At a recent meetup of people who wanted to practice their French conversation skills, I was showing a newcomer the various tables of conversation that he could join, and I said, “Voilà, vous avez l’embarras du choix.” Judging by the puzzled look on the listener’s face, I realized that he hadn’t understood that I had meant, “Take your pick.” What I had said in French was an common example of idiomatic French.
What is a French idiom?
An idiom is simply two or more words used in a manner that is not easily derived from the individual meanings of the words.
It’s important to stress here that words can be used literally. For example, in the kitchen I may say, “Il y a du pain sur la planche.” and point to the bread on the cutting board.
But if I’m in a meeting that is going to be long, and I want to say that we have a lot of work ahead of us, I could also say, “Ça va être long. Il y a du pain sur la planche.” (It’s going to be long. We have a lot to do.) In this case, “du pain sur la planche” is an idiom meaning a lot to do.
How can you tell when words are used idiomatically or literally? It’s all a matter of context. When we say, “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” most of the time we are not talking about real trees. In French, this would be, “L’argent ne tombe pas du ciel.” Notice that in French we say that money doesn’t fall from the sky.
Some idiomatic expressions may translate easily between French and English. “Prendre le taureau par les cornes” and “Take the bull by the horns” mean the same thing in both languages. So do “un éléphant blanc” and “a white elephant.”
On the other hand, the great majority of idioms do not translate easily because the word for word translation is not idiomatic in the other language. The expression, “chercher midi à quatoze heures” is rather meaningless when translated literally, “search for noon at 2 pm.” Here it actually means, “making something more complicated than it really is.”
When we think of French idioms, we tend to think of these multiple-word expressions. But idioms can be simple two-word combinations such as those made with “faire” or “avoir.” In French one says, “faire attention” or “faire jour” where in English we would say “to pay attention'” or “to be daylight.”
Using French idioms in Conversation
The hallmark of an excellent speaker of French is the use of idioms. This is usually what French-speakers mean when they say someone speaks “un français impeccable” or has “une maîtrise impeccable de la langue de Molière.”
When speaking idiomatic French, you are in a sense speaking at a second level or, as said in French, “au deuxième degré.” You are using words in a way that may be based on an image or a metaphor. Or it is simply a combination of words that has taken on a particular meaning.
Speaking of idioms, I want to stress the importance again of mastering the basics, especially the grammar. Idioms are perfect examples of how ordinary everyday words can be combined into complex expressions with completely different meanings.
For example, the word “le pied” (foot) enters in to many idioms such as “casser les pieds” (“break the feet” or “to get on somebody’s nerves”) or “mettre les pieds dans les plats” (“put your feet in the dishes” or “to make an embarrassing faux-pas.”)
There are many lists of hundreds of French idioms and expressions on the Internet and in printed form. A word of caution though. Be aware that certain idioms may be either vulgar, very literary, outdated or of regional use only. With reference to this last point, there are major differences between European and Québécois usage. Here it would be wise to look at guidebooks to Québécois expressions.
A basic rule of thumb is not to use an expression that you have not heard yourself. You may read something in a book and end up looking foolish or vulgar because you use it improperly. Only use an expression that you are comfortable with.
Use of simple two-word idiomatic expressions with faire and avoir is pretty simple. They are very common. With longer or more complicated expressions, you have to read the context and decide if this is the appropriate moment or the right timing for some great expression that sums up the situation.
Some of my favourite French idioms
Sauter du coq à l’âne
Literally: jump from the rooster to the donkey.
Idiomatically: change the subject of conversation abruptly
In a discussion or a conversation, if you want to change the subject completely, you could say something like
–Si vous permettez, je vais sauter du coq à l’âne. Avez-vous entendu la nouvelle que Julien et Sarah vont se séparer ?
–If you don’t mind, I’m changing the subject. Have you heard that Julien and Sarah are splitting up?
Poser un lapin
Literally: Put a rabbit
Idiomatically: Stand somebody up
You’re hopping mad because Sacha didn’t show up at the café where you had agreed to meet. Here is what you say to a friend:
–Tu te rends compte. J’ai poireauté au café pendant deux heures parce que monsieur Sacha m’a posé un lapin.
–Get this. I cooled my heels in the café for two hours because whathisname Sacha stood me up.
Aller droit au but
Literally: go straight to the goal
Idiomatically: get straight to the point
This is a great expression when you want to cut to the chase in a discussion. Let’s say you are being interviewed for a job (an “entretien d’embauche” in French.). You are being asked about your strong and weak points. You could say:
–Pour aller droit au but, je dirais que ma principale force est l’esprit d’équipe…
–To get straight to the point, I would say that my major strength is a sense of teamwork.
La nuit porte conseil
Literally: Night brings advice
Idiomatically: It’s good to think things over or to not rush in to something.
A friend has a major decision to make. Here is what you could say to this person.
–C’est une décision importante. Je te conseille fortement de réfléchir un peu. À ta place, j’attendrais jusqu’à demain avant de prendre une décision. Tu sais, la nuit porte conseil.
–This is an important decision. I suggest you think it over a bit. If I were you, I’d wait till tomorrow morning. Sleep on it.
These are just a few of the hundreds if not thousands of idioms in French. Remember that idiomatic French uses ordinary words in a special way. If you want to impress and even show off a bit in French, idioms are the way to go.
But, please, remember that you must get the basics down pat. You don’t want to ruin the effect of a great French idiom with some silly grammar mistake that reminds people that your French is still, well, a work in progress.
On the other hand, it’s a wonderful feeling when everything falls into place and you can show off your command of idiomatic French conversation skills with an expression that is just perfect for the occasion. People will sit up and take notice that your French is “vraiment impeccable.”
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.