Have you come across something untranslatable between French and English yet?
I bet you have!
Luckily, these can be some of the most curious, creative and cool things to learn.
While learning any new language, there comes a time when you discover that not everything in your native language matches things in your target language.
In the case of English speakers attempting to master French, there are many instances when things don’t translate just right—and when things seem trickier than they need to be.
For example, let’s look at the French past tense. First there’s forming it, which seems way more complicated than in English, and then you’ve got to account for all those irregularities.
And what about those future tenses? There’s more than one future tense for starters, and why are they using only one word? And don’t even get me started on those advanced French verbs. The differences of French seem endless!
Well, I’m about to add one more to the pot: French phrasal verbs.
All you need is someone in the know to be your guide. I’ve got it from here. Breathe in, breathe out.
By the end of this post, you’ll know French phrasal verbs backwards and forwards.
Oh, and this is one of those times when French is actually easier than English!
What’s a Phrasal Verb?
In English, phrasal verbs are very common. In fact, if you’re an English speaker (which I bet you are, since you’re reading this), then you use them all the time without even noticing it!
A phrasal verb is a group of words (most commonly two words) that contribute to a combined meaning. In English, the first word is most commonly a verb, and a second word follows to add more meaning or context to that action. Commonly, the second word is a preposition, but it can also be an adverb or occasionally something else.
Okay, stop talking technical, Michael. Let’s have some examples show us the point.
In English, instances of a phrasal verb are “to breathe in” or “to breathe out.” Sure, the verb “to breathe” works well enough on its own, but adding the prepositions “in” and “out” gives us more context for the type of breathing. The addition of a preposition changes the meaning.
Another example is “to wake up.” While there’s very little difference between “to wake” and “to wake up,” the phrasal form still exists. Perhaps one of the more distinct phrasal verbs is “to fall asleep.” The verb “to fall” on its own has very little to do with sleeping, so by adding “asleep” and creating a phrasal verb, the meaning changes entirely.
Phrasal Verbs in French
Now that we know what phrasal verbs are, let’s look at how they work in French. Actually, they work pretty much the same as in English. A phrasal verb in French starts with a verb and another word is added to change its meaning or add more context.
Funny enough, though, French has a very limited amount of phrasal verbs compared to the vast quantity of English ones—there’s really only a handful. So, get learning, learner!
The 15 Most Common French Phrasal Verbs
Check out the 15 most common phrasal verbs in French so you can get using them like a champ.
1. mettre bas
The phrasal verb mettre bas in French means “to give birth.”
This is a drastically different meaning from that of the verb mettre on its own, which simply means “to put.” And with bas meaning “bottom” or “low,” the combination literally translates to “to put low” which seems like an odd way to say “to give birth.” In any case, check out this phrasal verb in action:
Elle va mettre bas Samedi.
She will give birth on Saturday.
2. passer outre
Another phrasal verb that has a meaning that isn’t quite the sum of its parts is passer outre. When put together, these two words have the literal translation of “to pass beyond,” but in fact, this combination means “to disregard.”
Je passe outre aux affirmations des enfants.
I disregard the children’s claims.
3. courir après
And now: A literal phrasal verb. When put together, the words courir après mean “to run after,” and that’s exactly what they’re intended to mean.
Il court après le chien.
He chases after the dog.
4. aller vers
And the simplicity stops here.
The phrasal verb aller vers has the literal meaning “to go toward,” as in heading toward a certain place, but it can also mean “to go around,” as in going somewhere at a certain time. Check out these examples to learn the differences.
Tu vas vers la bibliothèque.
You go toward the library.
Nous allons (à la bibliothèque) vers 4 heures.
We are going to the library around 4 o’clock.
5. arriver par
The phrasal verb arriver par has another figurative meaning. Instead of meaning “to arrive by,” it actually means “to succeed by.”
Il arrive par étudiant avant d’écrire le test.
He succeeds by studying before writing the test.
6. avoir besoin de
Unlike in English, the verb “to need” isn’t a single verb in French. In fact, it’s a whole three words which translate literally to “to have need of.” If you think about it that way when you speak, things make a lot more sense.
Nous avons besoin d’aide.
We need help.
This one isn’t technically a phrasal verb, but it’s a very common verb + noun combo that you’ll need to know. The next two phrasal verbs on the list follow suit!
7. avoir peur de
Another three-word phrasal verb that’s only one single word in French is avoir peur de and it means “to fear” or “to be afraid of.” Check it out in action!
J’ai peur des serpents.
I fear/am afraid of snakes.
8. avoir faim/soif
And finally, more phrasal verbs to do with states of being are avoir faim and avoir soif. Avoir faim means “to be hungry” and the verb avoir soif means “to be thirsty.” Note, however, in French, you aren’t hungry or thirsty. Rather, you have hunger or thirst.
Elle a faim après son voyage.
She is hungry after her trip.
Il a soif après l’exercice.
He is thirsty after exercise.
9. donner sur
This verb literally translates to “to give on,” but donner sur actually means “to look out on.” Check it out in a phrase!
Les chambres donnent sur la mer.
The rooms look out over the ocean.
Side note: Wouldn’t that be nice right about now? A room that looks over the ocean. Maybe the Mediterranean in Provence. A boy can dream…
10. entrer dans
Okay, we’re back. After googling images of the ocean near Provence, I can continue.
Yes, entrer dans. Nope, it doesn’t mean “to enter into.” In fact, this phrasal verb means “to join.” Check it out in a sentence.
J’entre dans la danse.
I join the party.
11. finir par
Instead of meaning, “to finish by,” finir par means “to end up ___ing.” Check out this example for clarification.
Samedis, nous finissons par aller au cinéma.
On Saturdays, we end up going to the movies.
12. fouiller dans (les poches)
This phrasal verb is a little particular. The words fouiller dans means “to look through” and it’s most often followed by les poches to give the meaning “to look through one’s pockets”.
Elle fouille dans les poches et elle trouve un stylo.
She looks through her pockets and she finds a pen.
13. jurer par
A return to straightforwardness. The phrase jurer par means exactly what you think it would mean: “to swear by.”
Ils jurent par ce restaurant-là.
They swear by that restaurant.
14. partir pour
Partir pour is another phrasal verb that means exactly what you think it would mean because it’s the sum of its parts. The words together mean “to leave for.”
Je pars pour Provence demain.
I leave for Provence tomorrow.
If only, right?
15. rendre visite
And for your last verb, I offer to you rendre visite. Two words, yes, but its meaning is simply one. It’s literally translated to mean “to render visit” but it actually just means “to visit.” In fact, it has a synonym that’s just one word: visiter. I don’t get it either…
Elle rend visite à moi aujourd’hui.
She visits me today.
Further Reading on French Phrasal Verbs
Alas, our list of the most common phrasal verbs in French comes to an end. But not everything is as it seems, is it?
If you need pronunciation help for any of the above words, I definitely suggest you check out Forvo.
And how can we talk about verbs without online verb conjugators? I suggest Conjugator-FR or WordReference. And now that you’ve mentioned WordReference, I still maintain that their online dictionary is the best. If you come across any more phrasal verbs that are messing you up, check it out!
Ten points if you can find the three English phrasal verbs in that last sentence.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.