French Lessons


Brought to You by the Letter C: Côté, côte et cote

You may have noticed the difference a little accent mark can make. Take the words côté, cote, and côte, for example. It’s the same four letters, but depending on the accents, both the meaning and the pronunciation can change.

Côté is a two-syllable word, while côte and cote are one-syllable words, each with its own unique pronunciation (though in some regions of France there may be little distinction in pronunciation).

In its most straightforward definition, côté means “side.”

Que je suis assis en face, et pas à tes côtés

Over the fact that I’m sitting across from you and not by your side

Caption 23, Babylon Circus: J'aurais bien voulu  

It may seem a bit odd that "by your side" is à tes côtés (plural) and not à ton côté (singular), but this is just how it's done in French.

When getting directions, you will often hear du côté droit (on the right hand side) or du côté gauche (on the left hand side). “Next to” (which, if you think about it, could be said “on the side of”) is expressed as à côté:

C'est juste à côté de la voiture.

It's right next to the car.

Côté can also be used to describe an aspect, a quality, or a “side” of something:

Je dirais les ingrédients qu'on a dans cette farce va donner ce côté savoureux et moelleux à la volaille.

I would say the ingredients in this stuffing will give the bird a savory and juicy quality.

Captions 29-30, Le Journal: Gourmet en Bretagne 

But the word côté is not only used literally. It also appears in expressions like:

D’un côté... D’un autre côté...

On one hand... On the other hand...

Côté can also be used to show someone’s opinion, their “side” on an issue, or their perspective.

De son côté, Nicolas Sarkozy annonce sa volonté de rupture avec la politique africaine de la France.

For his part, Nicolas Sarkozy announces his desire to break away from France's African policies.

Caption 14, Le Journal: Sarkozy en Afrique du Sud - Part 1

And we see the same sort of côté in the video on the marché in Rennes:

Bon, du côté de Cocotte, secret défense.

Okay, as for Cocotte, it's top secret.

Caption 12, Le Journal: Gourmet en Bretagne 

But côté is not only used to express the perspective of a person. It can also be translated as “about” or “on the subject of” or “as for.” In the following example, it’s used to distinguish between the main and secondary railway lines:

Côté grandes lignes, la SNCF a depuis longtemps pensé aux voyageurs handicapés.

As for the main lines, the SNCF has long thought of handicapped travelers.

Caption 11, Le Journal: Manifestation de paralysés 

Just in case that’s not enough to satisfy your curiosity, keep in mind the word côté’s similarly spelled (and hence easy to confuse) counterparts...

For starters, there's côte, one of the primary meanings of which is very similar-sounding to its English equivalent: “coast” (as in "the Pacific coast"). Actually, en français, the French Riviera is called the “Azure Coast.”

Venu de sa Côte d'Azur natale, il est tombé amoureux de l'île et de ses fonds marins.

Having come from his native French Riviera, he fell in love with the island and its sea depths.

Caption 7, Le Journal: L'île de Pâques 

Côte can also mean “rib,” as in côte d’Adam or côte d’agneau (what we call a “lamb chop”).

And last but not least, the second video in the series on Sarkozy’s trip to South Africa gives us an example of an entirely different kind of cote, which means “stock.” This can be in the literal sense (stock market) or refer to the general worth/esteem of something or someone, as below. 

Alors que sa cote continue de chuter, Nicolas Sarkozy tente un quitte ou double vis-à-vis de l'opinion

As his stock continues to tumble, Nicolas Sarkozy tries to double down on opinion

Captions 18-19, Le Journal: Sarkozy en Afrique du Sud - Part 2

There’s also a related verb, coter, which means to rate, quote, or list the price of something.

Cette voiture est cotée à 10.000$ dans le journal.

This car is listed at $10,000 in the newspaper.

Whether you’re talking economics, opinions, proximity, food, or geography, you’ll be better equipped knowing the nuances and differences of these similarly spelled words!

Continue Reading

La Traducteure: Feminization of Professions in French

You've no doubt noticed the difference in accent between the French and the Québécois. But have you noticed that the vocabulary, and even the grammar, is different? There are a lot of words that are unique to Québécois French—for example, the word blonde in the band name Ma blonde est une chanteuse (see the video of the same name) means "girlfriend"—the French would say copine or, more informally, nana.

These linguistic distinctions are simple enough, but sometimes there's something even trickier at play.

Annie Chartrand says that she spoke good enough English as a kid to act as la traducteure (the translator) for her mom or dad:

Ça m'a permis beaucoup de voyager et d'être parfois même la traducteure pour mon père ou ma mère lorsqu'on on partait en vacances dans le sud.

It's allowed me to travel a lot and to sometimes even be the translator for my dad or my mom when we went on vacation in the south.

