Let's continue our top ten of the most commonly mistaken French words. Today, we'll try to simplify the following words:
- avant & devant
- bien & bon
- meilleur & mieux
- an & année
- neuf & nouveau
6. Avant & Devant
Avant means "before." Devant means "in front of."
Clearly, part of the problem is the physical resemblance of those two words. But there is more! If instead of saying avant alone, you say en avant de, you change the meaning of the word avant, and suddenly these three words combined mean "in front of."
So en avant de chez moi and devant chez moi both mean the same thing: in front of my home.
If you are level B1 or lower, only use the words alone: avant (meaning "before") and devant (meaning "in front of").
This should help keep your head clear, and you won't forget or confuse which small prepositional words (en & de) need to tag along with avant to make it mean "in front of."
7. Bien & Bon
Bien means "well." Bon means "good." If that is not enough to tell them apart, notice that they are two different kinds of fish altogether:
- Bien is an adverb. It usually follows a verb!
- Bon is an adjective. It usually sits between an article and a noun. Actually, in front of a noun. (Usually adjectives are placed after nouns, but not this one)!
- Il chante bien. (He sings well)
- Il mange un bon gâteau. (He eats a good cake)
Beware! If you say:
- C'est bien you mean "it's fine" or "that's good" (as in "thumbs up")
- C'est bon you either mean "it's tasty" or "alright" (as in "I give up"), depending on the context.
- Ask yourself, "Do I need to modify a verb or a noun?" (bon = noun)
- Think about the location of the word in the sentence (if it goes immediately after a verb other than être = bien)
8. Meilleur & Mieux
You must first master the difference between bien and bon in order to also understand the difference between mieux and meilleur.
In English, "better" encompasses both mieux and meilleur. To decide which one you need to use in French, you will have to do some gymnastics. Bear with me!
- If something is "well," when you compare it, it becomes mieux
- If something is "good," it becomes meilleur
If you say "he works better" for example, it's because "he works well" in the first place, right? So when you compare it with something else, il travaille bien (he works well) becomes il travaille mieux ("he works better").
If you like hockey, I might have a mnemonic trick for you: there was a great player called Mario Lemieux. Do you remember him? He played for the Penguins. Besides his great name, you could also say:
- Mario Lemieux played hockey really well! (Remember the association: mieux = well)
- Mario Lemieux jouais mieux que les autres joueurs! (he played better than the other players) verb + mieux
Ask yourself if it's "well" or "good" and remember that well becomes mieux, while good becomes meilleur.
Just like bien and bon, mieux and meilleur are also respectively adverbs and adjectives. They sit in special places. Keep your eyes peeled for the tell-tale signs.
Make many examples with bien & bon and convert them into sentences with better to commit this process to memory.
9. An & Année
An and année both mean "year." There is a theory that an means "year as a whole," and année is "the things that happened during that time." If that makes sense to you, great! For me however, it does not. I perceive both words as being identical. It's only the context that dictates which one should be used. Nevertheless, it's not too hard to tell them apart with the following rule:
- if there is a number, use ans (but ordinal numbers such as "2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc." don't count as "numbers")
- if there isn't a number, use année
This is not a perfect tip, but it should cover most of the common expressions you might want to use.
- Bonne année! (Happy new year) [no number]
- J'ai 36 ans. (I'm 36 years old) [number]
- Chaque année, je... (each year, I) [no number]
- J'enseigne le français depuis trois ans. (I've been teaching French for three years) [number]
- C'est la quatrième année de suite! (It's the fourth year in a row!) [ordinal number-not a real number]
An is masculine! Année is feminine!
- Il habite ici depuis un an. (He's been living here for one year)
- C'était une année très chargée. (It was a busy year)
10. Neuf & Nouveau
Last but not least: neuf and nouveau are tricky because in English, when something is new, you only have one word to say it. In French, we make a distinction between something newly made (neuf) and something newly acquired (nouveau).
For example, I bought a Chevrolet 2010. Therefore my new car is not new. To express this in French, I would say:
"Ma nouvelle voiture n'est pas neuve."
Nouveau (or nouvelle in the feminine form) means it was not there before.
- It just appeared out of the blue
- It is original, fresh, unusual or breaks with tradition
- It replaces something that was there before
It can apply to people, things and abstract concepts. Examples:
- un nouveau collègue
- un nouveau mari
- un nouveau restaurant
- un nouveau parfum
- une nouvelle théorie
- un nouveau projet
It's sort of the opposite of the word former
Neuf (or neuve in the feminine form) means it has not yet been used.
- It's newly made, built, or purchased
- It's untested
- It's still pristine
It applies to things and abstract concepts. Examples:
- un livre neuf
- une maison neuve
- un concept neuf
In a way, it's the opposite of "second hand."
Nouveau goes before the noun!
Neuf goes after the noun
When something is both neuf and nouveau, I find that French speakers from France prefer to stress that it's nouveau, whereas French speakers from Québec prefer to stress that it's neuf. Either way, it doesn't matter that much.
- mon nouveau stylo (my new pen - replacing my old one)
- mon stylo neuf (my new pen - unused yet)
- mon nouveau stylo neuf (my new new pen - a bit heavy!)
If you want to talk about something costing a lot of money, say neuf. Otherwise say nouveau, as most things are likely to replace an old one.
Well, I think that's a wrap! The 10 most commonly confused words of the French language have been covered as best as I can. Let's hope it helps you. But remember, as they say, Rome ne s'est pas fait en un jour (Rome was not built in one day). Best of luck now!
Don't forget to hit the "thumbs up" button before you leave!
All images by the author.