Home Language HacksExpressions & Idioms Top 10 French Phrases You Should NEVER Say [& What to Use Instead]

Top 10 French Phrases You Should NEVER Say [& What to Use Instead]

by Michele
French Travel Phrases - Top French Phrases to Never Say in France
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From “Bonne nuit!” to “Je suis excité”, don’t make these mistakes in French. Here are the top 10 French phrases you should NEVER say & what to use instead! [Includes Printable]

When we are starting out speaking a foreign language we often tend to translate things literally. We assume, if not hope, that we are communicating exactly what we’ve intended. But, if we’re not careful we may end up making a faux pas. This can either induce fits of laughter from those we are speaking too or make them flush in embarrassment. When I first started, I made plenty of mistakes in French. With that in mind, I’ve created a list of common French phrases which can slip up even the best of us.

Here are some tips on how to avoid the worst pitfalls! When you’re done with these, you can start throwing in some phrases the French love saying.

1. Don’t Use “Tu” When You Should Use “Vous”

In French, the words tu (tew) and vous (vew) both mean you. In English, the word you can be used to address any person or number of people, whatever the age, social status etc of that person. However, in French, the word you use for you depends on the person being addressed (spoken/written to).

There are a few exceptions on how tu and vous are used, but in general tu is used for talking to children and friends and vous is for talking to adults in a formal setting (eg. colleagues, boss, teacher) and to strangers.

For example, when you meet a new business partner and want to say “How are you?” you say Comment allez-vous? (koh-mahN-tah-ley-vooh?), not Comment vas-tu? (kohmahN vah-tew?).

If you use the familiar form in the wrong situations you’ll be perceived as uneducated; in the worst cases, your listeners may even take it as an insult!

There is one way that you can detect if the other party is willing to switch to using the informal tense which either you or they can initiate with this simple phrase, Mais on peut se tutoyer! (meh ohN puh suh tew-twah-yey!) meaning “But, we can use the familiar form with each other!”.

The response to this phrase will give you the green light on how you will address each other in the future. If someone says this to you ensure you reply positively as turning the offer down would be considered insulting!

2. Don’t Use “Bonne nuit!” for Good-Bye

So, it’s the end of an evening out with your friends and you want to say Good night! Even though Bonne nuit! (bohhn nwee) does mean “Good night”, unless you mean to make a point of the fact that you are going straight to bed it’s better so use Au revoir! (ohr-vwahr) meaning Goodbye! or Bonsoir! (bohN-swahr) for Good evening!.

3. Don’t Use “Garçon” or “Porteur”

Unless you want to offend the waiter, then don’t call out Garçon! (gahr-sohN!) meaning Boy! Same goes for calling airport and train station staff porteur (pohr-tuhr) meaning “porter”.

Attendants absolutely hate being referred to by these terms, which are considered condescending. A more polite alternative is to say monsieur (muh-syuh) meaning Sir.

4. Don’t Say “Je suis excité(e)” When You’re Excited

I have to admit that I learned this one the hard way. Luckily I said it amongst friends and they were all to happy to correct me after an interval of laughs.

If you are excited about something, don’t say Je suis excité/excitée (juh swee-zehk-see-tey) which literally means “I am excited sexually”.

There isn’t an equivalent phrase in French for “I’m excited” but you can convey the same sentiment by saying J’ai hâte de… (jhey aht duh…) meaning “I look forward to..”, or Je suis très heureux/heureuse… (jhuh swee treh-zuh-ruh/uh-ruhz…) for “I am very happy…”.

5. Don’t Say “Je suis chaud(e)/froid(e)” When You’re Hot or Cold

Similar to the previous phrase on being excited, saying Je suis chaud/chaude (jzhuh swee shoh / shohd) meaning “I am hot” or Je suis froid/froide (jeh swee frwah / frwahd) for “I am cold”, actually means that you’re in heat or frigid!

If you’re feeling hot then replace the verb  être with avoir and say J’ai chaud (jhey shoh) or J’ai froid (jhey frwah).

6. Don’t Say “Je suis plein/e” to Mean You’re Full

Even if you feel pregnant after having a large meal and want to refuse a second serving avoid saying Je suis plein/pleine (jeh swee plahN/plehn) because you’re actually saying “I am pregnant”.

Instead, you opt for J’ai fini (jhey fee-nee) “I’m finished” or J’ai assez/trop mangé (jhey ah-sey/troh mahN-jhey) meaning “I ate enough/too much”.

7. Don’t Use “de la glace” to Request Ice

When you’re in a restaurant and you want ice cubes in your drink, you usually have to say so. The trouble is, if you ask for de la glace (duh lah glahs), the waiter may ask you Quel parfum? (kehl pahr-faN?) or Which flavor?.

The reason? In this context, la glace refers to ice cream. Instead, you want to request des glaçons (dey glah-sohN) meaning “ice cubes”.

