French Lessons


The X Factor

This lesson is brought to you by the letter x, an exaspérante (exasperating) letter that can morph into several different sounds. How do you extract a meaningful rule out of this unruly letter? Are you ready to explorer (explore) this exciting letter x? Fear not, the French pronunciation of the letter x is similar to English, at least at first glance. However, there are some notable differences that we will explore.


You may have noticed that some of the cognates mentioned in the previous paragraph share the same x sound in French and in English. Here is an example using the word explorer (to explore):


Il faut les explorer, les décrire, en faire une carte et en découvrir d'autres.

We have to explore them, describe them, map them, and discover some more.

Caption 12, Il était une fois: les Explorateurs 10. Amerigo Vespucci - Part 3

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Here is another example, with exacte (exact):


Du coup, c'est très compliqué d'avoir la date exacte.

As a result, it's very complicated to get the exact date.

Caption 37, Lionel Le musée de Jeanne d'Arc - Part 2

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In a few instances, an x at the end of a French word will render the same x sound as in English. The video below refers to l’Académie des Lynx, named after the wild animal le lynx (lynx), renowned for its sharp eyesight: 


Le prince Federico Cesi, fondateur de l'Académie des Lynx

Prince Federico Cesi, the founder of the Academy of the Lynxes

Caption 33, Il était une fois: Les découvreurs 9. Galilée - Part 7

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Likewise, words ending in -ex are usually pronounced as in English:


C'est-à-dire, vous faites un barré avec votre index

That is, you do a barre with your index finger

Caption 10, Leçons de guitare Leçon 3

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But words ending in -ex or -nx are not that common in French and tend to be of foreign origin. Instead, typical x endings come in the following combinations: -oux, -aux, -eaux, and -eux, which all call for a silent x. (We’ll explore exceptions further on.)


In the video below, the speaker, a British server, has never heard of a silent x… She tries to entice Sam and the gang with some “gâtox," which has everyone flummoxed. Fortunately, Sam saves the day and explains that she meant to say gâteaux (cakes), with a silent x. Listen carefully to learn how NOT to say gâteaux:


"Gâtox"... Je crois qu'elle veut dire "gâteaux".

"Gâtox"... I think she means "cakes."

Caption 45, Extr@ Ep. 11 - Les vacances - Part 6

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Here is an example with the correct pronunciation of nouveaux ("new," plural):


Les nouveaux livres qu'on a reçus.

The new books that we've received.

Caption 14, Gaëlle Librairie "Livres in Room"

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Since the x is silent, gâteaux and nouveaux are pronounced the same as singular gâteau (cake) and nouveau (new). But listen carefully to this sentence with the same word, nouveaux (new). Why does the x now sound like a z?


Afin de développer de nouveaux outils de pilotage...

In order to develop new steering tools...

Caption 10, Canal 32 Le futur de l’éolien se joue dans l'Aube

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This is not a mistake. The speaker formed what we call in French une liaison by joining two words together—the first one ending with a consonant, nouveaux, and the following one starting with a vowel, outils (tools)—rendering a z sound: nouveaux-Z-outils. (Notice how the speaker runs the two words together without pausing to make them sound like one word.) You will find more information on liaisons in the lesson Liaisons, Numerous and Dangerous.


So, look out for nouns (sometimes adjectives) starting with a vowel. It is a signal that you should sound the x like a z! Here's another example:


Les vieux époux ont décidé de mener leur vie

The old couple decided to lead their lives

Caption 4, Le Jour où tout a basculé Mes grands-parents sont infidèles - Part 9

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And here's one with a very short word, the determiner aux ("to the," plural):


Nemours a un passé particulièrement intéressant et très intimement lié aux États-Unis pour deux raisons.

Nemours has a past that is particularly interesting and very closely linked to the United States for two reasons.

Captions 5-6, Voyage en France Nemours - Part 2

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So we have: les vieux-Z-époux and aux-Z-États-Unis. 


