January, 2014

An average French guy explains French culture

I’ve found an “Ask Me Anything” session (AMA) with a friendly Frenchman who explains French culture from his own perspective. The following quotes are edited for length and content, like a TV movie, so be warned if you go to read the source.


Q: Why were all the French folks I encountered in Nice/Antibes/Cannes really nice to me, but then the Parisian ones generally ignored or were a giant [bunch of jerks]? Are they just fed up with Americans visiting Paris vs in the south, things are a bit more laid back and not so crazy?
French Guy (FG): They are known for that. They think France = Paris and everything around is just cows and incest families.But they are like a tribe, if you follow their customs (never smile !) you’ll be one of them.


Q: How do the French feel about the fact that the English mock them relentlessly?

FG: This is an endless cycle, they moke [sic] us, we moke belgian, belgian mokes dutch, etc…
But to be honest, we don’t really care.


Q: Is it true that public sector workers in particular will take massive 2 hour lunches, eating a full meal at a restaurant and then basically doing no work for the rest of the day?

FG: True story. And apparently this makes them sick more often !

Follow-up Q: Heh, so is it just accepted behavior?

FG: I have exaggerated. The firm’s culture between public and private is really different. In a private firm, everything is about performance. In a public firm, it’s almost impossible to be fired and you have no real stress from anyone. They are the most secure jobs of France, but it’s not really easy to have a job here. And you’re less paid btw.

5 pseudo-profound French quotes about the movies


I’ve been at the Sundance Film Festival all week, so I thought I’d find a nice quote about the movies. But hélas! I kept coming across quotes that seem profound but are in fact quite stupid. So, here are 5 of them. What do you think? Am I being too harsh?

First, from celebrated cinéaste Jean-Luc Godard:

« Quand on va au cinéma, on lève la tête. Quand on regarde la télévision, on la baisse. »

What does that even mean? What if you sit in the balcony at the movies? What if you have a TV above your fireplace or you sit on the floor while watching the télé?  What if you watch a movie on TV? I could go on, but I won’t.

Next up, a quote from René Clair:

« Réclamons pour le cinéma le droit de n’être jugé que sur ses promesses. »

The right to only be judged on one’s promises? As in, I promised this would be a good movie, but I lied? 

« Si on a du génie, on fait pas de cinéma, on écrit un grand livre. »

Maybe Michel Audiard, who was a screenwriter after all, was just attempting to be self-deprecating when he said this? Let’s move on to a quote from director/screenwriter André Téchiné about how cinéma can lapse into navel-gazing. 

« Un cinéaste, ça se demande comment va le monde. S’il ne pose pas cette question, il fait du cinéma qui se prend le pouls. »

It sounds poetic, but it’s a fairly trite statement. Basically, he’s saying that if you don’t ask what’s going on in the world, then you’re not asking what’s going on in the world. Deep.

Let’s finish things off with some American bashing from Bertrand Tavernier.

« Un film n’est pas seulement une histoire que le cinéma vend, mais aussi une culture, un pays, un autre type de consommation. Cela, les Américains l’ont pas très bien compris. »

If America isn’t selling an entire culture and a country with its movies then I don’t know who is.


The stinkiest cheese

For as much stereotype-busting as I tend to do on this site, I sometimes have to look at the facts and admit that sometimes, every once in a while, the myths have some truth to them.

As you may have read in the title, it’s true: France has produced the stinkiest variety of cheese. The long-distance gag-reflex-triggering champion. The one cheese to nauseate them all.

According to this 2004 BBC news article, scientists applied their knowledge and tools to the question of the relative smelliness of cheeses, using “an ‘electronic nose’ to analyse the cheese odours, along with a panel of 19 human testers”. Their results showed that decent, normal cheeses like English Cheddar and Parmesan were among the least odorous, while the ultimate stench title belongs to Vieux Boulogne, the soul-crushing odor of which is apparently “created by the beer reacting with enzymes in the cheese”. Yikes.

What’s horrifying is the BBC article’s note that the Vieux Boulogne actually beat another French cheese (Epoisses de Bourgogne) that smells so bad, it’s been banned from being taken on public transport in France. Can you imagine the prolonged problem that was bad enough to cause the French to enact actual legislation to put an end to it?

It may look tasty, but the whole bottle of wine is necessary to forget the horror of just smelling this demonic dairy product.

Case closed. The French can and do make some stinky cheeses.

5 things graffiti can teach you about writing your next paper

les mecs puent

Be bold.

Go ahead and make a bold assertion: Les mecs puent. That gets my attention. Of course, you’ll have to back that up in a paper. but why not start out with an attention grabber?

