Age in French: Basic Rules for a Tricky Topic (With Audio)
The idea of age seems simple and straightforward to most of us. But in French, it can be pretty complicated. Both socially and grammatically, discussing age in French can get quite tricky.
That’s why I’m giving you this handy guide to navigate talking about age in French.
- How to Ask About Age in French
- How to Express Age in French
- Talking About Age in the Past
- Words for Describing Age in French
- Words for People at Different Life Stages in French
- Should You Ask Someone’s Age in French?
How to Ask About Age in French
There are two major rules to keep in mind when asking about age ( âge ) in French:
Use avoir (to have)
The most important thing to remember is that the French use the verb avoir to express age.
As you probably remember, avoir is the French verb “to have.”
This means that when you ask someone’s age, you’re literally asking, “What age do you have?”
This can be difficult to remember for English speakers, who use the verb “to be” when expressing age. (“How old are you?”)
The first step to getting this right is memorizing the irregular conjugations of avoir:
Now that you have your verb, let’s look at how to put it into question form.
Another important grammatical point to remember is that the French language often uses inversion to ask questions. This means that the sentence is inverted so that the verb is before the subject.
So if you want to ask someone’s age, you’d phrase the question like this:
Quel âge as-tu ? — How old are you? (Using the informal tu form)
Quel âge avez-vous ? — How old are you? (Using the formal vous form)
Notice how the verb (in this case, as or avez) comes before the subject tu or vous.
If you’re asking about someone else’s age in the third person, the same rules apply, with one special caveat. You have to insert a “t” in between the form of avoir and the subject pronoun.
Why? Because in French, words must flow effortlessly together. It’d just be awkward to pause in between the two vowel sounds.
The correct way to phrase a question like this is:
Quel âge a-t-elle ? — How old is she?
Quel âge a-t-il ? — How old is he?
If you’re asking about a group, a question in the third person would look like this:
Quel âge ont-ils ? — How old are they? (for an all-male or mixed group)
Quel âge ont-elles ? — How old are they? (for an all-female group)
And finally, you can ask about age in the first person. These questions aren’t commonly heard, but they’re still good to know:
Quel âge ai-je ? — How old am I?
Quel âge avons-nous ? — How old are we?
However, the French are by no means rigid when it comes to sentence structure.
In casual conversation, you’ll often hear questions phrased like sentences, with the subject first.
For example, you might hear a French speaker say, “ Tu as quel âge ? ” or “ Vous avez quel âge ? ”
How to Express Age in French
Now that you know how to ask someone’s age, here are a few pointers on how to tell someone your age, or someone else’s.
Once again, keep in mind that the French use forms of avoir (to have) whenever they’re expressing age.
Let’s say that you want to tell someone you’re 29 years old (like a friend of mine has done for the last six years).
Literally, the construction of the sentence translates as, “I have 29 years.” So, in French, you’d say:
J’ai vingt-neuf ans. — I’m 29 years old.
(Check out this article if you need a refresher on French numbers.)
To talk about anyone else’s age, use the same construction, just substitute the correct pronoun and conjugation of avoir. For example:
Il a vingt-neuf ans. — He’s 29 years old.
Elles ont vingt-neuf ans. — They (female) are 29 years old.
This brings us to another rule…
Use ans (years)
It’s very important never to leave off the word ans (years). While in English it’s perfectly acceptable to drop the addition of “years old” and just say “I’m 29,” this simply doesn’t work grammatically in French.
Without the word ans, you’re simply saying “I have 29.” But, 29 what? Pets? Social media followers? Pairs of shoes?
By adding ans, you make it clear that you’re talking about age.
Careful, though: Don’t get ans mixed up with the other word for “years,” années.
This word for years is commonly used to reference a particular period of time (as in les années quatre-vingt — the 1980s, my favorite decade). It isn’t used for age.
Talking About Age in the Past
Perhaps you’re not one of those lucky people who get to remain permanently immortalized at their favorite age.
In this case, you may want to mention what age you were when something happened.
Because this falls under the category of description, you should use the imperfect form of avoir to express an age from the past.
Simply start with your imperfect stem, av-, and go ahead and add the appropriate imperfect ending. To add more detail, add a clause beginning with the word quand (when).
J’avais douze ans quand… — I was twelve years old when…
Mon frère avait cinq ans quand… — My brother was five years old when…
Words for Describing Age in French
Of course, there are many other words and phrases that can be used to describe a person if you don’t know their exact age in years.
