Common Mistakes made in French by English Speakers

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Whether it’s out of habit or from a wrong translation, English-speaking learners of French generally seem to repeat the same mistakes. Both beginners and advanced learners alike stumble over certain areas of grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary. Here is a list of 10 common mistakes made by English speakers because once you are aware of the mistakes, it will be much easier to correct them next time!  

Let’s start with typical grammar mistakes; with its notoriously demanding set of grammar rules, this is where a lot of errors are made by Anglophones when speaking French:

  1. Etre and Avoir

Undoubtedly one of the most common errors is using être in place of avoir, normally because that is what is used in English. For example, learners often say: ‘je suis 20’ or ‘je suis faim’ to mean ‘I am 20’ or ‘I am hungry’. However, in French these phrases are actually conjugated with avoir and so they become ‘j’ai 20 ans’ and ‘j’ai faim’

  1. Possessive adjectives with body parts 

In contrast to English, French rarely uses possessive adjectives (e.g. ma/my, notre/our) when talking about body parts. A prime example of this is saying ‘I broke my leg’ in French. Many Anglophones would assume it was said ‘J’ai cassé ma jambe’, usually as a result of a direct translation from English. However, the phrase would actually be ‘Je me suis cassé(e) la jambe’. This also works for other common phrases in French: je me brosse les dents (I brush my teeth), je me rase la barbe (I shave my beard), and je me suis tordu(e) la cheville (I twisted my ankle).   

  1. Mixing prepositions

Another area of grammar that often confuses English-speaking learners is prepositions. Mistakes are often made by trying to translate the phrase from English into French.. For example, a common thing for Anglophones to say would be ‘je suis sur le bus’ to say ‘I am on the bus’ because sur appears to correspond with ‘on’. However, the correct expression would be ‘Je suis dans le bus’. Sur means specifically on top of something, so unless you are riding on the roof of the bus, you should use dans. Other common examples of this are: Elle est en Paris instead of elle est à Paris (she is in Paris) and je vais par avion instead of je vais en avion (I am going by plane). 

  1. Forgetting contractions

Just as in English, French often makes use of contractions to avoid vowel repetition. Contractions are shortened forms of words or phrases where letters are omitted, such as ‘can’t’ for ‘cannot’ in English. Learners of French often forget to do these contractions and so say things like ‘le avion’ instead of ‘l’avion’ or ‘bienque il’ and not ‘bienqu’il’. It is also important to remember the contractions made with the prepositions à and de: à + le = au, de + le = du and so on… 

  1. Genders

The use of genders is one of the biggest differences between English and French and can be the hardest thing to master. There is no real rhyme or reason for the allocation of genders to nouns and so English speakers very frequently mix them up. In addition to the genders, there are varying versions of adjectives (e.g. to indicate gender and number) in order for them to agree with the corresponding noun. For example, ‘a blue table’ would be written as ‘un table bleu’ whereas ‘blue chairs’ would be ‘des chaises bleues’

Next are a few common vocabulary errors: 

  1. Faux amis 

There are many words in French which resemble English but have completely different meanings; these are called faux amis and are often mixed up by Anglophones. Common examples of this are attendre (to wait) and attend, une journée (a day) and journey, un librairie (a bookshop) and library, and un coin (a corner) and coin as in money. Therefore, it is important that learners take note of these differences as they can often trip you up. 

  1. The verb visiter

A very common mistake is when English-speaking learners use the verb visiter when talking about going to see a friend or family member, which is not correct. Instead, learners should use the verbal phrases rendre visite à quelqu’un or aller voir to correctly say you visited someone in French.

  1. Mixing up bon and bien

The distinction between bon and bien in French regularly confuses people who are learning the language. It is useful to remember that bon is an adjective and so is used with nouns. As a result, bon also changes to agree with the noun it is describing: Il est en bonne santé. On the other hand, bien is an adverb and so goes with verbs and therefore, doesn’t change its form: Il cuisine bien

Now are some very common mistakes when English speakers try to speak or write French: 

  1. Pronunciation of silent letters and endings

French pronunciation is very tricky for English speakers as, not only are there lots of new sounds, there are also many letters which are not pronounced. A general rule to follow when speaking is that consonants at the end of words are never pronounced unless followed by a vowel; so the final ‘p’ in beaucoup is not vocalised, nor the ‘x’ in deux. This also rings true for verb endings. The regular present tense forms of the third person plural ils / elles often end in ‘-ent’ which is never pronounced, such as in these examples: ils voient, ils jouent, ils chantent. 

  1. Written French

There are also some differences between written French and English. Firstly, written French often has spaces in between punctuation marks (except commas and full stops) so a question would be written as: As-tu un stylo ? 

A second difference is that French uses fewer capital letters than in English. Days of the week, months, languages and nationalities don’t usually take capital letters, whereas proper nouns and titles do. Therefore, it would be je vais à Paris (I go to Paris) with the capital but je parle espagnol (I speak Spanish) without it. 

French can be very complicated for beginners and advanced learners alike but learning some of these rules could prove to be very useful when trying to avoid the common mistakes and sound more authentic! 

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