The 3-step Guide to French Liaisons: When They’re Needed, Forbidden or Up to You
French is famous for its tricky pronunciation—and its silent letters in particular.
But did you know that sometimes French silent letters suddenly speak up?
It all has to do with French liaison, or the linking of sounds between two words in certain contexts.
Using liaisons in French correctly will instantly make you sound like a more natural, fluid French speaker.
- What Is a Liaison?
- How to Pronounce Letters in Liaisons
- When Do You Liaise? The Link Between Liaisons and French Grammar
- 1. Required Liaisons
- 2. Forbidden Liaisons
- 3. Optional Liaisons
What Is a Liaison?
Simply stated, liaison in French is the practice of taking the last letter of one word (which normally wouldn’t be pronounced) and linking it to the beginning of the next word. This only happens when the second word begins with a vowel sound.
“Why on Earth would you do that?” I can hear you asking.
Well, since final consonants in French words are (usually) not pronounced, most of them end with a vowel sound. This means that to go from the end of one word to the beginning of a word with a vowel, you need to make a glottal stop (a sort of vocal hitch, like when British people with a Cockney accent pronounce “butter” or “bottle” without saying the middle “t” sound).
To avoid having to make this sound, you pronounce the final consonant of the word, thus allowing the two words to be “linked” together.
For example, when saying les copains (friends), the final “s” of les isn’t pronounced since copains begins with a consonant.
However, in the case of les amis (another way to say “friends”), to avoid having to make a glottal stop between les and amis, you pronounce the “s” at the end of les. Here are some recordings of native French speakers saying les amis so you can hear how it works.
In practice, things get a little more complicated. In this post we’ll walk you through all the instances where you should and shouldn’t use liaisons.
But first, it’s important to know how these sounds are actually pronounced.
How to Pronounce Letters in Liaisons
In some cases, the letter at the end of the word is merely pronounced as written. For example, chez (at [someone’s] home) which is usually pronounced like “shay,” is pronounced with a “z” sound at the end when liaised: chez Anne (pronounced like “shay-zanne”).
With some other letters, however, the pronunciation is changed slightly.
- S: The final “s” on a word like ils (they) isn’t pronounced as a voiceless “s” when liaised, but rather as a voiced “z.”
- D: The final “d” on a word like grand (big) or quand (when) is devoiced to “t” when liaised.
- N or M: The nasal vowels “n” and “m” are slightly denasalized when liaised.
For example, listen to how “n” is pronounced in the liaison in bien-aimé (beloved), sort of like the denasalized “n” in bonne (good [feminine]).
Generally speaking, these rules make it easier to distinguish between similarly-pronounced sentences. For example, you wouldn’t have a hard time telling the difference between Ils ont (They have) and Ils sont (They are) because of the difference in the ways the letter “s” is pronounced.
Unfortunately, however, there are a few terms that end up sounding rather similar. Consider:
- Quant à (as for) and Quand t’as (when you have)
- Bien âgé (rather old) or bien nager (swim well)
In these types of cases, context is your only guide!
It can be helpful to see and hear all these rules in action, such as in videos featuring native speakers. With proper filtering, certain YouTube clips can be used. There’s also the language learning program FluentU, which has authentic French videos equipped with interactive subtitles so you can learn how liaisons (and French words overall) function and sound in context.
When Do You Liaise? The Link Between Liaisons and French Grammar
Okay, so every time you have two vowel sounds back-to-back, you pronounce the silent consonant, right?
…If only it were that simple.
French liaison is linked to grammar: you’ll only link two words that are already linked grammatically. Depending on how the words are related in the sentence, then, the liaison can either be required, forbidden or optional.
We’ll cover each of those instances below.
1. Required Liaisons
Let’s start with the places where liaisons are mandatory. Any time you’re confronted with the following situations, you must link the two words.
It’s rare to see a French word without an accompanying determiner—such as indefinite/definite articles, possessive adjectives, etc. In the case of plural words in French, this determiner will always end in an “s,” which means that if the noun in question starts with a vowel, that “s” will be linked to the next word and pronounced.
Here are just a few examples:
- Les amis (Friends)
- Mes enfants (My children)
- Quelles écoles? (Which schools?)
- Des auteurs (Authors)
- Nos enfances (Our childhoods)
For example, listen to the native French pronunciation of mes enfants here.
After Subject Pronouns
There are several French subject pronouns that end in unpronounced consonants: nous, vous, ils and elles (respectively: we, formal you, masculine they and feminine they) and on (one).
When these subject pronouns are used with verbs that start with a vowel, you need a liaison.
Consider the difference between vous faites (you do) and vous avez (you have). In the first, the “s” at the end of vous isn’t pronounced. In the second, it is.
Here are some more examples where the final consonant of a subject pronoun would be liaised:
- Nous avons (We have)
- On a (One has)
- Elles ont (They have)
Hear how French people pronounce on a like “oh-nah.”
