Even the best of us linguists make mistakes. Like any learning process, it’s by making mistakes that we learn. Avoid making a faux pas with these top 10 French phrases to never say.
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. 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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