Spoken French – How To Use The Common Word “Rien”

1. Rien: one of the most common words in spoken French

I always keep coming back to the basic theme that to really speak French fluently, you have to  master a small number of structures and concepts that form the foundation of true speaking fluency. In that sense spoken French is much simpler than written French.Today I want to show how all this works with the short word “rien” that is ranked within the 100 most common words in French.

Many readers know that the word rien means “nothing” and is often used with ne to form the negation ne…rien, as in:

Je ne veux rien. (I want nothing. / I don’t want anything.)
Il ne comprend rien. (He understands nothing. / He doesn’t understand a thing.)
Il n’y a rien. (There’s nothing.)

I should point out that in colloquial spoken French that ne disappears completely.

This is pretty straightforward stuff so far. But let’s dig a little deeper.

1. Rien followed by an adjective

Look at the following constructions:

Rien de neuf  (nothing new)
Rien d’intéressant (nothing interesting)
Rien de bon (nothing new)

Notice here how French puts the preposition de between rien and the adjective, unlike English. This is important because English-speakers tend to omit this preposition. Let’s put this into a longer example :

Il n’y avait rien d’intéressant dans le magasin. (There was nothing of interest / nothing interesting in the store.)

2. Rien followed by à + verb infinitive

Look at the following uses:

Rien à voir (Nothing to see)
Rien à faire (Nothing to do)
Rien à acheter (Nothing to buy)

Like English, French puts the preposition à (to) between rien and the following verb. For example, you will hear a police officer at the scene of an accident say:

Circulez, circulez, il n’y a rien à voir ici. Allez, circulez. (Keep moving, keep moving, there’s nothing to see. Keep moving.)

3. Rien as a noun

You musn’t forget that (un) rien is a noun by itself  Here are some examples:

–Merci beaucoup. (Thank you very much)
–De rien (No problem / You’re welcome)

Rien n’est laissé au hasard. (Nothing is left to chance.)
On a parlé de tout et de rien. (We chatted about everything and about nothing.)
Je ne suis pour rien dans histoire. (I’m not involved in this affair.)
Il n’est bon à rien. (He’s good for nothing.)
Il ne recule devant rien. (He’s afraid of nothing.)
Ça ne rime à rien, votre histoire. (Your story doesn’t make sense.)
Il a perdu 100 kilos, rien de moins rien de plus. (He lost 100 kilos, nothing more nothing less.)

4. Now, let’s look at some very important idiomatic uses of rien in spoken French:

Elle a fait semblant de rien. (She pretended as if nothing happened.)
Elle a fait comme si de rien n’était,  (She acted as if nothing had happened.)
Mine de rien, il a mangé tout le gateau. (He ate the entire cake without being noticed.)
Je l’ai écrit en un rien de temps. (I wrote it very quickly.)
Rien ne vaut la cusine de sa maman. (There is no substitute for your mother’s cooking.)

5. The form rien que

This is an interesting construction used as follows.

Rien qu’à y penser, j’ai mal au cœur. (Just thinking about it makes me sick.)
Rien que de le voir vivant, je suis très content. (Just seeing him alive makes me happy.)
Rien que le nom me fait peur. (Just the name alone makes me scared.)
Rien que ça. (Only this.)

As you can see, there’s a lot in this little word. And that’s why it ranks so highly among the most common words in French. So, it must be a key word in your vocabulary if you want to speak French fluently and accurately.

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