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10 Common French Verb Traps

A nonnative speaker of French can mix up verbs or use them incorrectly in many ways. One such way is to translate everything literally and not decipher the nuances that the verb entails.

Another way is to use the wrong preposition with the verb. This article shows you how to use correctly ten French verbs people often misuse and understand the nuances that they may entail.

Visiting a place or visiting a person

French has two different verbs that mean to visit. One is visiter, which is a regular –er verb, conjugated just like parler. Use the verb visiter when you’re referring to visiting places, such as countries, national monuments, and so on, just like in the following examples.

Ils ont visité Versailles l’année dernière. (They visited Versailles last year.)
Nous visiterons la Suisse cet été. (We will visit Switzerland this summer.)

When you visit your favorite aunt or your grandparents, you use rendre visite à, which means to pay a visit to someone. When you conjugate the verb rendre, which is a regular –re verb, remember to add the word visite and the preposition à before the person or persons you’re visiting. For example:

Nous rendons visite à nos cousins une fois par an. (We visit our cousins once a year.)
Il a rendu visite à sa petite amie le week-end dernier. (He visited his girl friend last weekend.)

Spending time or spending money

In English, you use the same verb to refer to spend time and spend money. However, the French use two distinct verbs, passer and dépenser, both of which are regular –er verbs. Use the verb passer when you spend time doing an activity, as in the following sentences:

Elle passe son temps à voyager. (She spends her time travelling.)
Nous avons passé nos vacances au bord de la Méditerranée. (We spent our vacation on the Mediterranean shore.)

You also use passer in other constructions, such as passer un examen, which means to take an exam, such as this example:

Les étudiants passent des examens à la fin du semestre. (The students take exams at the end of the semester.)

Passer can also mean to pass as in je passe par la boulangerie chaque jour. (I pass by the bakery every day.)

To express spending money, use the verb dépenser as these examples demonstrate:

Il a dépensé beaucoup d’argent pour son anniversaire. (He spent a lot of money for his/her birthday.)
Ne dépense pas tout ton argent! (Don’t spend all your money!)

The verb dépenser is also used to express other things that you spend (or use) like gas, water, or electricity. For example:

Tu dépenses trop d’eau en lavant ta voiture. (You’re spending/using too much water washing your car.)

Knowing people and places or simply knowing

French has two different verbs that mean to know. You use one for knowing people and places and the other for knowing facts as well as knowing how to do something.

You use the verb connaître when you’re familiar with people, places, and things. The verb connaître has to be followed by a direct object and can’t be followed by a clause or an infinitive.

Elle connaît le chef. (She knows the chef.)
Connaissez-vous les œuvres de Flaubert? (Do you know Flaubert’s works?)
Ils connaissent bien Paris. (They know Paris well.)

On the other hand, the verb savoir means to know a fact, such as dates, names, addresses, and telephone numbers, to know something by heart, as well as to know how to do something as these examples show:

Nous savons l’adresse de l’entreprise. (We know the company’s address.)
Ils savent nager. (They know how to swim.)

In this second example, the word “how” in French (comment) is implied and therefore usually omitted in these types of constructions.

You also use savoir with the following clauses:

  • Que (that)

  • Qui (who)

  • Quel(l) (e) (s) (which)

  • À quelle heure (at what time)

  • Combien (how much)

  • Comment (how)

  • (where)

  • Pourquoi (why)

  • Quand (when)

  • Si (if)

For example:

Nous savons que le vol est à l’heure. (We know that the flight is on time.)
Elle sait pourquoi il est parti. (She knows why he left.)

When you want to say, “I know” or “I don’t know,” you use savoir.

Sais-tu où elle est? (Do you know where she is?)
Je ne sais pas. (I don’t know.)

Playing a game or playing an instrument

The verb jouer means to play in English, as in Les enfants jouent au parc. (The children play/are playing in the parc.) However, in French when stating someone is playing something, such as a game, a sport, or an instrument, you have to remember a few rules. Although the verb jouer is a regular –er verb, the preposition that follows this verb makes all the difference.

Use jouer with the preposition à when playing sports or a game like in these examples:

Elle joue au tennis trois fois par semaine. (She plays tennis three times a week.)
Ils jouent aux cartes le samedi. (They play cards on Saturdays.)

Note that when the masculine singular definite article le (the) follows the preposition à, they contract to form au. When the plural definite article les follows à, they become aux just like in the previous examples à + le (tennis) become au tennis and à + les (cartes) become aux cartes.

When playing a musical instrument, use jouer with the preposition de as the examples illustrate.

J’aime jouer du piano. (I like to play the piano.)
Il joue du violoncelle. (He plays the cello.)

Similar to the preposition à, the preposition de also has two contractions: de + le (piano, violoncelle, and so on) become du and de + les become des.

Leaving or leaving something behind

The verbs partir, s’en aller, quitter, and laisser all mean to leave, but they’re all used differently.

Partir and s’en aller are synonyms, although the first is an irregular –ir verb and the second is a pronominal verb. They can never take a direct object. When you want to say quite simply “I am leaving” or “someone or something is leaving,” use these verbs as in these examples:

Je m’en vais. / Je pars. (I’m leaving.)
Le train part à sept heures. (The train leaves at 7 a.m.)