8. Don’t Use “Je suis…ans” to Tell Your Age

If someone asks you your age, don’t translate literally from the English and say Je suis 30 ans (jhuh swee trahN-tahN) (I am 30 years old.)

Instead, you must use the verb avoir (ah-vwahr) (to have) because the French say J’ai 30 ans (jzhey trahN-tahN) which literally means “I have 30 years”.

9. Don’t Ask for Change with “J’ai besoin de change”

Need change of a large bill? Then don’t say J’ai besoin de change (jhey buh-zwaN duh shahNzh) because the listener may think you need a fresh set of clothes!

Instead, say J’ai besoin de monnaie (jhey buh-zwaN duh moh-neh) (I need change) or J’ai besoin de faire du change(jhey buh-zwaN duh fehr doo shaan-jeh) .

10. Using the Verb “Visiter” in Reference to People

One way to guarantee a good laugh when you’re telling someone that you’re going to visit friends is to say something like Je vais visiter mon ami Paul (jhuh veh vee-zee-tey mohN-nah-mee pohl).

Why so funny? Because the verb visiter (vee-zee-tey) (to visit) is used for places and monuments , in other words for sightseeing, not for people.

You probably don’t plan to walk around your friend or your aunt in the same way that you walk around a monument, right?

Instead, say Je vais voir Paul (jhuh veh vwahr pohl) meaning “I am going to see Paul” or use the expression that is used to visit people, rendre visite à… (rahN-druh vee-zeet ah) which means “to pay a visit to, to visit [a person]” as in Je vais rendre visite à Paul (jhuh veh rahN-druh vee-zeet ah pohl) (I’m going to visit Paul).

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Over to you!

Have you ever committed any of these blunders? What other French phrases would you add to this list?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.

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Rebeka March 1, 2018 - 02:04

Technically, this is for France only!
Here in Québec we say glace for ice. We sais je suis plein for i’m full. You should write down that precision :)

Michele March 1, 2018 - 13:53

Thanks Rebeka! this is great insight :)

Miranda June 15, 2017 - 14:58

Like an idiot, I thought that ‘Felicitations’ was just another way of saying ‘hallo’, when I first came to live in France.
So, in the village, I was always calling across the lane, “Felicitations a vous. Et felicitations a votre femme” Wasn’t until a kind neighbour took me aside and explained, that I realised I had been congratulatiing everybody, right left and centre! No wonder they had been looking askance.
Sorry, no accents on this clavier anglais.

Michele June 16, 2017 - 09:13

hahah Miranda, I almost fell off my chair when I read this. This is so cute! Good on your for putting yourself out there! Plus, there’s nothing wrong with congratulating someone on having a wonderful day hehe :)

Mingne November 10, 2016 - 21:09

If you ever visit the province of Quebec in Canada, where I live, numbers 6,7,9 and 10 are totally okay. Many expressions are different depending on which French-speaking country you are in. We often get misunderstood when we go to France, even if we speak the same language (not only because our accent :P ) But remember we always appreciate when someone makes the effort to learn our language, even if he makes mistakes!

Michele November 10, 2016 - 23:11

Not yet! I’m very much looking forward to spending a significant amount of time in Canada to get a real sense of the country. Totally understand that expressions will differ, much the same as English-speaking countries differ in their accent, vocab and colloquialisms. I’d be interested in hearing some typical Québécois expressions if you’re keen to share?

Mervyn July 30, 2016 - 13:21

As an Anglophone with a smattering of Joual, I found this interesting.
I feel sorry for anyone trying to learn another language, especially English and having to tangle with idioms.

Meijda July 30, 2016 - 12:28

Hi! I’m from Quebec city, Canada. For us “Je suis chaud” means I’m drunk and “Je suis gelé” means I’m high or I’m cold. If your heard someone says “Je suis chaud en tabarnaque”, it’s means he is too drunk. There is some differences between the french from France and the french from Quebec. It’s even funny. Sorry for my poor église.

Michele July 30, 2016 - 22:58

This is wonderful, Meijda. Very insightful! Thanks for sharing :)

Suzanne June 27, 2016 - 12:23

Here’s another one: if you want herbal tea, do not ask for the aux herbes because that’s weed tea. Ask for “une tisane”

Michele June 27, 2016 - 16:12

Haha certainly not! Thanks Suzanna :)

Jess June 10, 2016 - 18:08

When I was in high school and taking French, my French teacher organized a summer trip to France. One night, my friend and I were out exploring Nice and had no idea what time it was. Not wanting to miss curfew, I strode up to a gentleman on the steet and asked, “Quel temps fait-il?” Which of course means, “what’s the weather like?” As opposed to “Quelle heure fait-il?” He looked very confused, then (because I was tapping my wrist) showed me his watch. We made it back to the hotel just in time. Lol

Michele June 12, 2016 - 09:53

Haha that’s a wonderful story :) I encountered a similar experience when I was in MacDonald’s in Bordeaux on a Sunday. All the shops were closed and I just wanted a bottle of water. I said “Je voudrais une bouteille d’eau”, the girl gave me french fries and I was puzzled. Again I ask, “une bouteille d’eau” pointing to the water in the fridge. The girl laughed and said she thought I was asking for “potato”. At that point I knew I had to improve my pronunciation.

