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.
Captions 4-5, Le Journal - Le bacPlay Caption
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).
In our last lesson, we talked about the word plus (more) and how its different pronunciations affect its meaning. Now let’s take a look at the opposite of plus—moins (fewer, less)—which only has one pronunciation, but no fewer meanings!
Like plus, moins is an adverb of comparison, and can modify both adjectives and nouns. When it modifies an adjective, it’s usually followed by que to form the comparative phrase “less than.” In his video on French breakfast customs, Éric observes that cereal is less popular in France than it is in English-speaking countries:
Et puis les céréales, mais c'est moins commun que chez vous, qu'aux États-Unis, qu'en Angleterre.
And then cereal, but that's less common than where you come from, than in the United States, than in England.
Captions 37-38, Arles - Le petit déjeunerPlay Caption
When modifying a noun, moins is usually followed by de:
Il y a moins de bêtes à chasser.
There are fewer animals to hunt.Play Caption
You can even make moins a noun by putting le in front of it, in which case it means “the least”:
C’est le moins que je puisse faire.
That’s the least that I can do.
When you put an adjective after le moins, the adjective becomes superlative:
C'est le livre le moins cher et presque tous les éditeurs ont une collection de poche.
This is the cheapest book, and almost all publishers have a paperback collection.
Caption 36, Manon et Clémentine - Vocabulaire du livrePlay Caption
Moins is also the basis for several common expressions. There’s the phrase à moins que (unless), which Adonis uses when singing about what he believes is the only acceptable reason for cutting down trees:
À moins que ce soit pour faire Mes jolis calendriers
Unless it's to make My pretty calendars
Captions 4-5, Nouveaux Talents? - Adonis chantePlay Caption
Try not to confuse à moins que with au moins, which means “at least”:
Tout le monde connaît le Père Noël, tout le monde lui a écrit au moins une fois...
Everybody knows Santa Claus, everybody's written him at least once...
Caption 3, Télé Miroir - Adresse postale du Père NoëlPlay Caption
Finally, there’s de moins en moins (“fewer and fewer” or “less and less”):
Ça peut aider aussi à sauver les animaux, à ce qu'ils soient de moins en moins abandonnés.
That can also help save animals so that fewer and fewer are abandoned.Play Caption
Since moins is a quantitative word like plus, it makes sense that it can be used with numbers as well. You’ll hear it the most often as a number modifier in expressions involving temperature, time, and basic arithmetic:
Et voilà, me voilà parée pour, sortir par, moins zéro, moins quinze degrés.
And there we have it, here I am dressed to go out in below zero, negative fifteen degrees.
Caption 14, Fanny parle des saisons - S'habiller en hiverPlay Caption
Il est dix heures moins le quart.
It’s a quarter to ten.
Deux plus cinq moins trois égale quatre.
Two plus five minus three equals four.
We hope you are plus ou moins satisfait(e) (more or less satisfied) with our presentation of plus and moins! And for any math whizzes out there, here’s an informative article on French math vocabulary beyond addition and subtraction. Why not try learning (or relearning) geometry in French?
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.