Skeleton Key: 9 Common French Expressions That’ll Open Doors for You
When you’re a beginner in French, it’s often like you’re standing in front of a locked gate with a big bunch of keys.
You know one of the keys will open the gate, but you’re not sure which one.
The keys here are the abundance of expressions French has that add a rich layer of sophistication to speech.
The gates are the exact situations in which you should be employing these phrases.
Understanding which keys will unlock which gates may require deeper cultural and historical context.
Which is all well and good for native speakers or even well-studied French literature majors, mais bien sûr, c’est pas le cas de tout le monde (but certainly, that’s not everyone’s case)!
But don’t fret! For the rest of us, there are still many common and, most importantly, easy-to-remember expressions available for day-to-day conversations with francophones!
Memorizing common, versatile expressions that will work in a variety of situations and have the same contextual use in your native language will make your life easier.
How Exactly Common French Expressions Can Make Your Life Easier
Well, first, you don’t have to memorize overly complicated words or worse, go searching for them in your head. And let’s admit it, French can get a bit “fluffy” at times.
Secondly, you will know the exact situations and contexts in which you should insert the expressions.
These two factors automatically lessen the weight and pressure on your brain because you only have to remember a few words and not memorize the specific contexts where they are or are not used. Plus, considering that French and English share a ton of vocabulary, sometimes you’ll use essentially the same words!
You may be thinking, “But won’t that overly-anglicize the language for me?” In the case of French and English, not quite. These two language groups have had a deep cultural and linguistic interaction from their origins to modern day. They’re quite close “language friends.”
This means that lucky you doesn’t have to péter un câble (get all worked up) about learning some basic expressions. And you should learn some, for the following reasons:
- Linguistic growth. Expressions make you grow and expand with the language, no matter what your level! They introduce new words and vocabulary in addition to providing ready-made sentences that are easy to pop into your daily chit-chat.
- To get to the heart of the matter: Expressions get to the root or heart of the language and sometimes even expose us to the mentalities of their speakers.
- Color: Expressions add color and spice to our oral language. They’re meant to be inserted into certain contexts to clear up a misunderstanding, be witty, quickly relay information or even offer descriptions of people, events and objects!
To keep on top of authentic French expressions and continue making your life easier, consider learning French the fun way with FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Whether using FluentU or another learning method, remember that expressions are quick or witty comments created to add color or messages to conversations, so they are a must!
So open your cahiers (notebooks) and grab your stylos (pens). Here are 9 easy French expressions you can start using right away!
Skeleton Key: 9 Common French Expressions That’ll Open Doors for You
1. C’est comme ça la vie
Translation: That’s the way life is. / That’s the way life goes.
Context: Accepting life situations and events as they come.
Parfois c’est comme ça la vie.
(Sometimes life is like that.)
Ça va, c’est comme ça la vie.
(It’s okay, that’s the way life goes sometimes!)
Note: You may also hear the variation la vie c’est comme ça.
The expression c’est comme ça la vie is perhaps one of the top three French expressions that has made its way into foreign languages, including English. But guess what? It is still completely valid and widely used in French!
Maybe you already use this expression in English. Well, just turn on your francophone accent and start using it in French. Otherwise, here you have a very common expression that has a direct translation from English to French. Win-win, mon ami (my friend)!
Listen to Parisian rapper Stomy Bugsy’s catchy tune “La vie c’est comme ça” to really get the hang of things!
2. La crème de la crème
Translation: Cream of the crop / The best / VIPs
Context: Used to describe the “best” objects and people or highly-skilled people.
Il est la crème de la crème de sa classe !
(He’s the cream of the crop of his class!)
Ces gens-là sont la crème de la crème.
(These people here are VIPs/the cream of the crop.)
Here’s another simple French expression that has made its way into the English language. It’s possible you’ve heard it many times and maybe it’s already part of your English vocabulary, so switch on your francophone accent and trade language caps!
It’s a really practical expression and super easy to remember for two reasons: Firstly, in both French and English the word crème (cream) is used to indicate “top” (the best). And secondly, when you think of cream, it’s quite delicious (cream-filled donuts, anyone?), so naturally this refers to the best of the best!
This expression was used in a recent French movie title. Check out a review here to see it used in written French!
3. Pas du tout !
Translation: Not at all / No way!
Context: Expressing complete disagreement with someone or an action.
Je ne veux pas aller au cinéma aujourd’hui, pas du tout !
(I don’t want to go to the cinema today, no way!)
Est-ce que tu aimes le jambon?
(Do you like ham?)
Non, pas du tout !
