Written by Andrew Livingston

Highway to the Liaison Zone

or, How to Survive the Danger of Liaisons

A reader wrote to us recently with a very good question:

“I would really like to understand when to use liaisons and when not to. When is it obligatory, when is it optional, and when is it forbidden?”

Though I am an incorrigible linguist, I am going to do my absolute best to not nerd out too hard in the following explanation.

This post will:

  1. Define la liaison and distinguish it from similar processes
  2. Bring up a few necessary background details
  3. Give three lists (not 100% comprehensive, but pretty close) of when la liaison is obligatory, optional, and forbidden (respectively)

1. What it is, and what it isn’t

The first thing to keep in mind is that French really, really doesn’t like two vowels to touch. They need some personal space, and that personal space is ideally made of consonants. To avoid awkward physical contact, there are a few major strategies you need to know and use:

la liaison (English: liaison) – Say we have two words next to each other in a sentence. The first one ends in a vowel, but is written with a silent consonant. The second begins with a vowel (although the written form may begin with a silent <h>, as in homme). Liaison takes the first word’s silent, written consonant and turns it into a spoken consonant, thus sparing the two vowels from the horror of having to be pronounced one directly after the other.

For example: The word les ends in a vowel, since the s at the end is silent. The word amis begins with a vowel. When they’re combined, we prevent disaster by taking the silent, written-only s and giving it a spoken sound (still spelled s, but it will sound like a z). This post will mark where liaison occurs using the symbol ‿ between words: les‿ amis.

Remember: liaison adds a sound between two words that wasn’t there when those words were on their own.

l’enchainement (English: linking) – This is very similar to la liaison, but the key difference is that the first of two spoken words in this case ends in a pronounced consonant, while the second begins with a vowel. The exact same number of sounds are pronounced when the two words are spoken together as when they were on their own. So what changes? The sounds are re-distributed within syllables. All the nerdy things I want to tell you about syllables will have to wait for another day.

For now, consider the rhythm of the following words when they appear on their own:

 il ‘he’… arrive ‘arrives’… à ‘at’ seize ‘sixteen’… heures ‘hours’

But when you combine them into a complete sentence, the sounds link up in ways that don’t care about the word boundaries you see written on a page. Instead, you’ll find that syllables want to start with a consonant, and will even steal the consonant from the end of the previous word if there’s one available. Try saying this sentence out loud by first reading the normal written form, and then looking at the line below it where I’ve typed an X under each syllable. Now look at the version below that where I’ve separated the spoken syllables using a <.>.

Il arrive à seize heures (‘He’ll get here at 4:00 PM’)
X X X     X   X       X

i .la.rri .va .sei.zheures
X X X     X   X       X

l’élision (English: elision) – While la liaison adds a sound that wasn’t there and l’enchainement keeps the same number of total sounds, l’élision deletes a sound in order to keep vowels from touching. That’s right: the vowels find the prospect of physical contact so mortifying that one of them decides to cease to exist. That’s intense.

Elision happens most often with the singular definite articles le and lale + homme = l’homme; la + amie = l’amie. You’ll also see it when si ‘if’ goes before il or ils (s’il, s’ils) but not before elle or really anything else.

2. Some extra details

2.1. Spoken versus written French

I have to remind you of the huge difference between spoken and written French and what it means for us here. French doesn’t want vowels to touch in the spoken language, so the written language’s silent letters don’t automatically help anyone. Because this distinction is so important, I’ll sometimes specify which I mean by using different types of brackets:

Written language in angle brackets, <comme ça>.

Spoken language pronunciations in square brackets and using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), [kɔm sa]. If you don’t know the IPA yet…you should change that as soon as possible. It’s so incredibly useful to learning and improving pronunciation in any language. I’ll probably end up writing a post on that next, in fact. For now, this page is a decent introduction.

2.2. Levels of formality

French is a living language, meaning real humans use it, meaning that there’s a spectrum from formal to informal language. This is directly related to the topic at hand, because the more formal the French, the more liaison you have to use, and the more people will make the mockery of you if you use it where it’s forbidden.

If you’re a non-native speaker, it’s usually best to avoid speaking in the most or the least formal ways. This post generally aims for the sort of level you might use in the workplace, but the kind where you’re speaking with co-workers, not with your scary boss who wears a top hat and a monocle.

