French Lessons

Topics

Less Is More with "Moins"

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 plusmoins (fewer, less)—which only has one pronunciation, but no fewer meanings! 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

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 déjeuner

 Play 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.

Caption 9, Il était une fois - Les Amériques - 1. Les premiers Américains

 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 livre

 Play 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 chante

 Play 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 Noël

 Play 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.

Caption 12, Grand Lille TV - Des photos contre l'abandon des animaux

 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 hiver

 Play 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. 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

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? 

Vocabulary

Coup: A Violent but Versatile Word

You may have heard the word "coup" in English before, in phrases like "a major coup" (a successful, unexpected action), "a coup d’état" (a sudden overthrow of a government), or even "a coup de grâce" (a deathblow). In French, un coup means "a blow," "stroke," or "shot," and the construction "un coup de + noun" can give rise to a wide variety of expressions. Un coup d’état, for example, is literally "a blow of the state," and un coup de grâce is "a stroke of grace." 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

Two very common expressions with coup are un coup de poing (a punch or "strike of the fist") and un coup de pied (a kick or "strike of the foot"). But coup doesn’t always have to refer to violence! In general, "un coup de + noun" can just refer to something that happens very quickly. It’s often used in sports lingo, as Caroline uses it in her how-to video on the basics of badminton: 

 

C'est un petit coup comme ça, un petit coup de raquette.

It's a little shot like this, a little stroke with the racket.

Caption 33, Caroline - et le badminton

 Play Caption

 

And in French soccer terminology, you have un coup d’envoi, a "sending shot" (better known as a "kickoff"):

 

Une demi-heure avant le coup d'envoi.

Half an hour before kickoff.

Caption 29, Le Journal - Le football - Part 1

 Play Caption

 

Have you ever been spooked by a "clap of thunder"? That’s un coup de tonnerre in French, and as the band Château Flight points out, it can be a beautiful thing:

 

Ainsi qu'un coup d'tonnerre Dont la beauté sidère

As well as a thunderbolt Whose beauty astonishes

Captions 10-11, Château Flight featuring Bertrand Burgalat - Les antipodes

 Play Caption

 

And let's not forget the counterpart of un coup de tonnerre, un coup de foudre (a lightning strike), which can also mean "love at first sight." 

In contrast with the violent coup de poing and coup de pied, there is the much more benevolent coup de pouce or "stroke of the thumb." This is the phrase for a "helping hand" or a "push in the right direction," and it’s also the name of a French organization that held a contest to benefit abandoned pets:

 

Un concours organisé par l'Association Coup de Pouce.

A competition organized by the "Coup de Pouce" [Push in the Right Direction] Association.

Caption 15, Grand Lille TV - Des photos contre l'abandon des animaux

 Play Caption

 

Besides the construction "coup de + noun," two other expressions with coup are quite common: tout d’un coup (all of a sudden) and du coup (as a result):

 

Jai des images dans la tête et puis tout d'un coup ça devient réalité.

I have images in my head and then all of a sudden that becomes reality.

Caption 26, Melissa Mars - Ses propos

 Play Caption

 

Donc du coup on devient très créatif.

So as a result you become very creative.

Caption 16, Les Nubians - Les origines et les influences

 Play Caption

 

The list of coup expressions could fill a book, but here are some more interesting ones:

un coup d’essai – a trial run

un coup d’œil – a glance

un coup de chapeau – a pat on the back ("hat’s off")

un coup de chance – a stroke of luck

un coup de fil – a phone call

un coup de soleil – a sunburn

un coup de vent – a gust of wind

un coup de théâtre – a turn of events

un coup de cœur – a favorite, an infatuation 

un coup fourré – a dirty trick

boire un coup – to have a drink 

faire d'une pierre deux coups – to kill two birds with one stone 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

We hope you’re not experiencing un coup de barre (a sudden fatigue) and that you will be able to tenir le coup (cope) with learning so much about this little word! If you do need to unwind, why not watch a movie? We here at Yabla recommend one of the defining films of the French New Wave movement, François Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups ("The Four Hundred Blows"; the phrase faire les quatre cents coups means "to live a wild life"). 

Vocabulary

Euphony in French: On or L'on?

We've dealt with the concept of euphony before, in our lessons on the French aspirated h and on liaisons. Euphony in French is the tendency to avoid having a word that ends in a vowel before a word that begins with a vowel. It's the reason why you have l'animal instead of le animal—it just "flows" better! In this lesson, we'll look at two specific instances of euphony, before the pronoun on and before the indefinite article un/une

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

Take a look at the way on is used in this caption: 

 

Ce que l'on demande, c'est d'avoir uniquement la photo de... de l'animal.

What we're asking is to have only the photo of... of the animal.

