The 10 Most Common Mistakes in French

By optilingo

What Mistakes Do People Make When Speaking French?

Like English, the French language has rule exceptions and occasional variances in structure. Spend a little time mastering the examples included here, and you’ll find your French fluency [How to Become Fluent in French] and conversational confidence soar.

1) False friends

Approximately 60% of the English vocabulary comes from French and Latin, the result of a long shared history. Despite sounding similar, many of these words actually have different meanings. Here are some of the most common mistakes:

–       “actuellement” means “currently,” while “actually” translates as “en fait”

–       “attendre” means “to wait,” while “to attend” translates as “assister à”

–       “un car” means “a coach,” while “a car” translates as “une voiture”

–       “un coin” means “a corner,” while “a coin” translate as “une pièce”

–       “compréhensif” means “understanding,” while “comprehensive” translates as “complet”

–       “décevoir” means “to disappoint,” while “to deceive” translates as “tromper”

–       “éventuellement” means “possibly,” while “eventually” translates as “finalement”

–       “une librairie” means “a bookshop,” while “a library” translates as “une bibliothèque”

–       “le pain” means “bread,” while “the pain” translates as “la douleur”

–       “supplier” means “to beg,” while “to supply” translates as “fournir”

These “faux-amis” (false friends) can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. For example, “passer un examen” doesn’t mean you pass an exam, only that you take one—but hopefully, if you’re well prepared, you’ll “réussir l’examen” (pass the exam).

Don’t fret over mistakes like this. Little conversational blunders are often the best teachers, and the lessons learned will improve your comprehension and fluency. Keep in mind that everyone slips now and then. Pick yourself up and get back on the language-learning road!

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2) Erroneous pronunciation

While English possesses more sounds than French, some French sounds are tricky to master. While mispronouncing the French “r” or nasal vowels will have you labelled as an English speaker on the spot, it will rarely lead to confusion. Similarly, remember never to pronounce any “h” sounds—all French words use the silent “h,” like “heir” and “hour” in English.

You’ll need to be more careful with silent endings. While pronouncing the final letters in “tabac” (tobacco), “clef” (key) or “trois” (three) is always correct, saying them at the end of adjectives like “froid” (cold), “petit” (small) or “grand” (tall) implies that you’re using their feminine form. And don’t forget that “-nt” and “-s” at the end of verbs are never pronounced: “je chante,” “tu chantes” and “ils chantent” should all sound the same (I, you, they sing).

Alternatively, when the final letter is a vowel other than an “-e” and not belonging to a cluster with a regular pronunciation (like “-eau” or “-au,” which are always pronounced like “awe” in English), it should be pronounced. For example, when ordering a “cacao” (cocoa) drink, be sure to pronounce the final “-o,” or it will be difficult for the waiter/waitress to suppress a laugh—because without that “o,” you’ll be ordering “poo.”

The most frequently mixed-up sounds are the “u” sound (a short “ee” with rounded lips), like in “le jus” (juice), and the “ou” sound (the English “oo”), like in “la joue” (cheek). The opposites “dessus” (above) and “dessous” (underneath) can be difficult to distinguish for English speakers. “Beaucoup” (a lot, many) sounds a lot like “beau cul” (pretty ass), so be careful when saying “merci beaucoup!” (thanks a lot!). Last, while going to the office can be difficult enough, try not to confuse your “bureau” (office) with “un bourreau” (a torturer)!

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3) Conjugations

French conjugation is more detailed than in English, in the number of both tenses and conjugations. The conditional and future forms, introduced with “would” and “will” in English, are thus single-word verbs in French: “Ils aimeraient” (They’d like), “Ils aimeront” (They’ll like). If you add the French for “would” or “will,” it will just obscure the sentence: “Ils voudraient aimer” (They’d like to love). The good news is that they are extremely regular.

The subjunctive is probably the most difficult French verb form because it is seldom used in English. Many Anglophones aren’t even aware that it exists—“I suggest that she use the subjunctive” is thus a perfectly correct sentence. In French, the subjunctive is compulsory in many situations, for example in a sentence expressing a wish—“J’aimerais qu’elle vienne” (I’d like her to come)—or a necessity—“Il faut qu’ils soient prêts” (They need to be ready).