After Pre-posed Adjectives
Most of the time, French adjectives come after the noun. While in English, we’d say “a blue car,” in French, you’d say une voiture bleue.
But there are certain exceptions to this rule.
The adjective pairs bon/mauvais (good/bad) and grand/petit (big/small) generally come before the noun. So do adjectives describing beauty.
When adjectives come before the noun they’re modifying, and the noun begins with a vowel, the final consonant of the adjective is pronounced.
Here are a few examples:
- Un bon artichaut (A good artichoke)
- Un petit-enfant (A grandchild)
- Des belles oranges (Beautiful oranges)
After Est, Très and Bien
There are a few words after which a liaison is always necessary. You can remember them by using this mnemonic: C’est très bien! (It’s very good.)
Est-il allé? (Did he go?)
Il est allé. (He went.)
Il est très étrange. (He’s very strange.)
C’est bien aimable de votre part! (That’s very kind of you!)
2. Forbidden Liaisons
In some places, you cannot ever liaise between a final consonant and a vowel. In these cases, you do make a glottal stop or a break between the end of one word and the beginning of the following one, because grammatically, these words aren’t linked enough to require a vocal link.
After a Singular Noun
If a singular noun ends in a consonant that isn’t usually pronounced, it shouldn’t be liaised.
The word brebis (sheep), for example, is pronounced without the final “s” whether you’re saying Le brebis veut de la paille (The sheep wants hay) or Le brebis aura de la paille tout à l’heure (The sheep will get some hay later).
After a Proper Name
The same is true with proper names.
The final “n” of Jean or the final “s” of Jacques will be silent, no matter what Jean and Jacques are doing.
French learners are often confused when they learn that est (is) and et (and) are pronounced the same way, but there are a few ways in which French grammar differentiates them—one of which is the fact that est is liaised and et is not.
- Jean est allé. (He went.) Listen to the liaison here.
- Jean et André (Jean and André)
In the first of the above cases, the “t” at the end of est is pronounced. In the second, the “t” at the end of et is not.
In Plural Forms of Compound Nouns
We’re really getting into the nitty-gritty here, but why not?
When pluralizing French compound nouns, you often wind up with an “s” sound right next to a vowel sound. For example, arc-en-ciel (rainbow) becomes arcs-en-ciel (rainbows) in the plural.
You might assume that the extra “s” would be pronounced, but you’d be mistaken. This liaison is forbidden.
Before H Aspiré
In French, “h” is always a silent letter. However, in Old and Middle French, the “h” on certain words was pronounced, much in the way it still is in English.
While the “h” is no longer ever pronounced in French, there’s one holdover from this former tendency, which is to avoid liaison in words where “h” was once pronounced.
Let’s look at an example.
In French, hôpital (hospital) has an h muet or non-aspirated “h.” So if you wanted to say les hôpitaux (hospitals) there’s a liaison between the two words.
Héros (hero), on the other hand, has an h aspiré. So if you wanted to say les héros (heros), you wouldn’t liaise.
Here’s a list of a few words that have an aspirated “h,” and therefore don’t have a liaison:
- Les haricots (Beans)
- Les hauteurs (Heights)
- Les halles (Halls)
- Les hanches (Hips)
- Les Hollandais (Dutch people)
A complete list of French words with an aspirated “h” can be found here.
Before Numbers Starting with a Vowel
Onze (eleven) and une (one) both start with vowels, so they definitely get liaised, right?
If only it were that simple.
Numbers as nouns resist liaison, even numbers starting with a vowel.
So if you wanted to say, “I pay my credit card bill every eleventh of the month,” you’d say, “Je règle ma carte de crédit tous les onze du mois,” and you wouldn’t pronounce a liaison between les and onze.
3. Optional Liaisons
In some cases, it’s up to you whether you want to liaise or not!
Generally speaking, when liaison is optional, most people opt not to. Choosing to pronounce a liaison when it’s not necessary makes you sound very intelligent, but it can also come off as snobbish.
Here are cases in which liaison is allowed but not required:
After Pas, Trop and Fort
This rule is easy to remember. Just use the mnemonic Pas trop fort! (Not too hard!)
The following sentences could be pronounced with or without the liaisons between “s,” “p,” and “t” and the following word:
- Il n’est pas à l’heure. (He’s not on time.)
- C’est trop aimable de votre part. (That’s too kind of you.)
- C’était fort agréable. (That was quite fun.)
After Quand and Before Est-ce que
This is a very specific example that nevertheless comes up quite frequently, given how often quand (when) and est-ce que (interrogative “is”) are paired together.
Quand est-ce que tu arrives? (When will you be here?) can be pronounced either with or without a liaison between the final “d” in quand and est.
Using liaison is something that may take a bit of getting used to, but take heart: even some French people have a hard time with it! These days, you’ll hear French youngsters accidentally liaising with the h aspiré in haricots, so even if you make a mistake now and then, you’re in good company!