If you study French, you probably know the verb tenir. It means “to hold” in the very concrete sense of grasping something.

Je vous conseille de bien tenir votre sac.

I advise you to tightly hold your purse.

Le couteau se tient dans la main droite.

 The knife should be held in the right hand.

From this basic meaning, many interesting uses can be derived. You will undoubtedly hear them in everyday speech as they are very common. Expanding on the various usages of one word is a quick way to improve your vocabulary.

1. Tenir à (emotional bond)

Tenir à means “to love,” or “to be fond of.” It conveys the idea of an emotional bond with subtle nuances. Tenir à can express the idea that one would suffer if one was to be separated from a loved person or thing.

A girl might have to break up with her boyfriend but would suffer from the parting. She would say:

Je tiens à lui, je ne veux pas le perdre.

I am fond of him, I don't want to lose him.

It applies to things, as well.

 Sophie tient à cette montre, que lui a donnée son grand-père.

Sophie is fond of this watch that her grandfather gave her.

The bond may be one of genuine concern. The closest translation would then be “to matter to.” Beware the word order: Je tiens à toi becomes “You matter to me.”

The girl insists that her boyfriend quits drugs. They argue:

Pourquoi ne te mêles-tu pas de tes affaires?

Parce que je tiens à toi.

Why don't you mind your own business?

 Because you matter to me.

Combined with events or ideas, tenir à implies a strong motivation.

Je tiens à te dire que ta présentation était époustouflante.

I need to tell you that your presentation was mind-blowing.

Pourquoi étudie-t-il au lieu d’aller à la plage avec ses amis?

Parce qu’il tient vraiment à réussir ses examens.

Why does he study instead of going to the beach with his friends?

Because he really wants to pass his exams.

In these instances, tenir extends its primary meaning of “to hold.” The girl's feelings tie her to her boyfriend. Sophie is likewise linked to the watch that embodies her relationship to her grandfather. The student of the last example cannot just renounce his goal; he is tied to his desire for success.

2. Tenir à (causal relationship)

In some settings, tenir à points to a causal relationship. “To be due to” or “to result from” both adequately render this meaning.

En hiver, les gens sont de mauvaise humeur. Cela tient au manque de lumière.

In winter, people are bad tempered. It is due to the lack of light.

Le bonheur tient à peu de choses.

Happiness results from few things.

3. Tenir de (inheritance)

Tenir de indicates inheritance, in a concrete or abstract way.

Sophie tient cette montre de son grand-père.

Sophie was given this watch by her grandfather.

Cet enfant aime la mécanique!

Il tient cela de sa mère.

This child likes mechanics!

He got that from his mother.

This is a very common phrase, sometimes used partly as a joke. If somebody points out your child's stubbornness, you may reply that he or she got that from your spouse (implying that your spouse is stubborn as well).

In the previous dialogue, the child's traits are seen as inherited from one parent. The mother's passion for mechanics reached the son through education and example.

4. Tenir de (source)

Tenir de also links a piece of information to its source. You could then render je le tiens de by “I was told by.”

L’un des personnages principaux va mourir dans la prochaine saison de cette série? Tu en es sûr?

Sûr et certain. Je le tiens de l’un des acteurs.

One of the main characters is going to die in the next season of this series? Are you sure?

Absolutely sure. I was told by one of the actors.

5. Tenir en

If you know tenir (to hold), you probably have met contenir (to contain). Contenir literally means “to hold with(in).” We won't focus on contenir today, but it helps to remember that some usages of tenir arise from the semantic field of contenir.

Tenir en translates as “to consist of.” You use it to wrap something up.

Mon programme tient en trois mots: emploi pour tous.

My platform consists of three words: employment for all.

La conclusion de ce livre tient en une phrase: il faut réindustrialiser la France.

The conclusion of this book consists of one sentence: France must be industrialized again.

6. Tenir sur

Tenir sur means “to fit on.” It's a close parent of tenir en, but the spatial relationship between container and contained is slightly different.

Certains scientifiques pensent que les lois de l’univers tiennent sur une page.

Some scientists think that the laws of the universe fit on one page.