Captions 18-20, Annie Chartrand: Grandir bilingue 

But if we look in the dictionary, the "correct" feminine form of the masculine traducteur is traductrice—and this in fact is the form you will find used both in Quebec and in France. So where would Annie have gotten this other form (which, as far as we know, is not in common use anywhere)?

Annie's use of the phrase la traducteure is probably related to the fact that Quebec, historically, has been in the vanguard of the movement to feminize professional titles in the French language. In fact, the period Annie is talking about in the video was not long after the election of the progressive Parti Québécois in the provincial election of 1976. What does this have to do with anything? To make a long story short, a lot of women were elected to positions of power that used to be held by men, and they wanted feminine titles in cases where traditional French lacked them. They petitioned the Office de la langue française, Quebec's authority on all things linguistic, and got official approval. Specifically, the OLF decreed that feminine titles (in those cases where none previously existed) could be created by "spontaneously creating a feminine form that respects French morphology." Thereafter, the Québécois got in the habit of feminizing titles when appropriate.

Ingénieur (engineer), for example, had no feminine form, so, respecting French morphology, we get une ingénieure. Or we get une professeure from un professeur (professor) as well as une auteure from un auteur (author).

And this, we speculate, is why Annie came up with la traducteure. Even though traducteur already has a traditional feminine form in traductrice, Annie applied the logic behind the many "modern" feminizations that she grew up with to produce this novel alternative.

Examples of other modern feminizations of professions which traditionally had no feminine counterpart include these:

Un député/une députée (deputy)

Un chirurgien/une chirurgienne  (surgeon)

Un praticien/une praticienne (medical practitioner)

Un pilote/une pilote (pilot)

Un juge/une juge (judge)

Un guitariste/une guitariste (guitarist)

Though the tradition-bound French have been slow to keep up with the progressive Québécois in this aspect of the language, the term la ministre is now common in French politics. The French generally agree that the issue is all very confusing, and they sometimes aren't even sure how to feminize a title. A good rule of thumb: say it in Québécois!

Continue Reading


It's easy to get lost in the French language, let alone for things to get lost in translation. So many French words have multiple meanings, and often the meanings are surprisingly disparate. That makes context particularly important in the understanding of French. But what if the context itself seems to support multiple meanings? The solution is to redouble your efforts and discern the logic of the utterance as well as you can. The French appreciate the subtleties of language—and you have to pay close attention to properly parse them

The verb relever is a good example. It's made up of the verb lever (to raise) and the prefix re- (again). As a reflexive verb, se relever means to get back up (e.g., after you've fallen); as a transitive verb, relever means to stand something back up after it's fallen over (e.g., a lamp). It can also mean simply "to raise" something, including prices. (Ils ont relevé leurs prix: "They have raised their prices.") So we might easily be tempted to believe that the following, spoken by a France 2 reporter, is about a strange mission to raise the prices of food at a local supermarket:

Objectif de la matinée: relever les prix dans un magasin Carrefour.

The morning's goal is to note the prices at a Carrefour store.

Captions 5-6, Contrôle des prix alimentaires – Part 3 

The news crew, however, is not setting out to jack up the price of butter and baguettes. As you can see from the translation we have chosen, relever has other meanings, one of which is "to note" or "to survey." The morning's goal is to take note of the prices found at a Carrefour (one of the world's largest supermarket chains), not to raise them. How do we know the meaning here is "to note" rather than "to raise"? It's hard to say, but we have to apply logic and common sense—good old French rationality. It simply wouldn't make sense for the French Minister of Finance to march into a store and raise prices.

We find the verb used again in the line that follows:

Yaourt nature par seize, deux cinquante-cinq, relevé à deux quatre-vingt-cinq.

Plain yogurt sixteen-pack, two fifty-five, noted at two eighty-five.

Captions 6-7, Le Journal: Contrôle des prix alimentaires – Part 3

The speaker is using a bit of verbal shorthand. The price for a sixteen pack of plain yogurt is found to be 2.55 euros today, but it had been "noted" (relevé) in the past at a higher rate, 2.85 euros. This story is a little bit complicated: it turns out that prices on supermarket shelves were found to be considerably lower than those reported in a study of online (delivery service) supermarket prices by the French consumer magazine Soixante Millions de Consommateurs (Sixty Million Consumers).

Donc, ça signifie que les prix en grande surface sont moins élevés que ce qui a été relevé par "Soixante Millions de Consommateurs".

So that means prices in big supermarkets are lower than what was recorded by "Soixante Millions de Consommateurs."

Captions 8-9, Le Journal: Contrôle des prix alimentaires – Part 3

Once again, relever is used to indicate that information was "noted" or "recorded." A generic term for things that are recorded, in the context of an investigation such as the one conducted by the consumer magazine, is "findings." The French word for "findings" is relevés (the noun form of relever), and we find it used a few lines later in the same news report:

Et ses relevés, au moment de passer en caisse, sont l'occasion de répéter le même message...

