Learning the mechanics of a language lays an important foundation. However, only a working knowledge of idioms will help you converse fluently in your new tongue. This article outlines some basic French idioms that you might hear or speak in conversation, from slangy expressions to more formal constructions.
It’s interesting to note just how reminiscent many French idiomatic structures are to English: the difference may be in a verb, or a change in preposition, but most French expressions make sense to our English ears. For example, “Bienvenue”, when taken apart, translates almost directly as “Welcome” – “bien” being “well”, “venue” being the past tense version of “venir”, “to come”. Granted, some are bit less obvious, but there’s almost always a sort of familiar logic to the construction.
While this distinction does not exist in English, it is important to distinguish between the formal and informal version of phrases whenever possible. When talking to a stranger, use the formal. When talking to an elder, use the formal. Whenever in doubt at all, in fact, use the formal. It is very possible to insult someone by using the familiar to even someone you’ve been chatting up for a good long time. Try to use the informal only after the other person has begun using it first in a conversation.
Also, this article is specific to the French of France, and at that, Parisien. French in other countries and even within France itself can differ in some strange and startling ways. While this will serve as a good general guide to "standard" French, if you’re planning on traveling to other Francophone countries, such as Switzerland or Ivory Coast, to check out resources regarding the particulars of their French dialects.
Keep in mind that the commentary is more specifically tuned to my own Inland North American dialect of English (considered by some linguists to be the “American Standard English”) so if some of the comments seem silly, obvious or strange, it might be due to the different English dialects between reader and writer. Idiom is a tricky thing to learn!
Without further ado, French conversational idioms:
Common French Idioms In Conversation
Think of it like the English “Salutations”, except with a more informal connotation—a simple “Hi!” or “Hello!”
It sounds strange to the ear of many English speakers, but the French tend to say their “Good morning/evening/night”s when meeting someone, not necessarily just when departing each other.
Comment vas-tu? (informal), Comment allez-vous? (formal)
The French version of “How are you?”, translating literally as “How goes it?” Not all English speakers are accustomed to this change in verb for expressing wellness in a person, though it varies by region. Many of the infinite possible responses also use “aller” instead of what we’d assume, “être”, like “Je vais bien”, literally “I go well” but more like, “I’m good.”
Et toi? (informal), Et vous? (formal)
“And you?”, can be used to reflect many questions. This one gets a lot of use, especially when you’re getting to know someone.
Literally “Like this, like that”, this phrase is equivalent to our “so-so”, in response to a question like the above.
Il n’y a pas de quoi, (De) rien
Ever modest, the French version of “You’re welcome” would literally translate as “It’s nothing”. While phrases like “ça fait mon plaisir (literally “That does my pleasure”, equivalent to “It’s my pleasure”) exist, it’s more common for the French to receive a merci, no matter how deserved, with a deflection of the act.
Quoi de neuf?
Literally “What of [the] new?”, this one sounds fairly similar to the English equivalent, “What’s new?”, just without the verb.
Pas grand chose.
A possible response to the above question, literally “Not [a] big thing”. Think of it like our “Nothing much.”
Pardon, Pardonne-moi (informal), Pardonnez-moi (formal), Excuse-moi (informal), Excusez-moi (formal)
Exactly what they sound like. “Pardonner” and “excuser” can be used more or less interchangeably, though the subtle difference between them is that the former is used more to apologize for the bump in the crowd, while the latter is more for an interruption to begin a conversation.
À plus tard!
Literally, “To later!”, matching our English, “See you later!”
One of the most recognizably French phrases out there, literally translating to, “To the re-see”, or more close to the original meaning, “Until we see each other again” or “Until next time!”