For most people, learning to conjugate verbs probably isn’t the most exciting part of studying a language (unless they have friends like our very own Margaux and Manon, that is). But luckily, in French as in other languages, there are a few verbs that cut you a break. These are the "impersonal verbs," and the beauty of them is that you only have to worry about conjugating them with the pronoun il (he/it). They’re called "impersonal" because they don’t refer to any specific person—il in this case just means "it."
A good number of these verbs have to do with that most impersonal of dinner party topics, the weather. Imagine this conversation between two partygoers who don’t have much to talk about:
Est-ce qu’il pleut dehors? -Non, il neige!
Is it raining outside? -No, it’s snowing!
The two forms that you see above, il pleut and il neige, are the only conjugations of pleuvoir (to rain) and neiger (to snow) that exist in the present tense. This is obviously because people can’t "rain" or "snow": you can’t say je pleux (I rain) or tu neiges (you snow). Unless you have superpowers, that is!
Some other impersonal weather expressions: il gèle (it’s freezing), il bruine (it’s drizzling), il tonne (it’s thundering), il grêle (it’s sleeting).
Next we’ll take a look at one of the most common impersonal verbs, falloir (to have to, to be necessary). In the present tense, you’ll see this as il faut:
Il faut protéger la terre
We have to protect the earth
Caption 2, Nouveaux Talents? - Adonis chantePlay Caption
Il faut deux ans pour former les pilotes d'hélicoptère de l'armée française.
It takes two years to train French Army helicopter pilots.
Caption 29, Le Journal - École de pilotagePlay Caption
As you can see, you can have "il faut + infinitive" (to have to do something) and "il faut + noun" (to need something). A bit more complicated is the phrase il faut que..., which requires the subjunctive:
Il faut que je fasse la pâte.
I have to make the batter.
Caption 16, LCM - Recette: CrêpesPlay Caption
Another impersonal verb you’ll see quite frequently is s’agir (to be about), in the expression il s’agit de...:
Il s'agit de voir où sont les abus.
It's a question of seeing where the abuses are.Play Caption
La seule prison qui se trouve dans Paris intra-muros, il s'agit de la prison de la Santé.
The only prison located within Paris itself, namely, the Santé [Health] Prison.
Captions 20-21, Voyage dans Paris - Le Treizième arrondissement de ParisPlay Caption
Note that s’agir is just the reflexive form of agir (to act), which is not an impersonal verb.
Sometimes regular old verbs can become impersonal too. Basic verbs like avoir, être, and faire can be conjugated left and right, but they can also be impersonal:
Il est minuit à Tokyo, il est cinq heures au Mali
It's midnight in Tokyo, it's five o'clock in Mali
Caption 12, Amadou et Mariam Sénégal Fast FoodPlay Caption
Il est intéressant de vivre dans un pays étranger.
It is interesting to live in a foreign country.
Il y a beaucoup de choses à faire aujourd’hui.
There are many things to do today.
Il fait froid en hiver
It is cold in the winter.
As you can see, impersonal verbs come in handy when you’re talking about the time, the weather, and the general state of things. You can learn more about them on this page.
An accent, or the lack of one, can sometimes determine the meaning of a French word.
For example, let's take ou, the common conjunction that means "or." After his extensive travel abroad, Chef Rachel Gesbert likes to use exotic ingredients when he returns to France "or" to Europe:
Et quand on revient en France,
And when we return to France,
ou en Europe... on a envie de certains produits.
or to Europe... we feel like mixing certain products.
Captions 27-28, Le Journal - Gourmet en BretagnePlay Caption
Ou bien also means "or," plain and simple. Anglophones, seeing the extra word bien, might be tempted to translate ou bien as "or even," or to add some other nuance. But in fact, ou bien is used pretty much interchangeably with ou, as we find in the report on the recent discovery of Saint-Exupéry's lost plane, near Marseilles.
Mais personne ne sait s'il s'agit d'un accident, d'un suicide,
But nobody knows whether it's a question of an accident, of a suicide,
ou bien d'un tir ennemi.
or of enemy fire.
Captions 27-28, Le Journal - Saint-ExupéryPlay Caption
However, when we draw a simple accent grave over the u in ou, we get the adverb où, which is used to indicate "where." Anne Liardet, mother of three, racing solo around the world on the "Vendée Globe," tells us:
J'suis bien, là où je suis...
I'm all right where I am...
Caption 25, Le Journal - Les navigateurs du Vendée GlobePlay Caption
In their worldwide hit "Senegal Fast Food," Amadou and Mariam, the singing-songwriting duo from Mali, ask:
Dakar, Bamako, Rio de Janeiro
Dakar, Bamako, Rio de Janeiro
Où est le problème, où est la frontière?
Where is the problem, where is the border?
Captions 25-26, Amadou et Mariam - Sénégal Fast FoodPlay Caption
Another meaning of où is "when," indicating time. Notice the way French movie star Agnès Jaoui uses it when talking about dreams and fame:
C'est bien... de rêver, mais y a un moment où
It's good... to dream, but there comes a time when
il faut juste se récupérer soi-même.
you have to go back to who you are.
Captions 32-33, Le Journal - Le rôle de sa viePlay Caption
So, there you have it: the short story of ou!
FYI: Keep in mind there are at least two other words that sound exactly the same as ou and où, but have their own unique spellings: une houe is "a hoe," like we use in the garden, and du houx is "holly," the stuff the halls are decked out with come Christmas!