Have you ever tried to put together a puzzle with no picture?
Vocabulary words and grammar rules are a bit like puzzle piece shapes.
You might be able to put them together…
But without any colors or patterns, it is really hard to figure out which pieces are likely to go together.
French collocations will help you see the picture on your puzzle.
Collocations are simply words that tend to go together—a classic example in English is “make a difference.”
Even if you could swap in a word and still technically be correct, like “create a difference,” it would sound pretty strange to a native speaker.
So as you can guess, knowing common collocations in French will make your communication smoother and more authentic.
We will introduce you to several types and examples of French collocations, providing many sample sentences along the way.
Why Do I Need to Know About Collocations?
Like close friends, collocations are words that often stick together.
Sometimes these combinations differ from how we would express the same thought in English, which is why literal translation does not work with them.
A rookie mistake I made in junior high French will illustrate this.
In class, I said, “j’écoute à la musique.” Although this appears to be a literal translation of “I listen to music,” it is not correct and would sound awkward at best to a French speaker.
That is because the verb écouter means “to listen to” and takes no preposition in this context. The correct sentence, as my French teacher explained, is simply j’écoute la musique.
In other cases, as you will see, a preposition will be required in French when it is not necessary in English.
This is just one example where knowing which French words go together will help you avoid sounding unnatural or even incorrect in French.
French Collocation Dictionaries to Bookmark
We will cover some of the most useful and common French collocations in this article, but we certainly cannot cover all the collocations that exist in the French language.
Thus, a collocation dictionary is a helpful reference to construct natural sounding French sentences when practicing, studying or writing French.
The Canadian government offers this especially helpful online dictionary to find adjectives that tend to accompany specific French nouns. For instance, if we type in une pièce (a play), a few words that appear include à grand succès (to great success), comique (comical) and profonde (deep).
Another—albeit less direct—way to research collocations is with a good, regular dictionary.
“Larousse” is a French dictionary that usually has example sentences in each entry. Some entries even have an “expressions” tab.
While not explicitly a collocations tool, “Larousse” can help you figure out the appropriate preposition to accompany a particular verb and familiarize yourself with contextual uses of a word.
Similarly, Reverso, an online French-English dictionary, often offers several examples demonstrating how a given word and its various forms are used.
Those tools are all helpful for looking up specific collocations, but what about picking up new collocations you did not even know about?
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22 French Collocations for Perfectly Paired French Phrases
Common Verb-preposition Pairings with De and À
Many verbs in both French and English require a preposition after a verb and before an object or another verb. As demonstrated earlier, the correct preposition may differ. Or one language may require a preposition while the other does not.
In this article, however, we will take a look at fewer verbs, but in a bit more detail.
The “Collins” online dictionary has a list with additional examples for further reference.
French Verbs That Pair with De
Let us look at some common verbs that take de (literally, “of”) when paired with an infinitive or an object.
We will also give examples so you can get comfortable with how this plays out in context.
- Se souvenir de (to remember): This one is particularly tricky because it is reflexive, meaning the verb “reflects back” on the subject. Do not worry if you need a review of reflexive verbs.
Je me souviens de ma grand-mère. (I remember my grandmother.)
Note that se changes to me (myself) to correspond with the subject je (I).
- Refuser de (to refuse to): Although English often puts an object or infinitive directly in front of “refuse,” the French verb requires de.
Il refuse de mentir à sa famille. (He refuses to lie to his family.)
- Arrêter de (to stop): You will often hear this French collocation used in commands.
Arrêtez-vous de courir dans la maison! (Stop running in the house!)
- Parler de (to talk about): You probably first learned about parler by pairing it with a language, as in the classic line, parlez-vous français? (Do you speak French?) The phrase parler de, however, is a helpful collocation to describe the subject of a conversation.
On parle souvent de politique. (We talk often about politics.)
- Oublier de (to forget to): It happens.
Elle a oublié de téléphoner à sa mère. (She forgot to call her mother.)
French Verbs That Pair with À
Starting to get the concept, are you? À (literally, “at”) functions similarly.
- Réussir à (to succeed at): Although réussir à generally translates as “to succeed at,” when used with examen (test/exam), a more common and fluid translation is “to pass.”
Elle est si fière que sa fille ait réussi aux examens. (She is so proud that her daughter passed her exams.)
Remember that when à and les are right next to each other, they become aux.