(No, not at all!)
The main trick for remembering this expression is connecting the word pas with negation and tout with “everything.” This expression uses beginner vocabulary, so it won’t be too difficult to conjure up on the spot!
Check out this cute animated sing-along to get some practice with pas du tout.
4. C’est dommage !
Translation: What a pity/shame!
Context: Expressing your sympathy for an event, person or situation.
C’est dommage que tu ne *viennes pas.
(It’s a shame you can’t make it/you’re not coming.)
Je n’ai pas vu ce film, c’est dommage !
(I haven’t seen that film, what a shame!)
This expression is super easy to remember because the word dommage sounds an awful lot like the English word “damage.” When we think of “damage,” our minds automatically make connections with words such as “shame,” “pity” or “bad”!
*Grammar note: Make sure to use the subjunctive when the verb comes after this expression in a sentence.
Check out the heartbreaking French classic “C’est dommage” by Mireille Mathieu to get a real feel for this expression.
5. Quoi de neuf ?
Translation: What’s new?/What’s up?
Context: Asking for updates or recent news about someone’s life.
Bonjour Amélie, quoi de neuf ?
(Hello Amelie, what’s new?)
J’espère que tu vas bien, quoi de neuf dans ta vie ?
(I hope you’re well, what’s new in life?)
This is another direct translation from English to French and there is really no trick to remembering it. However, make sure not to mistake the word neuf (new) with the number neuf (nine), because they are spelt and pronounced exactly the same. So pay attention to context, which should be quite straightforward. No one will ever ask you, “What’s up, nine?”
6. À plus tard !
Translation: See you later!
Context: Saying goodbye to someone while knowing that you will see them in the very near future.
On se rejoint ce soir, à plus tard !
(We’ll meet up tonight, see you later!)
À plus tard, mon ami !
(See you later, buddy!)
This is a friendly goodbye expression, but make sure to use it strictly when you will see the person the same day or perhaps the day after. If, for example, you’re visiting a francophone friend in his or her country and you are leaving, stick to au revoir.
Also, à plus is now more common in everyday language, so you don’t need the tard.
As a side note, in text messages and informal written language, you can write à plus as A+. An A+ for your excellent language use!
Check out “À plus tard crocodile” by the great French band Louise Attaque. The whole album is worth a listen!
7. Un moment, s’il te plaît / s’il vous plaît
Translation: One moment, please.
Context: Telling someone to hold on before assisting or responding to them.
Je suis occupée. Un moment, s’il te plaît.
(I’m busy. Just a moment, please.)
Pourriez-vous attendre juste un moment, s’il vous plaît ?
(Could you hold on just a moment, please?)
No remembering tool for this one. However, you may hear the variant of juste un instant, s’il vous plaît. Both mean the same thing.
8. Ce n’est pas grave ! / *C’est pas grave !
Translation: It’s no big deal! / It’s fine!
Context: Telling someone that everything is fine, or trying to calm a situation down. *The proper written form of this expression is ce n’est pas grave, however, c’est pas grave will be the version used in conversational speech.
Ne t’en fais pas, c’est pas grave.
(Don’t worry, it’s no big deal.)
Bien sûr, c’est pas grave !
(Sure, that’s fine!)
Similar to number 4 with dommage and “damage,” this handy expression lets English speakers connect the French word grave with the English equivalent “grave,” i.e., a grave/serious situation. With the negation pas in front, we can logically deduce that this means “not grave” or no big deal! Hey, no biggie here!
Check out the pronunciation in this quick video.
9. Pas de problème ! (France) / *Pas problème ! (Quebec)
Translation: No problem! Alright!
Context: Expressing that a situation is fine or poses no problem for you.
Est-ce que tu peux me ramener chez moi ?
(Can you give me a ride home?)
Mais oui, pas de problème !
(Sure, no problem!)
Pouvez-vous changer de place ?
(Do you mind switching spots?)
Oui, *pas problème !
(Sure, no problem!)
As you can see in the examples above, this expression is used as a response to a specific question.
*An important note on usage: This expression has two variations, pas de problème, which can be employed in France or any francophone country, for that matter. The second shortened version, pas problème, is exclusively used by French Canadians in the province of Quebec.
This expression is a perfect example of a phrase that’s very close to its English equivalent, making things a bit easier for you, mais oui (indeed)!
So there you’ve got it, 9 practical French expressions with easy English equivalents used in both informal and formal settings all around the francophone world!
Jot them down and you’ll see how quickly they start slipping into your French talk.
They’re just that easy to remember, vraiment (really)!