2.3. Particularities of pronunciation in la liaison

When you take a silent letter and turn it into a pronounced sound for the purposes of liaison, that letter might not be pronounced the way it usually is in written French. Here are some of the main weirdnesses:

<s> and <x>  → [z]               as in    des‿ idées [de.z‿]

                                                 or        six‿ heures [si.z‿œʁ]

<d>                 → [t]                as in    grand‿ arbre [gʁɑ̃.t‿aʁ.bʁə]

<g>                  → [k] (rare)   as in    sang‿ impur [sɑ̃.k‿ɛ̃pyʁ] (This is the only example I could find of it, and it’s falling out of use. Good riddance, racist/classist expressions)

<f>                  → [v]                as in   neuf ans [nœ.v‿ɑ̃]

Alright. Now, at long last, I will answer the actual question.

3. When you must, when you may, and when you mustn’t use liaison

Notation reminders:

The symbol shows where the liaison border occurs or can occur.

The symbol | shows where a liaison cannot occur.

3.1. When you must (la liaison obligatoire )

Between a determiner (a category including articles, possessive adjectives, and demonstratives) and its associated noun

e.g. un an, les amis, ton avis, vos idées, ces ennemis

When an adjective precedes the noun it describes

e.g. un grand homme

Between a subject pronoun and its associated verb

e.g. nous aimons

Also between the verb and its subject pronoun when they’re inverted

e.g. vont-‿ils à la fête?

When an imperative verb precedes y or en

e.g. vas-‿y!; prends-‿en!

In certain compound words and fixed expressions:

e.g. c’est à dire, de temps en temps

3.2. When you may, but don’t have to (la liaison facultative )

Often between conjugated forms of être or avoir and their complement (this can be a noun or pronoun object, or an adjective)

e.g. elle est intelligente; ils en ont assez

Also between conjugated être and avoir and the past participle of the main verb, when they act as auxiliary verb to it

e.g. ils sont allés

Between a preposition, especially a monosyllabic one, and its complement

e.g. sans espoir, dans une heure

When an adverb that modifies the word directly following it

e.g. bien amusé, très heureux

Note: with beaucoup, liaison sounds pretty snooty. For example, in Nous l’avons beaucoup(‿) aimé, you’re probably better off not pronouncing the final <p> unless you’re wearing a monocle at that very moment.

Sometimes between a verb (that isn’t être or avoir) and its complement (more common for direct objects than indirect ones)

e.g. il prend un café

Sometimes between a plural noun and its following associated adjective (but NOT a singular noun before an adjective; see below)

e.g. des soldats américains (but un soldat | américain)

3.3. When you mustn’t (la liaison interdite )

When a singular noun precedes the adjective that describes it

e.g. un soldat | américain

Between et and anything

e.g. elle est charmante et | intelligente

Between anything and a word beginning with an h aspiré (look in a dictionary to find out whether your <h> is silent or aspiré…unfortunately, that’s the only real way to tell)

e.g. ce ne sont pas des | haricots

Between anything and un (when it’s a number, not an article), huit (even though it doesn’t begin with h aspiré) or onze

e.g. ils en ont | huit

…except: the phrase les uns (et) les autres

Between anything and a word beginning with a glide ([w], [j], [ɥ])

e.g. mon | yaourt; des non et des | oui

…except: des yeux

In certain compound words and fixed expressions:

e.g. nez | à nez


Whew. That was a lot. I hope this article helps as you learn and improve in French pronunciation. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a long time to apply these rules; a lot of this is considered intermediate or advanced-level stuff. And if you have more questions about it, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Top 5 reasons Ron Swanson should reconsider about the French

Ron Swanson is a fictional character from a TV show that is now over. At the core of his personality is a rugged individualism, fervent belief in small government, and a powerful dislike of Europe (except maybe Scotland, on account of whisky). And although it’s true that France and much of Europe could be considered a “socialist hellscape”(his words) to someone like him, I think Ron and those like him could stand to take a closer look at the French people and their history. He might find more in common with them than he thought, as I hope to show in this top 5 list.

5: Fine wooden furniture

Ron doesn’t betray emotion about many things, but he’s a passionate woodworker (like the actor who plays him, Nick Offerman). Ron even won the “Indiana Fine Woodworking Association Award for Best Chair”, which may be the only award he ever cared about. But did he know that the French construction of wooden chairs has been a big deal for centuries? I should know– I once had to spend about two weeks studying them in a French history class.

Just look at that chair, Ron! Doesn’t that make you happy?

4: The cultivation of the moustache

The reputation of the facial hair of the upper lip of French men is well known, and this is another thing Ron has in common with them.

Left: famed moustache owner and literary giant Honoré de Balzac. Right: Ron Swanson.

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 9.15.43 AM

The resemblance is uncanny.

3: The cooking and consuming of meat

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 8.51.24 AM

Yup. I googled “french steak” and this came up. If Ron hadn’t throw his computer in the dumpster, he’d probably spend all day at work drooling over pictures like these.

