More Difficult French Phrases

Najac - winter château

Najac château in winter

Difficult for we non-French, that is. While writing an email to a French friend recently I had to consult the dictionary several times to make sure I got a particular construction right. This is after more than 16 years in France, four years of intensive French courses and having twice got to the regional finals (but no further) of a French national grammar competition. I don’t say the latter to boast but simply to show how difficult this language remains.

The photo above shows the château de Najac from an unfamiliar angle on the last day we had any nice weather, 10 days ago. It has nothing to do with the subject of this post. I just put it in to cheer myself up.

Which French grammatical constructions do I have difficulty with? How long have you got? They are numerous but two in particular cause me problems and probably always will.

Hit or miss?

The first is manquer – to miss. In English, when we see a friend or relative after a long time we say, ‘I’ve missed you’. In French it’s completely the other way round. The French say, ‘Tu m’as manqué’, which looks like ‘You have missed me’ but translates literally as ‘You have been missing to me’. In this sentence the ‘me’ is the indirect not the direct pronoun.

I always have to stop to think hard before constructing this phrase. And I’m never quite sure that I have got it right. I daresay that on occasion I have declared, ‘Je t’ai manqué’ – i.e. you’ve missed me. That might account for a few old-fashioned looks.

My mind is clouded with a doubt

The above is a quotation from Tennyson. Nothing to do with French, I know, but it does sum up rather nicely my second difficulty: how and when to use the verb douter.

The entry in the Collins Robert dictionary is as long as your arm. This verb has several meanings depending on whether it’s reflexive and/or negative. Here we go:

Je doute de (‘I have doubts about’) or je doute que (‘I doubt if’). Reasonably clear.

The trouble starts when the verb is reflexive. Je me doute de means ‘I don’t doubt’, ‘I can well imagine’, ‘I suspect’ something; je m’en doute = ‘I thought so’. I always feel it should mean ‘I’m not sure’.

Je ne me doutais pas = ‘I had no idea’; ‘I couldn’t imagine’. But I always think it should mean ‘I had no doubt’.

This is why I get tied up in knots with this construction and probably say the exact opposite of what I mean. And I’m quite prepared to have got it wrong in this post. In which case, I hope you’ll point it out. Gently, of course…

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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23 Responses to More Difficult French Phrases

  1. pfornari says:

    A couple more: one is ‘éventuellement’, which is actually quite a useful and precise French word for which there’s no good English equivalent (‘if the case may be’/’should it become necessary’…?)

    The other one I find amusing is ‘je me débarrasse’ when you’re simply taking your coat off…

    • nessafrance says:

      Great. There’s also ‘actuellement’ which means ‘currently’ rather than ‘actually’. I think those kinds of words are called ‘faux amis’ because they look similar to English words but mean something different. Very easy to get caught out. And ‘je suis confus(e)’ – which can mean ‘confused’ but is more often used to mean ‘embarrassed’.

      • The SF says:

        All this reminds me of the person who thought that “coup de grâce” was a lawnmower.

      • nessafrance says:

        I think we’re starting to go off-topic a bit here, SF, but thanks for your contribution…

      • lizgyooll says:

        Groan:))) That one is brilliant.

      • That’s good to know as my neighbour arrived at my door the other day and used ‘confuser’ after his daughter had played piano on a sunday night till half past midnight on a concert volume piano. Needless to say it wasn’t quiet, and while I quite liked it my teenager was very put out about not being able to sleep!

      • nessafrance says:

        It sounds as though your neighbour had every reason to be ‘confus’ if it went on so late. Mind you, it depends what she played and how well…

  2. and yes “terrible” – how can “terrible” be good? Unless you say something is “terribly good” like my mother does!

    • nessafrance says:

      Yet further evidence of how close and yet how far away French and English are…

      • My daughter now uses “normally/normalement” wrongly. Half the time she is correct and then suddenly she come out with something like …
        “in ten minutes normally” in response to my question of ” when will you be home”…instead of..
        “at 4 o’clock like normal”
        These slip-ups happen increasingly often and we refer to them as “french moment” when conversing in english!
        My husband laughed the other day when wrapping up a phone conversation, I said “Must go..I have envy to go to bed!”
        By the way, I am very impressed by all your lessons and grammar competitions – what a feat!

      • nessafrance says:

        Ha, ha! I can’t speak English anymore. I also use envy in the same way. I am starting to translate from French into English – a new language. Don’t be too impressed: there are days when I can’t string two words together in French.

  3. The subjunctive now gives me major headaches since I’ve discovered it to express a doubt, a sentiment, a limited possibility, an inverted ‘statement’ verb but not a ‘statement’ verb and a negative after que…and many many more. Once I have, mid-conversation, finally decided the subjunctive is necessary for my sentence, my brain has to then conjugate the flipping verb and apply it – and all within a momentary instant. That’s before we’ve even added lesquelles, auquel, dont, en or y. I think it’s all brain gymnastics, but perhaps all this training will keep me lucid a few years longer than the norm…..
    but then again, maybe it’ll just wear out faster!

    • nessafrance says:

      Don’t talk to me about the subjunctive….It’s an additional difficulty. Having said that, there is evidence, as you imply, that learning another language can stave off Alzheimer’s for several years. Actually, I think a lot of French people find the subjunctive difficult. I don’t think I have ever heard anything but the present subjunctive in conversation – but it does extend to several tenses. I will be content if I can master the present subjunctive…

  4. pfornari says:

    What I love is when French speakers translate directly into English (okay, they must have a laugh when we do it the other way!)…I will never forget my daughter Luisa who was more fluent in French than English at the time, being asked ‘how old are you?’ by an English friend of mine, and answering ‘I come from having five’ (‘je viens d’avoir cinq ans’)

    • nessafrance says:

      Wonderful! It took me an awfully long time to work out ‘je vais…’ and ‘je viens…’. We just don’t have that in English. Now I use them all the time. I also find it difficult to get the right phrase in English these days. I am starting to translate from French into English.

  5. Evelyn says:

    I’m drowning in relative pronouns right now. I don’t think I’ll ever get them. Qui, que, ou, dont are ‘relatively’ easy, but those darn laquelles, lesquelles, auxquelles, etc. make me crazy! I know my friend, Christiane who teaches our little French classes must think I’m a real dolt!

    • nessafrance says:

      I agree, those are hard. I still have to stop and think about them. But I’m sure your teacher doesn’t think you’re a dolt! She, if anyone, will know how hard French is.

  6. MELewis says:

    You are so right: the French language is filled with grammatical landmines. But I love the romance of ‘tu me manques’ as it expressed the depth of an absence in such a delightful way. I always remember the first time my husband said, ‘You miss me,’ as he was translating his sentiments from from French into English. That is how I remembered the right way to say it in French.

    • nessafrance says:

      ‘Tu me manques’ does sound more poetic, doesn’t it? And, of course, as your husband’s experience shows, it’s equally difficult for the French to formulate the English version.

  7. Very helpful:) It’s more or less the same in Italian, so I hope I can remember this. I used to make the same mistakes here, like people missing me, when I was missing them.

  8. sue whatmough says:

    Yes, they are confusing. My favourite ‘C’est pas terrible’, meaning it is terrible! Very strange.

    • nessafrance says:

      That one is hard for us since we use terrible only in the sense of being awful. But, colloquially, they use it without the negative to mean terrific or great. Can’t win, can we?

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