Keep it simple.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in college-level French classes is students trying to write lengthy, complex sentences. Subordinate clauses will lead you down a treacherous path to academic hell. Use them sparingly. And while it may be true that too many short sentences in a row might create choppy prose, good transition words can smooth things over.


Embrace rebellion.

Take a stand. Question conventions and assumptions. Graffiti often responds to the context of its surroundings. In the photo below, the graffiti sprayed on the ground is a biblical quote that contradicts the “regarde le ciel” graffiti message seen all over Paris. It uses the context (the ground that the reader is obviously looking at to read the message) and a quote from an authority figure to counter the work of another “author.”

Be dedicated.

Even good old fashioned scratching words into a bench takes time. The person who has carved a message into wood (not that I recommend it) has invested some time and effort to make their mark.

Love triangle


Humor never hurts.

This bench made me laugh. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a love triangle, considering it’s Paris, but still…


A guide to asking in French

Here’s a follow-up to last week’s wall of text. Hopefully it will be much easier to use.

guide to asking

Dress your paper in silk stockings

photo by Marc Olivier

photo by Marc Olivier

Real fluency takes a lot of time and hard work, but you’ve got a paper due in two weeks. What to do? This next installment in my series about how to write French papers that don’t suck has one easy tip: use million dollar transition words and phrases. You wouldn’t believe the difference they make on French people or on impressionable professors like myself. Even if you’re not a student and you don’t have to write papers, the same principle applies. Certain words elevate people’s perception of your fluency. Sure, the content may be crap, but at least it will be crap wrapped in a silk stocking (to paraphrase Napoleon).

Transitions suggest that there is coherent thought behind your words. Use them judiciously and you might even create the semblance of the “connected discourse” so beloved in ACTFL proficiency guidelines. I won’t attempt an exhaustive list or a treatise on logical connectives, so consider this a good starter kit.

Putting things in order 

Things that approximate “first”



En premier lieu (this one’s the most formal of the three)

You might follow-up with “second”


En deuxième lieu

Or something like “next”



Maybe augment it with a “moreover” or an “in fact”

De plus

En fait

And wrap it up with a “finally” or “in conclusion” type transition

Pour conclure


En dernier lieu

Illustrating a point or clarifying

To say things like “indeed” or “for example”

Par exemple

En effet

Or, “in other words”


En d’autres termes

Autrement dit

Ou plus précisément

Showing that things aren’t as simple as they appear

You can introduce nuance with words that roughly fall into the “however” or “nevertheless” type function




Pourtant (this one pairs well with a paradox)

Or maybe introduce a counterpoint (similar to above, but slightly stronger)

Par contre

En revanche (fancier than “par contre” and more fun to say)

Bordering on wishy washy, in my opinion, are those two-part “one the one hand…on the other hand…” type expressions

D’une part…d’autre part…

D’un côté… which you could follow up with De l’autre côté …(assuming there are only two sides) or D’un autre côté…(if this is one more of many possible sides)

Referring to an issue

I’ve always liked the French equivalent of “As for x” (or “regarding…”) because you get to make that crisp “t” sound before the preposition “à”

Quant à …

“On this subject” type expressions

À ce sujet

À ce propos (fancier option)

Showing the implications of your brilliant logic

“And that’s why…” (sounds better in French) and “consequently”

C’est pourquoi

Par conséquent

The staples “thus” and “therefore”



 I could list dozens more, but those Netflix movies aren’t going to watch themselves. I’ve got some vegetating to do. So pour conclure, words like those above are like force fields against potential attacks on the flow of your writing. They also practically force you to organize your thoughts more clearly. Just think how much nicer your crappy paper will look dressed up in them.

Maybe we’ll work on content in a future post. As for grammar, What The French?! is your best friend. If you don’t own an iPad or a Mac, we promise, we’re still working on a version for you. Be patient.

Speak less badly: verbs and prepositions

When you’re studying another language, English is not your friend. You would do best to forget you know English (if you do) anytime you’re trying to speak or write French.

You might be saying, “But aren’t there tons of cognates?” (Yes, and here’s a list of some 1700 of them.) Or maybe your objection goes something like, “Don’t you realize that the grammar of French is remarkably close to that of English, especially compared to a language like Japanese or Swahili?” (And I’ll admit that it is. They’re relatively very close to each other.)

But listen. Your objections are wrong.

Why are they wrong? Because although English and French share a lot of similarities, that’s not always a good thing.