Last, the use of the past tense is quite different. French doesn’t have a present perfect—“I’ve been learning French for three years” will be translated as “J’apprends le français depuis trois ans” (literally “I learn French for three years”). But “He did his homework” can have three different translations. The imparfait is used when referring to a period of time: “Il faisait ses devoirs tous les jours” (He did his homework every day). The passé composé is used when speaking about a one-time event: “Il a appris le français en Belgique” (He learned French in Belgium). Literary language uses a third form called the passé simple, but this form is never used in everyday speech.

4) Mixing up genders

While both French and English use the articles “the” and “a,” French employs separate articles to denote whether words are masculine and singular (“le,” “un”), feminine and singular (“la,” “une”), or plural (“les,” “des”). Remember, there is no neuter among French pronouns or articles. A “table” is definitely feminine, and “le mur” (the wall) beside it is unquestionably masculine. While the gender of words referring to humans, animals, and jobs can easily be guessed, there is no easy way to learn the gender of common nouns except by practicing French—and remember that contrary to English, “un bateau” (a boat) is never a “she.”

That means that “cela” (it) is less commonly used, especially when followed by an adjective. For example, consider these two sentences: “It is a pretty table. It is blue.” The first “it is” will remain neutral, because it is followed by a noun, but the second one will have to change according to the gender of the table: “C’est une jolie table. Elle est bleue.”

Adjectives must agree with feminine or plural nouns. For example, the adjective “amusant” (funny) becomes “amusante” in the feminine singular and “amusantes” in the feminine plural. English adjectives generally don’t change based on the gender or number, so it’s easy to forget this important French grammar rule. Some French adjectives even change a lot: a beautiful man is “beau” while such a woman is “belle.”

5) Mixing up prepositions

In theory, French prepositions are easier to master than English prepositions because there are fewer of them. For example, “de” translates as “of” or “from,” and “à” translates as “to,” “at,” or sometimes another location or movement preposition. But they are often used differently than prepositions in English.

In English, we typically describe periods of time using the word “for.” As an example, we might say, “I have lived here for five years.” The French language does not use “pour” (for) when describing periods of time, instead relying on “pendant” (during) to describe the time period: “J’ai habité en Suisse pendant deux ans” (I lived in Switzerland for two years).

Prepositions are especially tricky with verbs. Some verbs that don’t need a preposition in English need one in French. For example, “jouer” (to play) is followed by “de” for a musical instrument and “à” for a sport: “Je joue de la flute” (I play the flute), “Je joue au tennis” (I play tennis). Some verbs that use a preposition in English don’t always use the same one in French. To say you’re thinking of someone or something, you’ll need to use “penser à”: “Je pense à toi” (I’m thinking of you). But on the other hand, to ask what somebody thinks about you, you’ll have to say, “Que penses-tu de moi?” (What do you think of me?).

Sometimes further complications arise. One classic example is the verb “manquer à” (to miss), which not only requires the preposition “à” but also leads to the inversion of the subject and the objects: “Je manque à mes parents” (My parents miss me).

6) Possessive adjectives

Possessive adjectives work differently in French and English. While English makes them agree with the gender of the possessor, possessive adjectives in French are determined by the gender of the possessed object: “Dormir est son passe-temps favori” can mean “Sleeping is his/her/its favorite pastime” whether the sleeper is a man, a woman, or a cat.

This doesn’t mean French possessive adjectives always remain the same; they change according to their gender. “Your” becomes “ton” followed by a masculine noun, “ta” by a feminine noun and “tes” by a plural one: “ton frère, ta sœur et tes parents” (your brother, sister and parents).

A last trick is that “ma,” “ta” or “sa” (my, your or his/her/its) followed by a feminine noun starting with a vowel becomes “mon,” “ton” or “son.” Thus, to say “my friend,” you’ll always use “mon,” followed by “ami” or “amie.”

7) Verbs with “se”

French possesses a very common class of verbs that don’t exist in English: pronominal verbs. These verbs use a possessive pronoun (“me,” “te,” “se,” etc.) followed by a regularly conjugated verb.

These verbs can be used to indicate that their subject is doing something on or to his or her self (reflexive verbs), generally implying “oneself” in English: “Je me douche et me rase tous les matins” (I shower and shave every morning).

They can also express a reciprocal action, as with “each other” in English: “Nous nous sommes téléphoné” (We phoned each other), “Je me suis battu avec ton frère” (I fought with your brother), “Ils s’aiment” (They love each other).

