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Anglophones Beware! Les Faux Amis and French Verbs

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

One of the trickier parts of learning any language is wrapping your head around the grammar. If you haven’t grown up listening to French speakers, media, music, and reading French books, learning the grammar can take a dedicated effort. The fact is that while we learned English, we picked up grammar at the same time - almost through osmosis. We know that ‘I can’t speak the language’ is right without necessarily being able to explain exactly why that structure or word order is grammatically correct. Unfortunately, though, French verbs and tricksters like les faux amis sneak up on new learners to trip them up. Don’t worry - they’re only as scary as you make them! Les Faux Amis: What Are They?

Les faux amis literally translates into ‘false friends’. And for anyone who knows what they are, no truer statement has ever been spoken. Les faux amis are words that look the same in both French and English (or similar!) but have different meanings. Think of two/too/to or there/their/they’re. Their sounds are similar but they’re not as friendly as they look in that sentence there.

These words are ‘cognates’ - or, semi-false cognates. In other words, these false friends have the same root as their French counterparts, even if they don’t have the same meaning. This is due to the close connections between the French and English languages (read more about that here).

Examples of Les Faux Amis

The best way to help you understand what les faux amis are (and why you should watch out for them) is to show some examples. While some words - like intelligent and intelligente - have the same meaning in English as they do in French, others are more cunning and tricky.

Some of these are basic words that you or your child may learn early on. This can lead to confusion. For instance, ‘pain’ - this word means to the experience of suffering or severe discomfort in English. In French? Bread!

Another basic word is ‘journée.’ Looks like ‘journey’ doesn’t it? Well, that’s probably because these words have the same roots. But their meaning - as English and French distanced themselves linguistically - changed slightly. In French, ‘journée’ means ‘day.’ And while we could all agree that some days certainly feel like a journey, the meaning is fundamentally different.

Some other false friends to watch out for include:

  • ‘Coin’ means ‘corner’

  • ‘Piles’ means ‘batteries’

  • ‘Car’ means ‘because’, formally

  • ‘Sale’ means ‘dirty’

  • ‘Attendre’/’attends’ means ‘to wait’

  • ‘Location’ means ‘rental’

  • ‘Grand’ means ‘tall’ or ‘large’

  • ‘Chair’ means ‘flesh’

  • ‘Bras’ means ‘arm’

  • ‘Brasserie’ means bar with food or brewery

  • ‘Rester’ means ‘to stay’, rather than ‘to rest’ (though the word for ‘to rest’ is ‘reposer’ - very close to the English ‘repose’!)

  • ‘Joli’ means ‘pretty’

  • ‘Blessé’ means ‘to wound’

  • ‘Grappe’ means ‘bunch’

  • ‘Prune’ means ‘plum’ (rather than it’s dried counterpart!)

  • ‘Raisin’ similarly means just ‘grape’

  • ‘Plus’ with the ‘s’ pronounced means ‘more’

  • ‘Plus’ with a silent ‘s’ means ‘none’

Knowing that les faux amis exist is half the battle. Don’t assume you understand a sentence with words that are unfamiliar, but look similar to English. Always keep a French language dictionary handy.

French Verbs: Families and Black Sheep

As a native English speaker, you may not realise how complicated verbs can be. But anyone learning a new language certainly does! French verbs are often grouped into ‘families’ but irregular conjugations have snuck their way in.

The most common verb families are those ending in -er, -ir, -re. These are all conjugated by a set of rules. However, there are a range of irregular verbs that refuse to follow these rules - and unfortunately they’re some of the most common French verbs. With practice, however, you can certainly learn which French verbs stand out.

The Regular Verbs

As we said, most verbs follow a pattern. Every verb needs to be conjugated for tense and to match the subject: je, tu, elle/il, nous, vous, ils/elles.

Conjugation rules for verbs ending in -er are shown in the chart below. These are paired with the appropriate pronoun. We have used the verb ‘parler’, to speak, as an example. With the -er ending, this verb is in its infinitive form. We’ve conjugated it to present tense and provided the ending as well as the final product.