You don’t really know French until you understand and know how to use locutions.



A locution is two or more words (when used together) that form a specific, unified meaning. You already know some of them, like pomme de terre (literally 'apple of the earth', which means "potato") or tout de suite ("right now").

When talking about locutions, this sense of unity is very important.

For example, chemin de fer (literally, 'path of iron' that means "railway" or "train") is a locution, but porte du garage (garage door) is not.


This sense of unity is rather complex. It’s based on different criteria:

  • You can replace it by a simple word : chemin de fer = train
  • The grouping of words changes the meaning: une feuille dessinée (a drawn sheet) is not a bande-dessinée (drawn paper web = "comic strip")
  • And sometimes, it can be difficult to analyze the different elements: la puce à l’oreille ("the flea in the ear" which means 'paying more attention, becoming suspicious’).


Regarding the nature of the words that can replace the locution, you’ll find:

  • locution nominale (nominal expression or nominal phrase)
    • une faim de loup (hungry as a bear, starving)
    • la mise en scène (directing, staging)
  • locution verbale (verbal phrase)
    • prendre l’air (get a breath of fresh air)
    • faire semblant (pretend)
  • locution adjectivale (adjectival phrase):
    • mal luné (in a bad mood)
    • bon enfant (kind)
  • locution adverbiale (adverbial phrase)
    • à court terme
    • à demi-voix
    • la mort dans l’âme
    • la tête dans le guidon…
  • locution prépositive ou prépositionnelle (prepositive expression):
    • à l’aide de
    • par rapport à
    • vis à vis de
    • au sujet de
    • en fonction de
    • en faveur de...
  • locution conjonctive, interjective (conjunctival expression):
    • afin que
    • même si
    • sous réserve de


Most of these expressions are often used in French. You will usually hear them in everyday language, but there are tons and tons of them! Some of them have such an ancient origin that even native speakers don't know where they come from.


Distinguishing: ville lumière, Ville Lumière, et Ville des Lumières 

Now, let’s talk about a very famous expression and learn a few things about French history. Let’s compare ville lumière, Ville Lumière, and Ville des Lumières.

(I want to thank my student who get me la puce à l‘oreille by writing about Paris as la Ville des Lumières; I will try to clear up the confusion among all these terms.)


If you read ville lumière in a text, it’s a nominal expression (locution nominale) taken as a common noun, and it becomes villes lumières in plural. It literally means “city light”--a city full of light and activity. New York is a ville lumière and Tokyo, too, for example.


Then, you can find Ville Lumière or Ville-Lumière with capital letters. Notice the importance of the détail. It’s a locution too, but taken as a proper name, thus invariably it defines Paris.

There are several hypotheses about the origin of this expression. One of them comes from the eighteenth century, when the inhabitants were asked to light candles on their windows to light the streets and fight against crime. It also makes a reference to le Siècle des Lumières and to eighteenth-century philosophers.


Finally, we have la Ville des Lumières that defines Lyon.

First, this was the city of French kings in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Second, this is where the brothers Louis et Auguste Lumière invented the cinématographe, the ancestor of the camera. The first movie in history came from Lyon and was called “La sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon.”

Third, there is a local festival called Fête des Lumières which is celebrated since the ninth century, and today attracts visitors from around the whole world -- three or four million people. It happens every 8th of December, and all Lyonnais light something called Lumignon. This tradition has a strong tie to Christianity and, particularly, to the Virgin Mary.

More recently, Lyon introduced the Plan Lumière, a lighting device that simulates lights coming out of the ground -- Place des terreaux à Lyon.


I hope this article has enlightened you on the different locutions, and also on the différence between Ville Lumière and Ville des Lumières.


Further Reading:
Pourquoi "Ville des Lumières" ?


Hero Image by James Whitesmith (CC BY-ND 2.0)