are becoming optional. They don’t have any effect on the sound of the vowel: they just indicate where, in the past, the word used to include a letter ‘s’ that long ago stopped being pronounced. (We talked about this here.)

This means that ‘coût’ (cost) can now be spelled ‘cout’, and ‘paraître’ (seem, appear) can be ‘paraitre’. There are a few cases where it has to stay, because the circumflex is the only thing that shows the difference between two different words, such as ‘du’ (of the) and ‘dû’ (past participle of devoir), or ‘sur’ (on) and ‘sûr’ (sure).

Otherwise, various hyphens are disappearing, so week-end becomes weekend and mille-pattes becomes millepattes. Some words are changing spelling in other ways.Oignon’ (onion), which looks like it ought to be pronounced with a ‘wa’-sound like ‘oiseau’, but isn’t, is now changing spelling to ‘ognon’ to match how it sounds. (After years and years of studying French and trying to get all my spellings right, and then years and years more of teaching it, and trying to correct everyone else’s, I can’t tell you how wrong it feels to write ‘ognon’.) Also waterlilies are changing from nénuphar to nénufar (although, weirdly, other ‘ph’ words like le phare are unaffected).

Here’s a French newspaper article about the changes. And here’s a quiz you can do to guess the new spellings.

French Roots 3 (with more trees): The Franks


posted by Simon Kemp

In previous posts we’ve looked at two of the ancient roots of the French language in other tongues: firstly the Gaulish language of some of the earliest inhabitants of France, and secondly the two waves of Latin brought by the Roman invaders initially, and revived in the early middle ages by the scholars of the Carolingian renaissance. Our third and final French root comes deep in the dark ages, fitting in between the first and second influxes of Latin. This time, we have the people who gave their name to the country, and to the language itself. We’re talking about the Franks.


The Franks were a Germanic people who invaded and occupied much of what is present-day France in the fifth century, filling the power vacuum left by the fall of the Roman empire. They spoke a language related to modern German, and this was to leave a strong imprint on the evolution of French.

They brought with them many words relating to combat and chivalry, including those that would become in modern French l’éperon (spur), l’étrier (stirrup), la guerre (war), la hache (axe), la honte (shame), gagner (win) and haïr (hate). There were also many words relating to farming, country life and the natural world, including those that would become le blé (wheat), la framboise (raspberry), le jardin (garden), le héron (heron), la houille (coal), as well as the trees le hêtre (beech) and le houx (holly).

These are only a tiny selection of the more than four hundred words of Frankish origin which are in common use in modern French. Did you notice anything odd about the ones I picked? In French, as you know, an initial letter ‘h’ is usually treated as if it wasn’t there at all, so the ‘le’ of ‘l’homme’ is elided just as if the word began with a vowel. However, as you also know, there is a small number of words in which, without actually pronouncing it, we treat the ‘h’ as a consonant, and thus get constructions like ‘la haie’ (hedge). Or like la hache, la honte, le héron, la houille, le hêtre  and le houx. As it turns out, most of these kinds of words have a Frankish origin, coming as they do from a Germanic language which was very good at pronouncing its h’s. L’homme and the pretend-it’s-not-there h-words mostly have a Latin origin*, and le houx and the act-as-if-we’re-pronouncing-it-even-though-we’re-not h-words have a Germanic origin.

In French there are lots of h-words like l’homme and not many like la haie, reflecting the relative importance of Latin and Germanic languages on the development of French. Here in English, as you may have noticed, we have a lot of h-words where we pronounce the first letter (head, hair, hand, hold…), and a much smaller number where we don’t (heir, honour, hour, honest…). Funnily enough, the reason is the same. The first lot are Germanic in origin, brought over by the Anglo-Saxon invaders; the second are Franco-Latin, introduced in the Norman conquest. Since we English-speakers speak a language that is basically Germanic with a smattering of Romance (French and Latin) influence, we pronounce the first letter of most of our h-words. Since French is fundamentally a Latin-based language with a smattering of Germanic influence, they do it the other way around.

All of which is a nice way to remember why beech trees and holly trees in French have an ‘aspirate “h”‘ when you say their names. It’s because they’re a bit German, and the Germans know how to pronounce a letter ‘h’ when they see one.

Le-Hetre-22-decembre* (Yes, it’s true that Latin has h-words that the Romans probably used to pronounce, but somewhere along the road leading from Latin to French, the h’s dropped out of spoken use.)