Helpfully, adjectives which describe age always go before the noun they describe, just like in English.
une jeune fille — a young girl
Remember that if you’re talking about a plural noun, you need to use the plural form of the adjective as well:
les jeunes filles — the young girls
Note that with adjectives, unlike with ages, we use the verb être (to be) rather than avoir (to have), just like in English:
Nous sommes jeunes — We are young
Vieux / Vieil / Vieille (old)
The French word for “old” can be a bit trickier to use. It can be offensive when speaking of people (keep reading for some more polite alternatives), and it’s also an example of an irregular adjective.
You can use the masculine vieux to describe a man, and the feminine vieille to describe a woman. However, with masculine nouns that begin with a vowel sound, like homme (man), you’ll have to change vieux to vieil.
une vieille dame — an old woman
un vieil homme — an old man
un vieux monsieur — an old man
Another tricky rule: in the plural form, vieux doesn’t change at all:
les vieilles dames — the old women
les vieux hommes — the old men
D’âge moyen (middle-aged)
What about someone who’s neither old nor young?
The French don’t have a precise translation for the word “middle-aged.” However, you can add the phrase d’âge moyen (of medium age) if you want to convey the same idea.
un homme d’âge moyen — a middle-aged man
Pas très jeune (not very young) / d’un certain âge (of a certain age)
These are both polite ways to say someone is older without calling them “old” in a pejorative sense.
Il n’est pas très jeune, mais il est fort ! — He’s not very young, but he is strong!
D’un certain âge is most often applied to women, though it can describe someone of any gender, and it implies a level of maturity and wisdom.
Elle est une femme d’un certain âge. — She’s a woman of a certain age.
Jeune d’esprit (young at heart)
This description translates literally to “young of spirit,” but you can use it the way you would use the English “young at heart.” It may apply to someone of any age (like that friend of mine who is definitely 29), but it’s also a nice way to avoid saying someone is old.
Plus âgé (older) and moins âgé (younger)
These two phrases are handy for making comparisons about age.
They use the adjective âgé (aged), plus the comparative words plus (more) or moins (less.) Remember that as with all adjectives, âgé has to change to accord with its noun.
Here are some examples:
Je suis plus âgée que ma soeur. — I’m older than my sister. (If the speaker is a woman)
Elle est la moins âgée de la classe. — She’s the youngest in the class.
We can’t talk about age without talking about birthdays!
The French word for “birthday” is anniversaire. It’s true, this really is the word for “anniversary,” but it makes sense. After all, a birthday is nothing more than the anniversary of the day you were born.
(In case you’re wondering, a wedding anniversary is called “un anniversaire de mariage.”)
So to tell someone when your birthday is, you’d simply say, “Mon anniversaire est le…” and end with the date. (Remember to express the date with the number first, then the month.)
For example, let’s say your birthday is July 14. You would say: “Mon anniversaire est le quatorze juillet.”
Grandir (to grow up)
Refers to growing up in age, and also growing in size. At a child’s birthday, an aunt or uncle might sigh:
“Ah, les enfants. Ils grandissent vite !” — Ah, children. They grow up so fast!
Vieillir (to grow old/older)
Again, you probably shouldn’t tell someone they’re looking older to their face. Nonetheless, if a friend asks you how your father is holding up, you might reply:
Il a beaucoup vieilli. — He’s aged a lot.
Words for People at Different Life Stages in French
As in English, French has words for different life stages and for the people in them.
L’enfance (childhood) and la jeunesse (youth)
un nouveau-né — a newborn
un bébé — a baby
un enfant / une enfant — a child (under 3 years)
une fille — a girl
un garçon — a boy
un adolescent / une adolescente — a teenager
un ado / une ado — a teen
un jeune homme — a young man
une jeune fille — a young woman
L’âge adulte (adulthood)
un adulte / une adulte — an adult
un homme — a man
une femme — a woman
La vieillesse (old age)
une personne âgée — an elderly person
un sénior — a senior
un ancien / une ancienne — an elderly person (very old-fashioned)
un vieux / une vieille — an old person (pejorative)
Should You Ask Someone’s Age in French?
Now that you know how to ask someone’s age in French, you might be wondering… should you ask at all?
As we know, many people are sensitive about the topic of age, and French people are no exception to this.
To avoid offending anyone, it’s best to not ask anyone their age unless you know them very well or are in a situation where you need to know.
It’s considered especially rude to ask this question of a woman if you’re a man.
However, if you have a comfortable relationship with someone and the subject comes up, you can ask as long as you use the correct version of “you.”
Whether you’re approaching the question of aging with fearless honesty or you intend to remain 39 years old forever, these little vocabulary tips should get you well on your way to having a meaningful conversation about age in French.