2: Social standoffishness & general stoicism

While it’s a vast overgeneralization to say that the French people are cold or rude or what have you, there’s certainly a cultural difference between them and the hordes of tourists who descend as locusts upon their lands. As a government employee, Ron knows what it’s like to be hassled. I imagine he’d get a lot of mileage out of body language like “the Gallic shrug”, which would allow him to speak his mind without ever saying a single word.


I’ve got good news for you, Ron. Although many French people will have a simple piece of toast and some coffee for breakfast, they also know their way around eggs and meats, as well as waffles and pastries.

The American football

I’ve never kept it a secret, but I’ve never been too vocal about it, either: I don’t really care much about sports in general. I don’t hate them, by any means, but I just don’t get the appeal– especially watching sports, and not playing. It’s like this new thing the kids are apparently doing, where they watch videos of other people playing video games. I cannot fathom it.

But I live in Seattle, and last week it was important that I keep even my benign, baffled indifference to myself, because (as you may have heard) my fair city is obligatorily melded into a massive hive-mind which calls itself TWELFTH MAN and emits noises of support from its million mouths whenever the Seahawks are doing their thing, and they did their thing at the highest level in the land on Sunday.

At the same time as the most Super of Bowls was underway, I was looking for something to write about here on– Marc and I are going to start posting again or die trying– and suddenly it occurred to me: a lot of French people are crazy about sports, but probably not so much about US of American football. So whatever coverage of the Super Bowl existed in French was sure to be hilarious, right?

And so began my descent into the rabbit hole of French-language coverage of le football américain.


Some cursory googling took me first to an article in Le Monde: “Super Bowl : l’annus horribilis du football américain“. When’s the last time you saw a Latin phrase in an English-language article about football? That’s what I thought. While the article is less about the big game than a run-down of what a tough (well, éprouvante) year it’s been for the NFL (with some abusive players getting caught, negative cognitive effects suffered by long-time footballers, and racist team names getting called out, to name a few troubles the poor NFL faces), what most surprised me was that I enjoyed reading it.

Gilles Paris, a correspondent situated in Washington (whether city or state, le Monde declines to state), weaves in some turns of phrase that just… well, they’ve got a certain, for lack of a better expression, je ne sais quoi. When he writes, “Roger Goodell a convenu qu’il lui avait fallu faire preuve d’« humilité » au cours de la saison. La machine à cash que continue à être la NFL constitue cependant pour lui une protection plus efficace que celles dont sont bardés les guerriers des pelouses“, I enjoy the dripping sarcasm, the half-anglicism “machine à cash” and its insertion grâce à the object-introducing relative pronoun que, the judicious use of dont. 

So is French just so elegant and refined that it can turn a field of sweating, perma-concussed gladiators into something beautiful? Have I discovered a latent love for American football that only the lens of the French language could unlock?

I don’t think so. I’m sure Gilles (I like to imagine him as a crew-cut, bull-necked dude in a striped black and white shirt and a scarf, speaking English like a French Alabaman and pronouncing his first name “Gil” and rhyming his last name with “Ferris”) is a fine writer, but I’m betting most of my (admittedly dorky) enjoyment of the prose comes from my enjoyment of having learned the language and being able to read about unfamiliar topics in it. Reading more articles, on Le Monde and elsewhere, confirmed this suspicion. 

But ultimately, isn’t that a great reason to learn a language? Learning French opens up so much of the world to you, including some things that were right here all along.

Before I go, I would be remiss in my co-authorly duties if I didn’t update you on the progress of our ongoing efforts to make What The French?! available in Amazon’s Kindle format (for all non-Mac users). So the update is: it’s getting close. I know it’s been getting close for a long time now, but it is currently more close than it was at any of those previous times. We’re sorry about the wait, but we want to make sure we can translate all the iBooks features and functions into the new format.

Do you even vouvoyer, bro?

It’s one of those tricky things about French that doesn’t automatically become easy just because you study and learn the grammar. The battle between vous and tu is dependent on social factors as well: what’s your social standing? What’s the social standing of the person you’re talking to? How does yours compare with theirs? What’s the context, and how do you feel about that person?

In celebration of French “Ain’t-Goin’-Back-to-Lockup Day” (Bastille Day), the LA Times was kind enough to provide us anglophones with a handy flowchart to help decide whether to use vous or tu:

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 3.26.32 PM

See a much more readable version at

As many comments on that site are quick to point out, things are always more complex than they seem, so this flow chart won’t cover every situation or region. As for the author of this post, I learned French in the south Pacific, especially out in the bush of New Caledonia. There, you use vous to address the police and multiple people, and tu for everyone else; I once tried to vouvoyer an old native man, and he stared at me like I was crazy and asked, “À qui tu parles? J’ai une souris dans ma poche ou quoi?” (No, that is not standard metropolitan French).