Finally, some verbs need a pronoun without any logical explanation—you just need to learn them: “je m’enfuie” (I flee), “tu t’écries” (you shout), “il s’avère que” (it appears that), “nous nous prosternons” (we bow down), “vous vous moquez de” (you don’t care about), “ils s’en vont” (they leave).

8) Misplacing adjectives

Typically, when using adjectives in French, the noun comes before the adjective. Most French words follow this traditional French sentence structure: “une assiette cassée” (a broken plate), “un vélo vert” (a green bike), “des amis extraordinaires” (extraordinary friends).

However, some common adjectives will come before the noun:

–      Goodness: “un bon ami” (a good friend), “un gentil chien” (a kind dog)

–      Beauty: “une jolie maison” (a pretty house), “une belle porte” (a beautiful door)

–      Age: “une vieille femme” (an old woman), “un jeune garçon” (a young boy), “un nouvel élève” (a new pupil)

–      Size: “une grande maison” (a big house), “un petit chat” (a little cat), “un gros oiseau” (a big bird)

–      Reality: “un vrai ami” (a true friend), “une fausse réponse” (a false answer)

–      Number adjective: “le premier jour” (the first day), “la centième fois” (the hundredth time)

–      Other/same: “un autre jour” (another day), “le même jour” (the same day)

It should be noted that some adjectives can be placed before or after the noun, with different meanings depending on their position: “son ancien mari” (her former husband) vs. “une statue ancienne” (an antique statue), “mon propre enfant” (my own child) vs. “un enfant propre” (a clean child), etc.

9) Forgetting contractions

English uses contractions mostly to shorten verbal forms: “I’ve“ for “I have,” “we’ll” for “we will,” etc. French uses many more, generally linked with the disappearance of a final mute “-e” before a vowel or a mute “h”—an “h” that doesn’t count as a consonant, generally of Latin origin.

Such contractions are compulsory with “le/la/de” (the): “l’avion” (the plane), “l’amie” (the friend), “l’hiver” (the winter), “pas d’argent” (no money). They are also compulsory with “je” (I), “ce” (it/that), “me/te/se” (myself/yourself/oneself with reflexive verbs): “j’apprends” (I learn), “c’est” (it is), “je t’aime” (I love you).

Another set of very common contractions is “du” (“de” + “le”), “des” (“de” + “les”), “au” (“à” + “le”) and “aux” (“à” + “les”)—but “de la” and “à la” do not contract: “J’ai de la chance” (I am lucky), “Je vais au théâtre” (I go to the theater). Note that “des” (many) becomes “de” in negative sentences: “Je n’ai pas de problèmes” (I don’t have any problems).

10) Literally translating English phrases

Finally, another common set of mistakes comes from the direct translation of English phrases or grammatical construction: “good morning” or “good afternoon” will both be translated as “bonjour” (hello), and to translate “It’s the same,” you’ll always have to add “thing” in French—“C’est la même chose.”

A very common mistake is to forget that “be + adjective” often becomes “have + noun” in French: “avoir peur” (to be afraid), “avoir raison” (to be right), “avoir sommeil” (to be sleepy). Often, that confusion just leads to nonsensical sentences, like saying “Je suis faim” instead of “J’ai faim” when you’re hungry or “Je suis 20 ans” instead of “J’ai 20 ans” when you want to say you’re twenty. Sometimes, it can also cause misunderstanding: when you’re feeling hot, be careful to use “avoir” (“J’ai chaud”), as using “être” (“Je suis chaud/chaude”) will just mean you’re horny.

You should also be careful not to assume that because you know the meaning of a word in French, it will always translate the same way. If you visit a place, you’ll use “visiter,” but if you visit a friend, you’ll have to use “rendre visite à”: “J’ai rendu visite à mon ami après avoir visité Rennes” (I visited my friend after visiting Rennes”). The false assumption that similar words in English will have similar translations in French can lead to one extremely embarrassing misunderstanding: “un baiser” is a cute word for a kiss, but use it as a verb and you’ll be sure to shock your interlocutor—“baiser” is a very vulgar way to say “have sex with” or “f***.” To say “I kissed him,” be sure to say “Je l’ai embrassé” or “Je lui ai fait un baiser.”

Conclusion

Don’t let this list paralyze you. Most of these mistakes will only be avoided by repeated contact with French language and speakers, and most French speakers will be so glad you’re trying to speak their language that they won’t resent you for them—in fact, there’s a good chance that they’ll even find them charming!