Caption 17, Grand Lille TV - Des photos contre l'abandon des animaux

 Play Caption

 

You might be wondering what l’ is doing before on here. L’ is the contracted form of le and la (the), and on is a singular pronoun meaning "we," "they," or "one." But it doesn’t make any sense to say "the we." So what does the l’ mean here? Actually, it doesn’t really mean anything! In formal and written French, you’ll see l’on instead of on and l’un/l’une instead of un/une in certain situations for euphonic purposes.

There are two situations where l’on is preferred over on

1. After que (see the example above) and words that end in que, such as lorsque (when), puisque (since), and quoique (although). This is to avoid the contraction qu'on, which sounds the same as a rude French word that we won't mention here. 

2. After short words ending in a vowel sound, such as et (and), ou (or), (where), and si (if):

 

Si l'on fait la queue, on... on a froid.

If we wait in line, we... we're cold.

Caption 11, Fanny parle des saisons - Activités

 Play Caption

 

And there are two situations where l’un/l’une is preferred over un/une:

1. When un/une is followed by a preposition (usually de or des):

 

Voici Indira, sans doute l'un des animaux de compagnie les plus insolites qui puissent exister.

Here is Indira, undoubtedly one of the most unusual pets that could possibly exist.

Caption 3, Angers 7 - Un lama en plein appartement

 Play Caption

 

2. At the beginning of a clause:

 

L'une des icônes principales de l'église est le martyr saint Mina.

One of the church's principal icons is the martyr Saint Mina.

Caption 15, LCM - Joyeux Noël... orthodoxe!

 Play Caption

 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

As we mentioned, l’on and l’un/l’une are mainly used in formal and written French. In casual spoken French, you’ll often just see the words without the l’:

 

Ça fait longtemps qu'on attend ça, hein.

We've been waiting a long time for this, you know.

Caption 18, Alsace 20 - Rammstein à Strasbourg

 Play Caption

 

But since it’s always good to know the "proper" way of speaking, keep these rules in mind!

Grammar

Five Ways of Saying "Only"

"Only" might seem like a pretty lonely word, but there are actually several different ways of saying it in French: the adjectives seul(e) and unique, the adverb seulement and uniquement, and the verb phrase ne... que.

First let’s take a look at the words seul(e) and seulement:

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

 

Parce que le mardi, c'est le seul jour où je ne travaille pas.

Because Tuesday is the only day when I don't work.

Caption 10, Fred et Miami Catamarans - Fred et sa vie à Miami

 Play Caption

 

Aussi je vais dire seulement trois choses.

Also I am only going to say three things.

Caption 10, Le Journal - Joëlle Aubron libérée

 Play Caption

 

Seulement is the adverbial form of the adjective seul(e), which has another similar (and sadder!) meaning as well:

 

Alors je me retrouve un petit peu seul en ce moment.

So I find myself a little alone right now.

Caption 5, Hugo Bonneville - Gagner sa vie

 Play Caption

 

Some other ways of saying "alone" or "lonely" are solitaire and isolé(e).

And seulement has some additional meanings of its own. It can be used to express a regret ("if only...") and to mean "however":

Si seulement je l'avais su avant. 

If only I had known before.

Il veut venir, seulement il ne peut pas.

He wants to come, however he can't. 

Although unique and uniquement are most directly translated as "unique" and "uniquely," they can also mean "only":

 

Je suis un enfant unique.

I am an only child. 

 

Ce que l'on demande, c'est d'avoir uniquement la photo de l'animal.

What we're asking is to have only the photo of the animal.

Caption 17, Grand Lille TV - Des photos contre l'abandon des animaux

 Play Caption

 

Now let’s look at a bit more complicated way of saying "only": the verb phrase ne... que. As you might have guessed, ne... que is a negative construction, as in ne... pas (not), ne... personne (no one), and ne... rien (nothing). In these constructions, the two components go on either side of the verb:

 

Il ne mesure que soixante-dix mètres carrés,

It only measures seventy square meters,

Caption 8, Voyage dans Paris - Saint-Germain-des-Prés

 Play Caption

  

Moi je ne parlais que français.

Me, I spoke only French.

Caption 10, Annie Chartrand - Grandir bilingue

 Play Caption

 

Most of the time, ne... que can be replaced with seulement:

Il mesure seulement soixante-dix mètres carrés.

It only measures seventy square meters.

Moi, je parlais seulement français.

Me, I spoke only French. 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

Sometimes, que can mean "only" outside of the ne... que construction. For example, in an interview with Le Figaro, A-lister Ashton Kutcher laments being typecast as a jokester, declaring: "Je ne suis pas qu’un clown!" (I’m not only a clown!)

The ne in this sentence goes with pas (not), while the que stands on its own to mean "only." Ashton (or his translator) could just as well have said, Je ne suis pas seulement un clown! 

Maybe the former "Punk’d" star can shed his clownish reputation by undertaking some serious French studies at Yabla French! Since he’s known to be an avid tweeter, he might want to start by following us on Twitter @Yabla. And you should follow us too!  

Vocabulary

You May Also Like