Common French Phrases

Rachel Hanson
Symbols of France

When you live in a French-speaking environment for a substantial period of time, you begin to notice that there are some common French phrases that come back again and again. You'll hear these whether talking to a clerk at the post office or talking to a neighbor about absolutely anything under the sun.

Not only will understanding these phrases help you get integrated into French daily life, but once you start using them in the right situations, you'll sound more and more native every day! Basic tourist French phrases are good for vacations, but integrating yourself into la francophonie (even if only for a week!) can be fun too.

Some Common French Phrases

These phrases are some of the most useful French phrases for daily life in a French society.

C'est pas grave

  • Full Form: Ce n'est pas grave; in speech, the n negation is left out, in this and just about all phrases said out loud
  • Literally translated as it's not grave (grave meaning bad), the expression means no problem or something equally casual
  • This phrase is used ALL the time in France, even in situations where, indeed, a problem has been created. The natural response is c'est pas grave. Did someone just spill red wine on a white blouse you spent hundreds of Euros for on the Champs-Élysées? The gracious response is c'est pas grave.

T'en fais pas

  • Full Form: Ne t'en fais pas; the n is dropped
  • Literally Translated: don't make yourself about it, the expression means don't bother or don't worry about it
  • This phrase is used often to reassure you that you don't need to make something into your problem. Did your colleague just ask you to switch shifts with her, but you can't come at the time she's looking for? Her response: t'en fais pas…je me débrouillerais. The latter phrase, also quite common, means I'll figure something out.

Pas mal

  • Full Form: Ce n'est pas mal
  • Literally Translated: not bad, this expression can mean something better than not bad. Whereas in English, not bad is often used as a neutral judgment of something, pas mal can mean anything from it's good to it's fantastic depending on the context
  • This phrase is often used in approval of something. When it is used to mean that something is truly awesome, it usually has a touch of appreciation to it, as if the positive outcome was unexpected. Did a complete underdog just win an étape of the Tour de France after yesterday falling off his bike and taking half of the pack with him? This is a context for sincere appreciation, both of the accomplishment and of the irony of the situation.

'Vachement (bien)'

  • Full Form: C'est vachement (bien): bien can be replaced by a slew of describing words
  • Literally Translated: Cowly good!: this is one case where a literal translation is not only inaccurate, but also quite funny; the phrase means exceptionally good or amazingly good
  • This phrase is an oft-used exclamation for some French speakers. Have you been looking for a job for months and one of your best friends just got you an interview at her company, so you'd not only be employed, but also be able to share your coffee breaks with her? Your response: c'est vachement bien!.

Frequently Incorrectly Translated Phrases

Often, when trying to translate English to French, learners create exact translations that are not equivalent to the appropriate French phrase. These common French phrases are frequently translated as something other than the correct form; the correct phrase will be understood better than the direct translation.

Moi non plus

This common phrase means me neither, but if you translate each word directly, what you get is me no longer. If you look up neither in the dictionary, you're likely to find ni…ni (used for neither…nor). Either way, a direct translation fails, but the phrase is common enough to make mastering it a necessity.

Tu me manques

This is a complicated one for those just starting out with French. Literally translated, you get you me miss, which one is tempted to turn into you miss me; however, the meaning is opposite of that. The actual meaning is I miss you. Manquer is a verb that takes what is considered in English to be the object (you) as the subject instead. Complicated at first, but with a bit of exposure it comes out right.

On sait jamais

Many phrases that use you in English use on instead in French. Instead of saying you never know, in French, you would say one never knows. In situations where you would say you never know in English, insert on sait jamais instead. There are several expressions like this, so this habit is well worth picking up!

Listen for these phrases while in France and do go ahead and use them yourself; these phrases will have you sounding native in no time!


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Common French Phrases