Do you see the connection to contenir? A single page could contain (hold) the laws of the universe. In the penultimate example, one sentence encapsulated the book's conclusion. This sentence contained, summarized, the book's message.

7. Tenir debout

You probably know tenir debout. It means “to stand.” In a figurative way, it applies to a reasoning. Enjoy the metaphor: a reasoning that doesn't stand collapses. You'll often hear it in a negative way: cela ne tient pas debout means “it doesn't make sense.”

Si Mme. Lewis détestait M. Morrison, pourquoi l’a-t-elle protégé? Cela ne tient pas debout.

If Mrs. Lewis hated Mr. Morrison, why did she protect him? It doesn't make sense.

8. Se tenir

Se tenir is a variation on tenir debout. It bears the same concrete meaning.

Le policier se tenait au milieu de la place.

The policeman was standing in the middle of the square.

In an abstract way, it yields the same figurative content as tenir debout does. When you say cela se tient, you acknowledge you've been presented with a valid reasoning.

Si M. Morrison était riche, il n’avait aucune raison de tuer la duchesse.

Cela se tient.

If Mr. Morrison was wealthy, he had no reason to kill the duchess.

This is a valid reasoning.

You sometimes will hear cela tient la route, which has the same meaning.

9. Tenir bon

Tenir bon refers to one's capacity to resist obstacles over time. It goes along with endurance. It's a common way to encourage somebody.

Au secours, je me noie!

Tenez bon, j’arrive!

Help, I'm drowning!

Have courage, I'm coming!

10. Tenir le coup

Tenir le coup is pretty close to tenir bon. In both cases, it is about a burden or a task that requires endurance. The correct translation depends on the context.

Ce tournage est trop long. Je ne tiendrai pas le coup.

 Tiens bon! Cela vaut la peine.

This shooting is too long. I won't be able to bear it until the end.

Courage! It's worthwhile.

11. Être tenu

Être tenu means “to have to.” When a contract binds you, you are “held” by your responsibility. In English, the phrase “to be held accountable” stems from a similar metaphor.

Le locataire est tenu de rendre le bien en bon état.

The tenant has to return the property in good condition.

12. Tiens as an exclamation

In a casual conversation, you may hear a native starting a sentence with tiens (possibly repeated). It expresses a slight surprise or curiosity. As an interjection, it never varies: you don't conjugate it.

Tiens, le premier ministre a rasé sa barbe.

Look, the prime minister had his beard shaved.

Tiens, tiens, mon arthrite se réveille.

Well, well, my arthritis awakens.

Tiens, qui voilà?

Look who we've got here!

The last example is a rhetorical question. As the translation suggests, it is not a real question. The speaker knows who is there, but expresses a slight surprise or curiosity at this encounter.

You won't miss anything if you don't respond to this exclamation, but your French will sound more natural if you do. Besides, it buys some time to think of your next sentence.

13. Tenir en place

Tenir en place means “to keep quiet” — which you obviously wouldn't if you were anticipating some great news or big event, or maybe if you were a little child.

Cet enfant est nerveux; il ne tient pas en place!

This child is nervous; he doesn't keep quiet!

Je suis impatiente d’assister à ce concert; je ne tiens pas en place!

I am looking forward to this concert; I cannot keep quiet.

14. Tenir l’alcool

Tenir l’alcool could translate as “to have the capacity to drink alcohol without losing one's temper or cognitive abilities” — a useful quality indeed if you go out with French friends on New Year's Eve.

Tu as déjà bu trois verres de vin!

Pas de problème, je tiens bien l’alcool.

You've already drank three glasses of wine!

No problem, I can hold my alcohol well.


If you didn't work out the tenses and structures of all the above examples, don't worry. For now, just savour the wide applications in everyday life of the verb tenir. This jewel of a word started from a concrete meaning, manifesting actual gestures—to grasp something in one's hands. You hold a cup, a weapon, or a tool.

The language has retained the blueprint of an asymmetrical relationship. Tenir links a source to a receiver, a container to a contained, a lover to the object of love, or a person to their responsibility. The Western view of agency shines through this word.

Hero image by Nagendra Rai (Indian Institute of Toxicology Research), via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-4.0)