There are some words that every French learner seems to confuse all the time. They include verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. As they say, "If only I had a penny every time someone confused one of these words!"
Here are the words in question, paired because of similar meaning or sound.
- connaître & savoir
- attendre, entendre & écouter
- dire & parler
- regarder & voir
- pleurer & pleuvoir
- avant et devant
- bien & bon
- meilleur & mieux
- an & année
- neuf & nouveau
Let's see if I can shed some light on the first five word pairs today! (Stay tuned for Part 2.)
I will try to make it as simple as possible (which is likely to make you nod and say, "Yeah, easy-peasy,") but beware: it's not easy at all. People make these mistakes every day--sometimes several times in the same conversation. It's that hard.
By the way, if you often mix up words, you can say:
Je confonds toujours ces mots, from the verb confondre (as tempting as it might be, “confuser” is not a word)!
1.Savoir Connaître & (to know)
Both verbs mean "to know," but savoir is about hard facts:
- things you learned (ex: Je sais que le chocolat n'est pas bon pour la santé.)
- how to do things (ex: Je sais jouer du piano, je sais parler anglais.)
On the other hand, connaître is about things you are familiar/intimate with. So it's slightly emotional and more limited. Usually it is about:
- places (ex: restaurants, towns, countries)
This is not an exhaustive list, but just the most common occurrences.
If you want to say "I didn't know that!", use savoir in the imparfait.
Je ne savais pas ça!
- connaître is usually followed by an article and a noun
- savoir is often followed by a verb or the words où (where), comment (how), que (that), or ce que (what)
- you cannot say je connais que, that's a grammatical no-no.
Let's see some examples with a short dialogue.
- Je connais un restaurant intéressant! (I know an interesting restaurant) connaître + article + noun (a place)
- Je sais où est ce restaurant! (I know where the restaurant is) savoir + où (where)
- Je sais comment m'y rendre. (I know how to get there) savoir + comment (how)
- Je sais ce que tu vas commander! (I know what you are going to order) savoir + ce que (what)
- Tu me connais si bien! (You know me so well) connaître + a person
Once I had a student who very much struggled with these concepts. One day, I came up with a simple idea that helped the student see the light. I said, “Put a hand on your brain when you say je sais because it means cold facts. Put a hand on your heart when say je connais because you talk about people and places you are fond of.” If you are in the same pickle, try this trick.
2. Attendre, Entendre & Écouter
Entendre means "to hear." Écouter means "to listen." Attendre means "to wait."
The problem with attendre and entendre is their similarity in sound. Entendre is a little hard for learners, so be sure to pronounce it well. It needs to be done with the same French [en] sound twice, both having the same length and the same emphasis. You need to pay special attention to the first syllable. If you understand real phonetics, that's [ɑ̃tɑ̃dʀ] for you. If you don't, then don't get distracted by the ɑ̃ symbol. There is no "A" sound in the word.
Think of entendre as something that your ears do independently of your will. It's about raw sounds. It's one of the seven senses.
Écouter, on the other hand, requires a conscious effort to transform sounds into something meaningful. It's also often fun to do (but not always, like listening in class. Yawn).
The confusion comes from the fact that, just like in English, when you listen to something, you are also hearing it.
We often use:
- entendre when talking about noises, rumors and news
- écouter with music, dialogues and lectures
On a side note, a lot of people in Québec also use écouter when talking about TV, which is considered grammatically wrong in France. In my defense, I'd like to point out that when when watching a film, one both looks and listens. I digress, but this quirk of the language makes me realize that the French speaking majority is probably more visual than auditory.
When you are talking to someone over the phone or on Skype, you are likely to have to say,
Est-ce que tu m'entends? (Can you hear me?).
- You can't say J'écoute mal. It's j'entends mal if the sound or the connection is bad.
- You can't say J'ai écouté que... if you have heard a juicy story.
- You can say J'ai entendu dire que… (I heard someone say…)
Can you tell the difference between the following sentences?
J'écoute les oiseaux chanter.
J'entends les oiseaux chanter.
In the first case, one enjoys the bird songs. In the second case, one only notices it in the background.
3. Dire & Parler
Dire is about one person saying something. It means "to tell" or "to say." Parler, on the other hand, involves at least two people actively interacting together. It means "to talk."
The confusion comes from the fact that in a normal conversation, two people talk, but technically, they both also say things in turn.
Notice the grammatical differences:
- Je dis quelque chose à quelqu'un. (I say something to someone)
- Je parle de quelque chose avec quelqu'un. (I talk about something with someone)
When talking about rumors, you can say either of the following:
- J'ai entendu dire que… (I heard someone say...)
- As-tu entendu parler de…? (Have you heard about...?)
You can't say il a parlé que, it's il a dit que.
4. Regarder & Voir
If someone shouts "Look!" one can answer, "I'm watching!" or "I can't see anything." Did you notice that this is three different verbs to talk about the same activity? Unfortunately the same problem also occurs in French.
Voir means “to see."
- Voir is one of the seven senses. It happens without our consent. It doesn't involve brain activity and it's usually brief.
- You can also use voir to say "to meet up" with someone
- It also means "to be in a relationship with someone"
- Je ne vois rien sans lunettes. (I can't see a thing without glasses)
- Mario voit un psychologue depuis deux ans. (Mario has been seeing a psychologist for two years)
- Est-ce que tu vois quelqu'un en ce moment? (Are you in a relationship right now?)
- Nous irons voir grand-maman demain. (We're going to see grandmother tomorrow)
Regarder means “to watch.” Regarder is something deliberate that requires focus.
- Je regarde un film. (I'm watching a film)
- Regarde par la fenêtre! (Look through the window!)
I don't want to go into too much detail because I could write a whole article on this alone, but the verb "to look" is a can of worms in French. It's usually translated as regarder, but not in every situation. Additionally, if you want to say "this looks good," we use neither voir nor regarder to translate it! The easiest thing to do in this case is to rephrase it altogether. You can use phrases such as "that's pretty," "it suits you," or "that seems nice," and then translate that into French.
Beware! When someone says "Look!", if you answer
- Je regarde, it means "I'm looking"
- Je vois, it means "I see" (as in "I get it!")
There is one flippant thing that I noticed about voir and regarder:
If you want to say "I'm watching a film" in the present tense, it has to be, je regarde un film.
But if you want to say it in the past tense, you can say either of the following:
J'ai regardé un film (I watched a film) or j'ai vu un film (I saw a film).
5. Pleurer & Pleuvoir
The last verbs I want to tackle today are "to cry" and "to rain." Both are wet and both start with the same four letters, so confusion is bound to happen. One thing that doesn't help is the fact that pleuvoir is a verb of the third group, which makes its conjugation difficult and unpredictable for learners.
If someone cries, the verb is pleurer.
- il pleure (he cries)
- il a pleuré (he cried in passé composé)
- il pleurait (he cried in imparfait).
If it rains, the verb is pleuvoir.
- il pleut (it's raining)
- il a plu (it rained in passé composé)
- il pleuvait (it rained in imparfait)
- la pluie, pronounced [plu-ee], means "the rain"
There is no "R" in the French "rain"! That is, unless you are conjugating it in the future tense or conditional tense.
Part 2 to follow next week! Stay tuned!
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All images created by the author.