Moins is a comparative word meaning "less" or "least" (its opposite, plus, means "more" or "most"). In this lesson, we'll focus on two common expressions with moins, au moins and du moins, both equivalent to "at least." How do we know when to use which?
If you think about it, "at least" has (at least!) three usages. It can specify the minimum amount of something ("I need at least two cups of coffee every day"), it can emphasize a positive aspect of an otherwise negative situation ("The car was totaled, but at least we're all OK"), and it can alter the connotation of a previous statement ("That restaurant is terrible. At least that's what I've heard"). In general, au moins corresponds to the first two usages, and du moins to the third.
We use au moins when referring to a minimum amount. It's often followed by a number:
On fait au moins sept ou huit groupes différents.
We have at least seven or eight different bands.
Caption 5, French Punk - FrustrationPlay Caption
Tu pourras leur parler de ce que tu voudras, pourvu que tu parles au moins deux heures.
You'll be able to talk to them about whatever you like, as long as you speak for at least two hours.Play Caption
Au moins is synonymous with au minimum in this sense:
Pour jouer à la pétanque il faut au minimum deux joueurs.
To play pétanque, you need at the minimum two players.
Caption 5, Lionel - Les nombresPlay Caption
But like "at least," au moins doesn't have to refer to a numerical minimum. It can also refer to the "bare minimum," as in the minimum you can do if you can't or don't want to do something else:
Bien entendu, il faut réapprendre ou tout au moins se remettre au niveau
Of course, it's necessary to relearn or at the very least get up to speed
Caption 24, Lionel - Le club de foot de Nancy - Part 2Play Caption
Au moins is a great expression to use when you're being optimistic or encouraging someone:
C'était pas comme t'imaginais, mais au moins tu essayes
It was not as you imagined, but at least you're trying
Captions 76-77, Watt’s In - Zaz : On Ira Interview ExcluPlay Caption
Just don't confuse it with à moins (que), which means "unless":
Ne plus couper les forêts à moins que ce soit pour faire mes jolis calendriers
No longer cut down the forests unless it's to make my pretty calendars
Captions 3-5, Nouveaux Talents? - Adonis chantePlay Caption
Du moins restricts the meaning of a previous statement. You can use it to modify or clarify what you just said:
Je suis le fou du village. Du moins, c'est ce que les gens disent.
I'm the village idiot. At least that's what people say.
Captions 68-69, Patrice Zana - L'artiste et ses inspirations - Part 2Play Caption
C'est parti pour quatre heures de réflexion. Du moins en théorie.
Time for four hours of recollection. At least in theory.
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Du moins is more or less synonymous with en tout cas (in any event, anyway): en tout cas c'est ce que les gens disent (that's what people say, in any event); en tout cas en théorie (in theory, anyway).