In short, when a word ends in x, the x is usually silent unless there is a liaison. If you are still unsure, don’t worry. Many liaisons are optional, and French people don’t apply the liaison rule to the letter, so to speak. Just remember, though, that in some situations, liaisons are de rigueur. The examples given above are very common and always call for a "liaiZon."


On the flip side, when a French word begins with x, it does not sound like a z, as it would in English. Instead, it's pronounced more like the x in exemple (example):


D'un symbole d'unité française, ce drapeau a été utilisé parfois comme symbole de xénophobie.

Once a symbol of French unity, this flag has sometimes been used as a xenophobic symbol.

Caption 41, Le saviez-vous? Histoire du drapeau français

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Stay tuned for another X-rated lesson on the numbers deux, dix, et six (two, ten, and six) and find out what is special about them. Thank you for reading!


One Word, Two Genders

You may know that all French nouns are either masculine or feminine, but did you know that some nouns can be both? A word like après-midi (afternoon), for example, can be either masculine or feminine depending on the speaker's preference:


Vous deux, là, qu'est-ce que vous allez faire de beau cet après-midi?

You two, here, what are you going to do that's exciting this afternoon?

Caption 57, Actus Quartier - Fête de quartier Python-Duvernois - Part 1

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On passe une super après-midi.

You spend a great afternoon.

Caption 90, LCM - Rétine argentique, le paradis des photographes

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Un après-midi (masculine) and une après-midi (feminine) both mean "an afternoon." But usually, when a word's gender changes, its meaning changes too. Take the word mode, for example. La mode (feminine) means "fashion," but le mode (masculine) means "mode" or "(grammatical) mood":


Le milieu de la mode est aussi touché hein, forcément.

The world of fashion is also affected, you know, necessarily.

Caption 36, Cap 24 Paris - Alessandro fait les Puces! - Part 1

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Le temps présent fait partie du mode indicatif.

The present tense is part of the indicative mood.

Caption 10, Le saviez-vous? - Le mode indicatif, c'est quoi?

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Like mode, a lot of dual-gender words end in -e. Another common one is poste. When masculine, it means "post" as in "position" or "job" (among other things), and when feminine, it means "post" as in "post office" or "mail":


J'ai trouvé mon premier poste de libraire

I found my first bookseller position

Caption 3, Gaëlle - Librairie "Livres in Room"

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Si je venais à gagner, vous m'enverrez mon chèque par la poste.

If I were to win, you'll send me my check in the mail.

Caption 27, Patricia - Pas de crédit dans le monde des clones - Part 2

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You'll most often find the word livre in its masculine form, meaning "book." When feminine, it means "pound," as in the unit of weight and currency:


L'extérieur d'un livre s'appelle la couverture.

The outside of a book is called the cover.

Caption 4, Manon et Clémentine - Vocabulaire du livre

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Une livre équivaut à environ quatre cent cinquante-quatre grammes. 
One pound is equal to around four hundred fifty-four grams. 


Voile has related meanings in both its masculine and feminine forms. Both refer to things made of fabric—a veil (un voile) and a sail (une voile): 


Un niqab, c'est donc un voile intégral qui ne laisse, euh, voir que les yeux.

So a niqab is a full-length veil that only, uh, shows the eyes.

Caption 10, Cap Caen Normandie TV - Danse - Héla Fattoumi se dévoile

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Il a une seule voile.

It has a single sail.

Caption 11, Fred et Miami Catamarans - Les Bateaux

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This video takes you on a tour (un tour) of Paris, making a requisite stop at the Eiffel Tower (la Tour Eiffel):


La Tour Eiffel, qui est le symbole de la France.

The Eiffel Tower, which is the symbol of France.

Caption 20, Paris Tour - Visite guidée de Paris

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Gender can be tricky in French, doubly so when you're dealing with words that can be both masculine and feminine. Remembering them is just a matter of practice. You can find a comprehensive list of dual-gender words on this page.

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