Francisco Uicab April 7, 2016 - 02:24

Some of them (1, 4, 5, 8) have the same meaning in Spanish

Robert Ennell April 6, 2016 - 22:38

Could be interesting to have an article comparing North American (U.S. AND Canadian) expressions to British ones.
Don’t believe me? Well then, say this to a British girl: “We’re going to be late, come on hurry up, grab your fanny pack and let’s go!” and then look at her expression…lol

Fabián Mata April 6, 2016 - 15:01

I speak spanish and there are certain things in common between French and Spanish (Point 1, 2 and 4) but i have an anglophone friend and it has happened to her (Mostly point 1) now i am sharing this with her… THANK YOU! *If there is something wrong with my english let me now :)

Michele April 6, 2016 - 18:08

Thanks Fabián! Your English is perfect :) Maybe one suggestion would be to say ‘I’m going to share this with her now’.

Robert Ennell April 5, 2016 - 20:34

Let’s see…
1. Europe only
2. Agreed
3. Agreed, but mostly in Europe since “Pardon” or “Excusez-moi” (sorry) is most commonly used here in Quebec.
4. Europe ONLY (and kind of pedantic)
6. Europe ONLY (and VERY demeaning)
7. Europe ONLY (and VERY pedantic)
8. Agreed
9. Agreed, but mostly in Europe
10. Agreed, but mostly in Europe

Michele April 5, 2016 - 21:59

Thanks Robert, it’s great to get feedback from French speakers around the world :)

david lincoln brooks April 5, 2016 - 20:59

Another sentence with an unexpected meaning is when Anglophones ask “Êtes-vous pro ou con?” The Anglophone is wondering whether the recipient is pro or con some measure… ie., “for” or “against” it. But of course, to a Frenchman, the question sounds like “Are you a professional or a dumb-ass ?” haha

Michele April 5, 2016 - 21:58

hahaha that’s brilliant! Thanks David

Robert Ennell April 6, 2016 - 20:47

Actually never heard anyone say “pro ou con” , but I hear “Pour ou Contre” on a regular basis.

duodu benjamin kwame April 5, 2016 - 17:44

merci du fond du coeur Madame Camille. Vous m’aidez beaucoup

Michele April 5, 2016 - 17:46

de rien! :)

duodu benjamin kwame April 5, 2016 - 17:38

i am ghanaian. and most of us here make the mistake of saying ‘je suis chaud’ to mean i am feeling instead of ‘j’ai chaud’. it’s common with English speakers

Michele April 5, 2016 - 17:48

Ah really? Thanks for sharing :)

Michele April 5, 2016 - 17:11

Thanks for your comments :)

I agree and you’re absolutely correct in all your points.

These phrases are for beginners who need to understand that what they say may have a double meaning especially for such simple things as when they are hot/cold/excited etc and that there may be a possible undertone. Here I’m suggesting better alternatives that won’t cause social embarrassment. A couple of these things also apply in Italian. I remember when saying ‘I’m excited’ only to be laughed at, even though in Italian it can also mean both excitement and being aroused or horny.

Thanks again for your feedback :)

George April 5, 2016 - 13:54

Ironically I always used to say : ‘Je ne suis pas courrant’ when wanting to say: ‘ I am not fluent’ . I was quickly corrected to say ‘Je ne parle pas couramment ‘

Michele April 5, 2016 - 17:20

Ah yes! This is a great one to add too! Thanks George :)

yuhmahkss April 5, 2016 - 13:23

Actually you can use “Je suis chaud à (faire quelque chose) …” if you are excited to do something. So I’d say that number 5 isn’t that accurate. It really depends on the context.

“J’suis chaud à aller voir ce qui se passe là-bas !” = I’m excited to get to know what’s going on out there

Source : I’m French.

Michele April 5, 2016 - 17:04

Thanks, that’s an interesting point you make :)

The idea here is that by just saying ‘Je suis chaud’ on its alone does not correctly communication that you feel hot.

Mrunal April 4, 2016 - 18:59

Nicely written & all true.
Just to add, if you didn’t hear or understand someone, you should never ask ‘quoi? ‘. Instead use ‘comment?’ Or you can say ‘excuses/excusez moi, je n’ai pas compris’.

Michele April 4, 2016 - 19:47

Glad you enjoyed it :) Great addition too! Thank you

Basil Pereira April 4, 2016 - 18:24

Thank you for the good advice. I’ll be sure to go over these again before a trip to France.


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