Unlike partir and s’en aller, the verb quitter is always followed by a direct object as in, for example, you’re leaving a place or a person. When quitter is used with people, it usually means to abandon.

Il a quitté ses enfants. (He left his children.)
Nous avons quitté le restaurant à vingt heures. (We left the restaurant at 8 p.m.)

The verb laisser means that you’ve left something behind or unattended. For example:

Nous avons laissé la porte ouverte. (We left the door open.)
J’ai laissé mes lunettes sur la table. (I left my glasses on the table.)

When followed by an infinitive, laisser also means to allow or to let someone do something. For example:

Nous la laissons sortir avec ses amis. (We let her go out with her friends.)

Returning home or returning something

Four verbs mean to return or to come back in French. They are retourner, rentrer, revenir, and rendre. All are regular –er and –re verbs, except for the verb revenir. Here are some examples.

Je vais revenir après le déjeuner. (I am going to come back after lunch.)
Il retourne son cadeau au magasin. (He returns his gift to the store.)

The verb rentrer means to return home. In the compound tenses, this verb uses the auxiliary être (to be).

Ils sont rentrés tard hier soir. (They returned [got home] late last night.)
Mon mari rentre à dix-neuf heures tous les jours. (My husband comes home at 7 p.m. every day.)

You use rendre when you return something, or when you give back something like a borrowed object. For example:

J’ai rendu les CD à Bernard. (I gave back [returned] the CDs to Bernard.)
Le professeur rend les examens. (The professor gives back/is giving back the exams.)

Bringing or taking someone and bringing someone back

The verbs for to bring or to take someone are all compounds of the stem-change verb mener, which means to lead, so you conjugate them all the same way.

Jacques mène la queue. (Jacques leads the line.)

Amener means to bring someone somewhere and ramener means to bring someone back. For example:

J’amène mes enfants à l’école tous les matins. (I bring my children to school every morning.)
Je ramène mes enfants de l’école l’après-midi. (I bring back my children from school in the afternoon.)

Emmener means to take someone along, and remmener means to take someone back. For example:

Ils emmènent leurs amis en vacances. (They take their friends along on vacation.)
Il doit remmener sa fille à l’université. (He has to take his daughter back to college.)

Carrying, bringing, taking, or taking something back

The following verbs are used with things. These verbs are all compounds of porter, which means that they’re regular –er verbs. Besides meaning to wear, you also use the verb porter when you carry something. For example:

Il porte sa valise. (He is carrying his suitcase.)
Les enfants portent leurs livres. (The children are carrying their books.)

To say to bring something, use the verb apporter and to say to bring something back, use the verb rapporter. For example:

Nous apportons le dessert. (We’re bringing dessert.)
M Nadal a rapporté de bons souvenirs de ses vacances. (Mr. Nadal brought back good souvenirs from his vacation.)

Emporter means to take something with you as in:

Emporte ton parapluie parce qu’il va pleuvoir. (Take your umbrella because it’s going to rain.)

You can also use the verb emporter to mean take out as in une pizza à emporter (take out pizza).

Remporter means to take back or to take away as in this example:

Le serveur a remporté les assiettes sales. (The waiter took away the dirty dishes.)

Thinking or thinking about

The verb to think in French is expressed by the regular –er verb, penser. However, this verb can be followed by either the preposition à or the preposition de.

Use the preposition à if you want to say that you’re thinking about someone or something. For example:

Nous pensons à nos examens. (We are thinking about our exams.)
Elle pense à sa mère. (She is thinking about her mother.)

Penser de is used to ask the question, “What do you think of/about someone or something?” and therefore is used to solicit an opinion. For example, Qu’est-ce que tu penses du conférencier? (What do you think of the speaker?) Que pensent-ils de la classe? (What do they think about the class?)

Don’t use the preposition de to answer these questions. Instead, use penser que in your response. For example, (in response to the first question), Qu’est-ce que tu penses du conférencier? you answer, Je pense qu’il est très intéressant. (I think that he is very interesting.) or responding to Que pensent-ils de la classe?, you say Ils pensent qu’elle est difficile. (They think that it is difficult.)

Missing something or missing someone

French has two verbs that mean to miss: rater and manquer. You can use both to refer to missing something, such as a plane, a train, or the beginning of a movie for example.

Nous avons raté/manqué le train. (We’ve missed the train.)
J’ai raté / manqué le début de mon émission préférée. (I’ve missed the beginning of my favorite show.)

The verb rater is also used to express failing an exam. For example:

Il a raté son examen de chimie. (He failed his chemistry exam.)

The verb manquer with the preposition à means to miss someone; however, that someone is the subject in French, not the direct object as is the case in English. For example when the French say, Il me manque, it literally means that he is missing to me, which means I miss him.

The verb manquer can also be used with the preposition de, and in this case it means to be lacking in or to be out of as in these examples:

Nous manquons de lait. (We’re out of milk.)
Tu manques de patience. (You lack patience.)
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