- Se mettre à (to begin): This is a phrase I have always liked. A literal translation would be “to put oneself to,” communicating the idea of giving all your effort to a certain task.
Ils se mettent à apprendre l’anglais. (They are beginning to learn English.)
- Continuer à (to continue to): Here is one of those situations where the English and French use of the verb actually correspond to each other!
Elle veut continuer à étudier la littérature. (She wants to continue studying literature.)
- Servir à (to serve to): There are actually several collocations with this verb, but this is one you will encounter frequently.
Ces devoirs servent à vous enseigner le subjonctif. (This homework serves to teach you the subjunctive.)
- S’habituer à (to get used to): If you need help remembering this one, think of the English word “habit.”
Il a besoin de temps pour s’habituer à son nouveau coloc. (He needs time to get used to his new roommate.)
French Collocations with Common Verbs
Some common verbs often go with other words to form expressions that may not translate directly into English.
A basic example that most beginners know is avoir faim (to be hungry). Although English employs the verb “to be” and the adjective “hungry” to communicate the same concept, a literal translation of the French would be “to have hunger.”
Other verb expressions, as we will see, are downright idiomatic, meaning they do not even resemble their English counterparts.
Collocations with Faire (To Do/Make)
Faire is one of the first words French students learn. It plays a role in several important French collocations.
- Faire la queue (to line up): This phrase is related to the British use of “queue” for what Americans commonly call a “line.”
Je suis en retard parce que j’ai dû faire la queue au supermarché. (I am late because I had to wait in line at the grocery store.)
- Faire le ménage/la lessive/la vaisselle (to do the housework/the laundry/the dishes): These may not be that fun, but they are good to know (and do).
Tu dois faire la lessive ce weekend. (You must do the laundry this weekend.)
- Faire attention (to pay attention): Ever heard this one at school?
Faites attention au professeur! (Pay attention to the teacher!)
- Faire la grasse matinée (to sleep in): Probably one of my favorites.
Le jour après la fête, on a fait la grasse matinée. (The day after the party, we slept in.)
- Faire l’intéressant (to show off): Also often translated as “grandstanding.”
Elle n’a pas beaucoup d’amis, mais elle aime faire l’intéressant. (She does not have a lot of friends, but she likes to show off.)
Collocations with Avoir (To Have)
Avoir is another very basic verb. It is used to indicate possession and build compound tenses, but it is also common in collocations such as the ones we will discuss here. There are, of course, many more avoir expressions beyond the useful ones below.
- Avoir un enfant (to have a child): An easy one for English speakers to remember, since the expression is the same in both languages.
Ils veulent avoir trois enfants. (They want to have three children.)
- Avoir la grippe (to have the flu): This same formula may be used with other illnesses.
Vous avez une fièvre et probablement la grippe. (You have a fever and probably the flu.)
- Avoir une faim de loup (to be as hungry as a horse): The French literally means “to have a hunger of wolf.”
Après la randonnée, nous avions tous une faim de loup. (After the hike, we were all as hungry as a horse.)
- Avoir la grosse tête (to get a big head): A funny little phrase that is the same in both French and English.
Il a la grosse tête et parle toujours de lui-même. (He gets a big head and always talks about himself.)
Collocations with Jouer (To Play)
Jouer may not have as many special expressions as some other verbs, but it does play a role in several common French collocations.
- Jouer un rôle; Joeur le rôle de _____ (To play a part; To play the part of _____): Helpful for theater lovers. In the second phrase, the name of the actor’s character would go in the blank space.
Mon fils va jouer le rôle de Frollo dans la pièce « Notre Dame de Paris.» (My son is going to play the part of Frollo in the play “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”)
- Se la jouer (to pretend to): This one could be translated in a number of ways. It denotes the idea of acting, pretending, putting on a farce, as in:
Ils se la jouent importants, mais ils sont fous. (They pretend to be important, but they are crazy.)
- Jouer avec le feu (to play with fire): Just as dangerous in French as in English.
Mentir au patron, c’est jouer avec le feu! (Lying to the boss is playing with fire!)
French is a puzzle indeed, and not a kid’s 25-piece puzzle at that.
French is not always easy to learn, but there are many tools that make the task simpler and more authentic.
One of those tools is French collocations—words that, just like a group of puzzle pieces, stick together and help you put together your next French conversation.
Rachel Larsen is a lifelong francophile and freelance writer who dreams of living in France one day. She’s currently a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. To learn more, visit her LinkedIn page.
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