And her findings, as she goes through checkout, provide the occasion to repeat the same message...

Captions 13-14, Le Journal: Contrôle des prix alimentaires – Part 3

If you've ever had a French bank account, you're familiar with a relevé de comptes. Here, relevé means "record." Literally, then, a relevé de comptes is a "record of accounts," better known to English speakers as a "statement."

So what have we noted today? Qu'est-ce qu'on a relevé? Certainly, you should now be familiar with some of the meanings of this intriguing word. (There's another interesting discussion of it here.) Perhaps you've also learned—or been reminded—to fully consider context before jumping to conclusions about the meaning of a word. Context, properly discerned with good common sense, is the trusty guide that can keep you from getting lost in French.

We provided you with a few things to take note of today, n'est-ce pas?

Continue Reading

Prendre pour acquis - Taking for granted

You can tell from his soulful singing that Corneille is a sweet and sensitive man—but there is one thing we just can’t take for granted: knowing how to express that we are taking something for granted! First, take a look at what Corneille croons:

Et si je prends pour acquis mes chances / Fais-moi peur que plus jamais j’y pense

And if I take my luck for granted / Scare me so that I don't think of it ever again 

Captions 26-27, Corneille: Comme un fils

Corneille says that he doesn’t want to take his chances (his luck) for granted. The infinitive of this verb phrase is prendre pour acquis. As you may have guessed, it literally translates as “to take for acquired,” but what it really means is “to take for granted.” This phrase is popular in French Canada, where Corneille eventually settled after leaving Africa.

Now, if you are a real stickler for grammar, you are probably thinking that, because chances is feminine in gender and plural in number, Corneille should have made the adjective agree, using acquises instead of the masculine and singular acquis. However, in actual practice, French Canadians often don’t make the acquis in prendre pour acquis agree with the noun to which it refers, though some make the argument that they should.

Tenir pour acquis is the more traditional way to express the same sentiment, and is considered more “correct” (if not more popular). In France, both prendre pour acquis and tenir pour acquis are understood, but sound a bit formal and old-fashioned. The French prefer the phrase considérer comme acquis for use in common, everyday speech.

Ne considère pas mon amour comme acquis, ou tu risquerais de me voir partir

Don't take my love for granted, or one day you may find me gone.

So far we have been talking about “to take for granted” in the sense of under-appreciating your blessings. That’s all well and good, but what if you want to talk about “taking something for granted” in its alternate sense, that of “taking something as a given,” or “taking something as self-evident”? Similar to English, prendre pour acquis serves double duty, and can be used to express this meaning of “to take for granted” as well. Once again, this usage is more commonly heard in Canada, while a contemporary French person is more likely to just say that he or she is “sure” of the thing.

J’ai pris pour acquis que le facteur viendrait tous les jours, mais je me suis trompé. [Canada] 

J’étais sûr que le facteur viendrait tous les jours, mais je me suis trompé. [France]

I took for granted that the mailman would come daily, but I was wrong.

Nous prenons pour acquis que le prix de l’essence va augmenter. [Canada]

Nous sommes sûrs que le prix de l’essence va augmenter. [France]

We take for granted that the price of gas will go up.

Allant de soi (literally, “going from itself”) means being “obvious” or “a given.” When we place considérer comme before it, we get considérer comme allant de soi, which literally means “to consider as obvious” or “to consider as a given." This can often be best translated as “to take as self-evident” and is frequently used in scholarly writing.

La plupart des gens acceptent comme allant de soi que chaque ville-région n’ait qu’un seul gouvernement municipal.

Most people seem to regard it as self-evident that every city-region needs a single municipal government.

[from “Globalization Does Not Need Amalgamation” in Policy Options (Nov. 1999), a bilingual Canadian journal of public policy]

A related phrase that means “it's a given” is ça va de soi (literally, "it goes from itself"). This phrase, which is widely used in both France and Canada, is usually translated using the common English phrase “it goes without saying.” There is a more “proper” and formal version, cela va de soi, which is more often used in writing and less in casual conversation.

Sommes-nous heureux avec les résultats de l’élection? Ça va de soi! [Casual]

Sommes-nous heureux avec les résultats de l’élection? Cela va de soi! [Formal]

Are we happy with the election results? It goes without saying!

It is not at all unusual to hear a sentence begin with Ça va de soi que… as we see in the example below, but once again, we find there is a more formal version. Il va de soi que… is considered more “proper” and is therefore the construction you are more likely to see in written texts.

Ça va de soi que les Américains fondent beaucoup d’espoir sur leur nouveau président. [Less formal]

Il va de soi que les Américains fondent beaucoup d’espoir sur leur nouveau président. [More formal]

It goes without saying that Americans are hopeful about their new president.

There are many other ways and variations of expressing both meanings of “to take for granted” in French. If you’d like to learn a few more, read this interesting discussion.

Continue Reading