Top common mistakes to avoid in French
Mastering French won’t happen overnight. However, you could start by identifying the top common mistakes in French to avoid. The importance of using correct grammar should not be underestimated. Indeed, it is a glue that holds a language together.
To help you out, we’ve created a list of key when learning French. Online French speakers should be confident with these as early as possible ! Your French will then be greatly improved.
Table of content :
- Three key difficulties when learning French
- Most common mistakes French students make
Three key difficulties when learning French
First, think that making mistakes is part of the fun of studying French. You should learn from them rather than be ashamed ! Let’s see together the first three difficulties for French beginners.
Être or Avoir
Firstly, être and avoir are two of the most important verbs in French. Être (to be) and avoir (to have) are used to describe things and people. They can be also used as auxiliary for compound tenses. If these can be close to English translations, there are a few common mix-ups as follows :
- J’ai 42 ans = I’m 42
In English, you use the verb ‘to be’ to express how old you are whereas in French, we use ‘to have’
- Il a chaud/froid = He’s hot/cold
To talk about the temperature, French will use ‘avoir’ instead of ‘être’ in English.
- Tu as faim/soif ? = Are you hungry/thirsty?
Again here, we say ‘to have hunger’ rather than to be hungry, so we use ‘avoir’.
- Elle a tort/raison = She’s wrong/right
And to be right or wrong is using ‘avoir’ again in French.
Remember : ‘To be + adjective’ in English often becomes ‘to have + noun’ in French.
- avoir peur = to be afraid
- avoir sommeil = to be sleepy
Mixing up genders
Then, one the most frequently asked questions in French is : is it masculine or feminine ? As you probably know, every noun in French has a gender. Unfortunately, you have to learn them to avoid French grammar mistakes. If you’ve read that French most nouns ending with an -e are feminine, just be careful as there are a lot of exceptions :
- le beurre = the butter (masculine)
- le nuage = the cloud
- l’arbre = the tree
Adjectives must also change with feminine, adding an -e or plural nouns, adding an -s. Again, we have rules..and exceptions to these rules :
- un vieux journal = an old newspaper
- un vieil homme (before an -h) = an old man
- une vieille maison = an old house
Typically, in the top 3 frequent mistakes, we find false friends in French. The list of possibilities is nearly endless such as :
- Actuellement = currently (and not actually = en fait)
- Car = because (and not a car = une voiture)
- La figure = the face (and not the figure = un chiffre)
Don’t worry as you can avoid these common French grammar mistakes. With plenty of practice, you can easily distinguish between them. By showing you high-frequency phrases during online French courses, you’ll learn exactly how the locals speak. And it’s not just about useful vocabulary !
Most common mistakes French students make
Once you feel confident with the top three errors seen previously, you may find more obstacles on your French learning way. We’ll show you now how to get around these common mistakes.
To start with, let say that French sounds can be tricky to grasp ! Pronouncing real French, with its nasal sounds, oral vowels and silent endings is challenging at the beginning. However, learning a few pronunciation rules will help you master sounds in French. You can also get tips to improve efficiently your pronunciation skills on the blog.
Let’s check the most common mistakes with French pronunciation :
- Ils mangent = they eat and Il mange = he eats are pronounced the same way
The -ent ending of the verbs at the 3rd person plural at the present tense are never be pronounced.
- La rue = the street and la roue = the wheel
Differentiating the sounds -u and -ou can seem confusing. A lot of practice will make you sound like a native French speaker.
- Accueillir = to welcome and un agneau = a lamb
Some words with triple vowels can be your worst nightmare :/
- Le riz = the rice and le sang = the blood
The basic rule of French pronunciation is that the final consonant is not pronounced. Unfortunately, there are many exceptions.
Some consonants are pronounced: -c, -r, -f, -l, -k, -q, and -b. The others should not.
Tip : You can remember the most recurrent ending consonants we prononce in French by recalling the word CaReFuL. Indeed the letters -k ,-q and -b are rare at the end of a word.
For example: un sac (a bag), de l’or (gold), un chef (a boss) et un fil (a wire).
The verbs retourner, rentrer and revenir
Many French learners love to travel or may be expatriates. Doing so, you will often need to use the verbs ‘to return’ or ‘to come back’ which in French is often a source of error. For a detailed explanation, feel free to read the article Get better with the verbs rentrer, retourner, revenir.
The time indicators for a duration
Expressing duration in French can also be a source of mistakes. We’ve already seen that dates in French have very specific rules. And despite the possible confusion, the usages of temporal expressions such as depuis, il y a, pour and pendant are also very regular. Learn these rules and you’ll be using these indicators correctly !
- Je vis à Tokyo depuis 3 ans = I’ve been living in Tokyo for 3 years
‘Depuis’ can generally be translated as ‘for’ or ‘since’ and expresses a continuity. The verbs can be in the present or the past.
- J’ai vécu au Canada pendant 5 ans = I lived in Canada for 5 years.
Here, the action is finished when we speak. It can be a limited period of time in general or in the futur. As a result, tenses are past, present and futur.
- Il fait ses devoirs en 30 minutes = He does his homework in 30 minutes
‘En’ indicates the time needed to complete an action. Again, tenses can be in the past, present or futur.
- Elle est allée au Portugal il y a 10 ans = She went to Portugal 10 years ago
We talked about a moment in the past.