Sometimes French is hard for French people too

posted by Simon Kemp

Poor French people! With so many silent letters and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently) to contend with, it’s no wonder that written French can sometimes be a tricky area even for fluent speakers of the language. Here are some examples of native speakers coming unstuck with some embarrassingly high-profile written French. See if you can spot the errors, and if you can see the difference between the kinds of mistakes native speakers make from the ones language learners make:

mini-tram opignons super-u55f0222cba56a (1)

All the images are from here, a website I hesitate to link to as so many of the other grammar and spelling mistakes they feature turn out really quite rude. Still, you can’t get the rude jokes unless you can understand the French, so I suppose it’s all educationally sound.

As for native-speaker mistakes, you may notice that all the sentences above make perfect sense if you read them out loud. The wrong words are all homophones for the correct ones, e.g. ‘encre’ (ink) for ‘ancre’ (anchor), ‘retirer’ for ‘retirées’. Like native English speakers muddling ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, French speakers know how it’s meant to sound, but not necessarily how it’s meant to look, which leads them to make quite different slips from the ones foreigners learning French tend to commit.


Quiz time!



Right, it’s time for another Adventures on the Bookshelf quiz! This one is all about faux amis.

Below are two dictionary definitions. The red one is from a French dictionary, the blue one is from an English dictionary. Your job is guess the words being defined. The twist is that the French and English words are both spelled the same way, even though they mean completely different things.

Take a look. (There’s no need to understand every word in the French definition to play the game.)

_ _ _ _ (4 letters)

Petit animal domestique carnassier, à pelage de couleur variée souvent noir ou gris, se nourrissant de souris, de petites proies, et de la nourriture servie par ses maîtres. 

Talk in a friendly, informal way.

So, if you could work out a little of the gist of the French definition (the whole thing translates as: ‘Small carnivorous domestic animal, with variable fur colour, often black or grey, which eats mice, small prey creatures or food given by its owners’), you might have got that it’s a cat, or ‘un chat’ in French, which is a faux ami for the English verb, ‘chat’, meaning… to talk in a friendly, informal way!

OK, got it?

Ten questions below. No peeking at the answers until you’ve had a go at all of them. Time starts now!


  1. _ _ _ _ _

Numéral cardinal. Quinze plus un.

Take hold of suddenly and forcibly.


2. _ _ _ _

Qui se lave insuffisamment ou mal; qui manque de propreté.

A period during which a shop sells goods at reduced prices.


3. _ _ _ _ _

Susceptible de conséquences étendues, de suites fâcheuses, dangereuses.

A hole dug in the ground to receive a coffin or corpse, typically marked by a stone or mound.


4. _ _ _ _ _

Composante prédominante du corps humain ou animal, essentiellement constituée des tissus musculaire et conjonctif.

A separate seat for one person, typically with a back and four legs.


5. _ _ _

Endroit dans lequel un footballeur doit envoyer le ballon pour marquer.

Conjunction used to introduce a clause contrasting with what has already been mentioned.


6. _ _ _ _

Préposition. En échange de, en remplacement de, à la place de.

Flow rapidly in a steady stream.


7. _ _ _ _

Partie d’une cuisinière qui sert à la cuisson des aliments.

Even number, less than ten.


8. _ _ _ _

Aliment fait d’une certaine quantité de farine mêlée d’eau et de levain et cuit au four

Highly unpleasant physical sensation caused by illness or injury.


9. _ _

Arbre à feuilles persistantes longues, étroites, vénéneuses, d’un vert très sombre, à baies rouges, qui est utilisé comme arbre d’ornement dans les parcs, les jardins, les cimetières.

Conjunction introducing a conditional clause.


10. _ _ _ _

Organe terminal du bras, formé d’une partie élargie articulée sur l’avant-bras et terminé par cinq doigts.

Chief in size or importance.


Answers below the French cat!



1. seize (seize = 16)

2. sale (sale = dirty)

3. grave (grave = serious)

4. chair (la chair = flesh)

5. but (le but = goal)

6. pour (pour = for)

7. four (le four = oven)

8. pain (le pain = bread)

9. if (un if = yew tree)

10 main (la main = hand)


How did you do?

7-10 correct: Carrément terrible! 

3-6 correct: Pas terrible.

0-3 correct: Frankly terrible.


Like this? Try our fiendish odd-one-out quiz as well!