Why not? It often leads to learners assuming similarities that don’t actually exist. On a vocabulary level, that could be something like taking the English word “crash” and using it (with a spelling change) in French as the verb cracher…the problem being that this means “to spit”, not “to crash”. On a grammatical level, this happens when learners use the word order of English in a French sentence: “I sometimes eat puppies” is a fine English sentence, but Je parfois mange des chiots is not (hopefully you noticed that the placement of the adverb parfois is wrong).

This brings me to one of the most rage-inducing sets of mistakes learners make– and sometimes, continue to make for years, never quite figuring out that French is not English-with-different-words-and-a-silly-accent. That mistake comes from the way a lot of English verbs take prepositions.

Example: “to ask”. You can “ask a question” with no preposition, but as soon as you’re requesting a physical thing, it becomes “to ask for“. Of course, if you assume French is English with the words switched out, you’re going to say (and this hurts me to even type it) *demander pour (which kind of means “to ask on behalf of”, which doesn’t make sense in the way it usually gets used by learners). I have seen it and heard it over and over, read it used non-stop while grading papers and feeling like I needed to scrub myself with steel wool and harsh solvents to get it off of me. French does not associate pour with demander. This French verb meaning “to ask for” requires a direct object, with no preposition: Il a demandé un pain. Oh, and because of this, if you say demander une question, you’ve conveyed the meaning of “to ask for a question”, as an AP test-writer’s boss might do (“I want you to have twenty questions on my desk by Tuesday”). For what you usually mean, you want the verb poserPoser une question. OK?

The same applies to verbs like chercher (“to seek”, “to look for“), écouter (“to listen to“), and many others. Do yourself a favor, and don’t just look up single words in the dictionary. Find either a dictionary that gives context and example sentences, or use a site like That site allows you to enter a word or phrase and see how it’s been used in parallel (translated) texts. Here’s an example:

ask linguee

Pretty great, right? There are so many resources out there that no one really has much of an excuse anymore. Once it clicks for you that even two similar languages like French and English are very different, you’ll be on your way to really learning how to do it right. Good luck.

How to write French papers that don’t suck

Quick! Before it’s too late. Before the cynicism of late-winter sets in, make a resolution for 2014 to write French papers that don’t suck. It’s a lofty goal, I know. Unattainable, some might argue. But I say, dream big, because big dreams lead to big disappointments, and what could be more French than disappointment?

So let’s dive right in with the top five:

Four out of the five fall under the fautes de paresse (lazy mistakes) category.

1. Gender

A gender (genre) mistake such as “le femme” is like giving the finger to your French teacher. The laziness of gender errors is staggering to such a degree that it can only be regarded as contemptuous je-m’en-foutisme. Maybe that’s what you were going for? Maybe “le femme” is a critique of phallogocentrism. If you can sell that to your professor, you deserve an “A”. Otherwise, since you’re stuck with a gendered language, you are going to have to prove that you are capable of looking up the gender of a word. Be methodical. Look at every single noun in your paper and ask yourself if you are 100% sure of its gender. When in doubt, look it up.

2. Agreement

Same problem as above, but a little more complicated. Agreement (accord) means, for example, that a verb is conjugated to match its subject in number (Elles vont. NOT Elles va.) and gender (Elles sont allées), or that an adjective matches the thing it modifies in number and gender where necessary (La maison blanche—not blanc), and so on. Once again, you will have to move through your paper methodically. Start with the verbs— possibly with the help of a verb conjugator—and make sure that the conjugation lines up with the subject. Then identify the adjectives and what they modify.

3. Spelling

You can install spelling and grammar tools in Word, although in my experience, French spell check is not as good as English. Or you can use various online spell checkers such as Reverso or Bon Patron, but the best way to check spelling is with a good dictionary such as WordReference.

4. Vocabulary

I learned about WordReference from one of my students a couple of years ago and now I always recommend it. The best thing about it is that it gives sample sentences. For example, without context, you might look up “occupation” and get “métier,” which is correct in the sense of “job,” but incorrect if you are talking about the German occupation of Paris in WWII (l’occupation allemande). Without sample sentences, you may end up being an apparatus with rotating blades (Je suis un grand ventilateur de sport.) instead of a sports fan.

5. Syntax

Word order is tough. There are some good chapters to help you brush up on syntax and grammar in What The French?!   It’s too much to do here in one blog post, but let me give you an important tip: don’t translate from English. Especially not with an online translator—they are really, really, bad. One of these days, I’ll do a post to show you just how bad. Automated translation aside, the danger of translating from English is that you will likely write sentences that are too complex. Write directly in French and keep it simple.

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p.s. Don’t write the paper at 2:14 a.m. as I am doing right now with this post. Who nose what mistakes you might make. (haha. groan. That’s just my disclaimer for all the lazy mistakes that you might find in this post)

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