- Je pars en vacances dans une semaine = I go on vacation in one week
In French ‘dans‘ is a starting point in the futur. Tenses can be present or futur.
- Je pars en vacances pour une semaine = I go on vacation for one week
‘Pour’ indicates a duration in the futur.
Visiter or rendre visite
‘Visiter’ can mean to visit like in English. However, we make a difference between visiting a place and people. Indeed, ‘visiter’ can an only be used for inanimate nouns. Let’s see with examples:
- J’aimerais visiter le Louvre = I would like to visit le Louvre
- Elle va rendre visite à ses parents ce week-end = She’s going to visit her parents this weekend
The prepositions of place
Probably one of the most confusing topics in French, the French prepositions of place can be quite complex in the beginning. A few common mistakes here are often :
- J’habite en France et je reste au Portugal = I live in France and I stay in Portugal
Prepositions of place change with the country genders, whether they are feminine (‘en’), masculine (‘au‘) or plural (‘aux‘).
- Tu viens de la boulangerie ou du supermarché ? = Are you coming from the bakery or from the supermarket ?
We use ‘de la’, ‘du’, ‘de l’, for places you are coming from.
- Elle va à vélo au travail. Il va en voiture au travail = She rides her bike to work. He drives to work.
A different preposition is used wether you are ‘on’ or ‘in’ the transport.
Tip : For in-depth understanding, a previous blog post about the French prepositions of place will certainly help you.
Connaître or savoir
Another pair of verbs that creates confusion is ‘connaître’ and ‘savoir’ meaning to know. The good news is that there is no exception here ! If you follow the rules below, you’ ll have no problem :
- Savoir + pronoms quand, que, qui, comment, où, pourquoi,…
example : Je sais quand il arrive = I know when he arrives
- Savoir + infinitive
Tu sais nager ? = Do you know how to swim
Vous savez à quelle heure ouvre le magasin ? Non, je ne sais pas = Do you know at what time the shop opens ? No, I don’t know
On the other hand for ‘connaître’ :
- Connaître + a place
Je connais un bon restaurant italien = I know a good italian restaurant
- Connaître + a person
Tu connais Veronique ? = Do you know Veronica
- and connaître + topic/subject
Elle connait bien le Chili = She knows well the Chile
Talking about the weather
Now, this is one of the first thing you may be learning in French conversation classes, after food of course ! How do you say ‘what’s the weather today?’ When you want to talk about the weather in French, you cannot do translations literally. In fact, we use the verb ‘faire‘ or ‘il y a’ as follows :
- Quel temps fait-il aujourd’hui ? = What’s the weather today ?
‘Le temps’ here is not the time but the weather.
- Il fait chaud/froid = It’s hot/cold
Again, we would use ‘faire‘ (to do).
- Il y a des nuages = It’s cloudy
In French, we say more frequently ‘il y a + nom’ (there are..’) rather than ‘c’est + adjective’.
Expressing quantities in French
In addition, expressing quantities in French is another part that usually confuses learners. When you want to talk about a quantity not specified, you will used ‘du, de la, d’ and des’ in accordance with the noun. However, when you express negative, it’s always going to be ‘de’ (or d’) as follows :
- Je veux de la confiture = I want some jam (feminine)
- But : Je ne veux pas de confiture = I don’t want jam
- Je veux des céréales = I want some cereals
- But : Je ne veux pas de céréales = I don’t want cereals
On the other hand, when you want to talk about specified quantities, you will use ‘de’. Let see a few examples :
- Un kilo de poires = A kilogramme of pears
- Une boite de biscuits = A box of green peas
- Beaucoup de fruits = A lot of fruits
Remember, we say :
- je voudrais de l’eau = I would like some water (not specified)
- je voudrais une bouteille d’eau = I would like a bottle of water (specified quantity)
Furthermore, French possessive adjectives are used in front of nouns to indicate to whom or to what those belong. They can be more complicated than in English as we conjugate them in accordance with the noun, and not the subject. Let’s check some examples :
- J’ai perdu mon téléphone = I lost my phone
- J’ai perdu ma carte de crédit = I lost my credit card
Telephone is masculine, so we use the masculine adjective whereas a credit card is feminine. Here, the subject ‘je’ can be a woman or a man.
Exception : If a feminine noun starts with a vowel, we replace ‘ma, ta, sa’ by ‘mon, ton son’.
- Mon opinion (f) and not Ma opinion
- Ton idée (f) and not Ta idée
Bien or bon, mieux or meilleur
Finally, ‘bon‘ or ‘bien‘ are often getting mixed up, as well as ‘meilleur’ and ‘mieux‘. What you have to remember is that :
- ‘bon’ is an adjective. It generally means ‘good’ and describes a positive taste or quality. It will change with the noun.
- ‘bien‘ is an adverb. It can be translated as ‘well’, ‘correctly’ and ‘right’. It is invariable.
For example :
- Anne est une bonne cuisinière = Anne is a good cook
- Elle va bien = She doing well
And ‘meilleur’ is also an adjective while ‘mieux’ is an adverb. They can both be translated as ‘better’ and have the same rule as above :
- Ses tartes sont meilleures = Her pies are better
- Elle cuisine mieux que toi = She cooks better than you
In conclusion, I hope you found this article useful. Remember that there are only ways to avoid these mistakes. The first one is to repeat and the second one to practice. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Any problem, please let me know, I am here to help you !