If only we had only one possible translation for every word, our learning of a new language would be so much easier! But unfortunately the reality is a little different.
False friends - learn more about this topic in my previous article 12 False Friends to Know When Learning French, this shows how some words can have completely different meanings while looking similar. This time I am going to introduce you to some words that have a single meaning/use in English, but have two different meanings or variations of use in French. It is sometimes tricky to know when and how to use these different variations, so here I will list very common words, often misused, with a double meaning in French and explain in which situations you should use them.
As Emmanuel Macron, the French president, recently said “French will be the first language of Africa,... perhaps the world.”, there is no better time to improve your French!
Good: Bon or Bien?
Misusing bon and bien is maybe one of the most common mistakes that my students make and this is why.
First these two words have the exact same translation in English: good. So in English, no distinction is made, but in French there are two different contexts.
Bien and bon have a slightly different meaning and it is true that in some contexts you can use both, in others it just doesn’t sound right.
Bien can be an adverb or adjective, this means it can modify a verb, adverb or adjective.
Bon is just an adjective and it can only modify a noun.
When Should You Use the Adjectives Bon and Bien?
Bon is used to describe a taste, physical feeling, smell or level. It is to express affective, sensorial judgements and judgements about values.
Bien is used to express moral or intellectual judgements and any other cases.
Let’s see some examples!
What do you think of my drawing?
Que penses-tu de mon dessin ?
It is really good!
C’est vraiment bien !
Because you refer to an intellectual judgement, but note that you could also say "C’est vraiment bon !" if you refer to the level of the difficulty to do this drawing.
Do you like your coffee?
Est-ce que tu aimes ton café ?
Yes. It is really good and it smells good!
Oui. C’est vraiment bon et ça sent bon !
Because you are referring to the taste and smell.
Did you find a good restaurant?
As-tu trouvé un bon restaurant ?
No, I didn’t find anything good.
Non, je n’ai rien vu de bien
In the previous sentences, we use bon because it refers to the level/quality of the food in the restaurant.
Other Uses of Bien and Bon
C’est bon ! with the meaning of “ça va” or “ça marche”.
To translate: It is good or it is okay or it works
Sophie: Did you receive the letter?
As-tu reçu la lettre ?
Paul: Yes, it is good.
Oui, c’est bon
oui, c’est bien ça to confirm something.
yes, it is right
To Know: Savoir or Connaître?
Another very common English word with two distinct uses in French is the verb to know.
In English you can say: "I know him", but also "I know how to get to the city center".
In French we have two different verbs for these two situations. The first sentence becomes "je le connais", while the second one becomes "je sais comment aller au centre ville".
Knowing when to use each can be a bit tricky.
savoir refers to to know with the sense of being able to do something / to know how to do something / having acquired knowledge. In this case, savoir is followed by an infinitive verb, it can be translated by to can in some cases.
connaître is the idea of being personally familiar with something or someone, or having experienced something.
It can be translated by to hear something. Contrary to savoir, connaître can’t be followed by infinitive verbs, but only by a direct object.
Je sais jouer du piano
I know how to play the piano
Sais-tu nager ?
Do you know how to swim?
Sais-tu comment aller au centre ville ?
Do you know how to get to the city center?
Je n’ai pas vu ce film, mais je le connais
I haven’t seen this movie, but I have heard about it
Je connais ton frère
I know your brother
Je connais bien Paris
I know Paris well
In some cases you can use both: to have a piece of information and to know something by heart.
Let's see some examples!
Je connais/sais son adresse
I know his address
Je connais/sais les paroles de cette chanson par coeur
I know the lyrics of this song by heart
To Meet: Rencontrer or (se) Retrouver?
To meet is quite a confusing word when using its translation in French, as it can be translated as rencontrer or (se) retrouver according to the context.
In English, you would say “I met him at our first University class” (Je l’ai rencontré lors de notre premier cours à l'Université), but also “Can we meet at the lovely coffee shop near the library?” (Peut-on se retrouver au charmant café près de la bibliothèque ?).
In both situations, you can use to meet to express the idea of seeing someone for the first time or hanging out with someone you have already met before.
In French we distinguish these two separate situations and use a different verb when meeting someone for the first time versus meeting someone that we have already met in the past.
rencontrer expresses the idea of meeting someone for the first time. You will use it only to describe a first meeting or encounter with someone.
(se) retrouver expresses the idea of meeting someone you have already met before. If you look carefully at the spelling of retrouver, you will notice that this verb is formed by re and trouver (to find). The literal translation of retrouver would then be re-find, which is a nice little trick to remember its meaning.
Hier j’ai rencontré la femme de mon meilleur ami. Elle est très gentille
Yesterday I met the wife of my best friend. She is really kind.
Ton père et moi nous sommes rencontré lorsque nous avions 16 ans
Your father and I first met when we were 16 years old
On peut se retrouver à 16h au cinéma
We can meet at 4:00pm at the cinema
I hope these explanations will dispel any confusion or hesitation when using these French expressions. I cannot recommend enough, that you practice using them in sentences. Why not try inviting a French friend to have a coffee or a drink over a pastry while talking about the last movie that they have seen at the cinema. In the meanwhile you can follow the tips mentioned in this article 4 Tips to Improve Your Conversational French