Commonly Confused Words in French

Each language is different. We may be used to ours and not question words or expressions we use every day, but when someone who studies it tells us something doesn’t make sense or asks us why we say certain things, we start thinking about it and maybe we don’t have the answer. We just say it like that. Everybody does. But it doesn’t make sense, right? Well, French is no exception.

The French language is full of words and expressions that confuse us and may not make sense in English or other languages. Well, today we will take a look at some commonly confused words in French. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but rather a list of some of the most common words non-native speakers have a hard time with. Let’s get started, shall we?

Au vs Chez

Some words in French change their spelling when combined. Such is the case of au. Au is the combination of à + le. We use it before masculine singular nouns. Remember all nouns in French have a gender, that is, they’re either masculine or feminine.

Examples:

au magasin (to the store)

au supermarché (to the supermarket)

Based on this logic, we could say “au médecin ” (to the doctor’s), right? Wrong! We go chez le médecin, not au médecin .

French learners commonly confuse au and chez. Look at the following examples:

au salon/chez le coiffeur (to the salon / to the hairdresser’s)

au boulangerie/chez le boulanger (to the bakery / to the baker’s)

So, when do we use which? It’s simple. When we mention a person, we use chez. For the rest, we use au or its variations.

Matin vs Matinée, Jour vs Journée, Soir vs Soirée, An vs Année

All these pairs are confusing. I don’t blame you. When do we use which? Why do both have a masculine and feminine form? They all have something in common. Look at the examples below:

Je vais à l’école le matin. I go to school in the morning.

J’etudié toute la matinée. I studied the entire morning.

Le vendredi est mon jour préféré. Friday is my favorite day.

Le musée est ouvert pendant la journée. The museum is open during the day.

Ce soir j’irai chez mon ami. Tonight I’m going to my friend’s.

Je me suis ennuyé toute la soirée. I was bored the whole evening.

J’habite en France depuis 5 ans. I have lived in France for 5 years.

J’ai habité à Paris pendant ma première année. I lived in Paris during my first year.

Did you notice any patterns? No? The key to telling them apart has to do with two concepts: time unit and duration. Look at the examples above again. We use the masculine forms to talk about general time units, but when we want to emphasize the duration of something, we use the feminine forms. It’s tricky, so all we can do is practice.

Emmener vs Emporter vs Ammener vs Apporter

These two pairs of verbs are tricky, too. Emmener and emporter mean “to take”, while ammener and apporter mean “to bring”. Examples:

J’emmène mon fils à l’école tous les jours. I take my son to school every day.

J’ai emporté un cadeau pour mon cousin. I brought a present for my cousin.

Mon frère a amené sa petite amie à la fête. My brother brought his girlfriend to the party.

Tu vas apporter les sodas demain? Are you going to bring the sodas tomorrow?

Did you notice the difference? If not, I’ll explain. We use emmener/ammener with people, animals, and vehicles. On the other hand, we use emporter/apporter with inanimate objects. In practice, though, these verb pairs are used interchangeably, but you will get the hang of it the more you speak with natives.

Rentrer vs Retourner vs Revenir

This is one of my favorites. I still make mistakes using them now and then.  Look at the following examples:

Je suis rentré chez moi il y a 2 heures. I came back/returned home 2 hours ago.

Je voudrais retourner en Espagne un jour. I would like to return to Spain one day.

Je reviens tout de suite. I’ll be/come right back.

Wait a minute! Are they all the same? No! The problem is they don’t have exact equivalences in English. They can all be translated as “return”, but they can’t be used interchangeably. You will have to learn how to use them properly.

Now, the verb rentrer is pretty straightforward. We only use it to imply that we’re coming back to our place of residence such as our home or hometown.

So, how do we tell retourner and revenir apart? We use retourner to talk about a place we were in and we would like to go back to. Imagine you visited Spain last year, and you’re talking about how much you’d like to go back. Which verb would you use? Retourner, right? Right!

On the other hand, we use revenir to imply we left/will leave but will come back. Imagine you are at a party talking to someone, and then you need to go to the bathroom. In this case, you would use revenir to let the other person know you’ll come back.

Entendre vs Écouter

French learners tend to confuse these two verbs, but there is a subtle difference. Entendre means “to hear”, while écouter means “to listen to”. It’s just like English in this case. We use entendre to imply we hear or are aware of some sound close to us, and we use écouter to imply we listen to something or someone.  Écouter is deeper as it requires our full attention. Examples:

J’écoute de la musique classique. I listen to classical music.

As-tu entendu ce bruit? Did you hear that noise?

Écoute moi! Listen to me!

Je ne t’entends pas. I don’t hear you.

Entendre vs Comprendre

These verbs can be tricky for some learners, especially native Spanish and Portuguese speakers. For instance, in Spanish, we could confuse entendre (hear) with entender (understand), but they’re false cognates. To mean we understand something/someone, we use the verb comprendre instead.

This shouldn’t surprise us since French shares Latin roots with other languages like Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. There are more cognates I could mention here, but I will do it in a future post.

Conclusion

As we saw today, there are many commonly confused words in French. Each language has its peculiarities, and French is no exception.

We tend to confuse some words because we translate them literally or we try to use them like we would in our native languages. Remember all languages are different, and that means there will always be exceptions.

Some languages share similarities due to their Latin origin, but we have to pay close attention to avoid making mistakes when using certain words.

I hope you enjoyed today’s lesson. As always, feel free to leave your questions and comments in the section below, and I will get back to you as soon as possible. Au revoir, les amis!

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4 thoughts on “Commonly Confused Words in French”

  1. I love learning languages. I am currently working on Spanish, but have looked at french as well. After learning Spanish for about I year and then looking at French I realized that there are a whole lot of similarities between French and Spanish. I did not realize until reading your post that both French and Spanish have Latin roots. I guess I always just assumed French had its roots in the Germanic languages. 

    Reply
    • Hi, AL,

      To be honest, I don’t recommend you study Spanish and French at the same time. You will get confused. It’s better you study one until you reach fluency and then move on to the next.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Reply
  2. Hi AL, thanks for such an interesting, in-depth post. I am fascinated by languages, but do not feel skilled in anything but English. Is French a Romance language? Does knowing Latin help you learn French? I have several friends who know many languages. Some as many as 5 languages. Those people usually live in Europe. I never had a good opportunity to learn language in school. I have heard that those who are musical are good at learning languages.

    Reply
    • Hi, Carolyn,

      Yes, French is derived from Latin. Knowing Latin will certainly help, but I don’t recommend studying more than one Romance language at the same time.

      And yes, those in the arts have to learn languages. I have a friend who studied opera, and she had to learn Italian and French to sing some arias.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Reply

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