Still, check out the chart for the basics, read the comments for fun facts and anecdotes, and keep on learning.

A France that never was

I mostly get my news of France second-hand, from South Pacific sources (and in Polynesian languages instead of French), but as you may have heard, there was some sort of election over there, and the results have some people (mostly the ones who didn’t get as many votes) talking of “full-frontal shock” and an “earthquake”: Le Front National‘s far-right platform (some call it extremist) won an important victory, mostly with votes from the parts of France that aren’t Paris (which is a dichotomy some French people are very quick to point out, it seems).

Well, I’m not in a position to evaluate Le Front National‘s policies or goals, but when their detractors call them racist and fascist, it sends me on a pleasant mental side-track where I’m no longer bound by recent history or the current states of affairs: I think about alternate history, about a France that never was.

Alternate history, if you weren’t aware, frequently begins with an event on our timeline and asks, “What if this had happened differently?” It can be a huge event, like a natural disaster, or a tiny one, like Winston Churchill running too low on booze right before an important speech and just not quite nailing the flow of it. Sometimes, changes like these can ripple out very far in a hypothetical timeline.

So let’s take France, for instance. I’ll include a set of footnotes linking you to sites and forums where nerds are arguing about this stuff with a great deal more historical knowledge than I have, but I’ll provide only the sketchiest outlines of some of the hypothetical timelines I’ve read about:

OK, so imagine we’re in the late 1860s. The Second Empire is pretty awesome, people are psyched to have an emperor and stuff, and unlike in our original timeline (we’ll abbreviate that as OT), the Bonaparte family doesn’t irritate its more republic-minded citizens too badly, there’s much less moaning and groaning, and when Otto VanWhat’sHisStache in Prussia starts rattling pots and pans to freak everyone out, France doesn’t totally freak out, at least not right away. They wait to declare war until they’re good and ready, meanwhile temporarily losing a little territory in the north but then pulling a third-quarter comeback to kick Prussian troops back out and send them home to do whatever Prussians do at home. The Empire doesn’t fall, and there’s no third republic.

Well, what then? Some have called Bonapartist ideas “proto-fascist”, and I could maybe see a fascist France ending the nineteenth century with an even greater emphasis on military might, colonialism, and trains running on time than the OT third republic did. Education might involve a little more training on loyalty to the State, but you better believe it’ll be compulsory and compulsorily public. The artistic achievements of the OT France could still flourish, though again, perhaps with a little more patronage from the State and a reflected focus on state-approved messages.

As for what happens when the imperialist tensions, network of loyalties and pent-up aspirations explode in the Balkans in June of 1914, I’m not at all qualified to say. Does an Imperial France side with the central powers, form a triple entente, or try to sit this one out?

One of the challenges of alternate history is trying to predict beyond the immediate results of a historical timeline deviation, what with all the butterflies flapping their wings all over the place and changing everything up. Could a fascist France have arisen in a later branching off of the OT, for example after a hypothetical Austro-Hungarian-German-Ottoman victory in WWI? Or a Vichy regime that beats Charles de Gaulle and the Free French forces and continues to chill with a hypothetically victorious Third Reich next door?

At any rate, no matter how much some may be upset at recent elections, we probably won’t see a fascist France anytime soon.

If you could change French history at one point on our timeline, what would you change and why? Your reasons don’t have to be charitable; you could just want to poke at the anthill.

Some links:

Grammar vs. Glamour

You may have heard that the words “grammar” and “glamour”¹ share the same etymology², and that’s true. Based on the current meanings of the two words, and the images they bring to mind, the connection probably seems pretty far-fetched. After all, there’s no glossy magazine of photoshopped people entitled Grammar.

Well…a google search did bring this up. (Source site credits it to Mignon Fogarty).

But back in the day, words and books were super cool. I swear it’s true. Owning a book meant you were probably super rich, and therefore better than other people, and maybe even a wizard. Seriously. Because what else are they going to put in books, besides gnarly magic spells for turning stuff into gold (for buying more books) and summoning dragons to devour your neighbors?

So the humble word grammatica (Latin, from Greek ‘of letters’) became associated with books in general and then (by the kind of people who, with no access to actual books, came to the obvious conclusion that they were full of sweet magic) with a wizarding education. It entered English, like so many other words, via Old French.

And from there? Well, to get to the word grammar as used in English today, it was just a matter of keeping the ‘education’ part and dropping the magic. To get to glamour, on the other hand, the magic stayed, but peoples’ idea of what magic is got changed around. Sadly, it no longer has connotations of the transmutation of base metals or reanimating the dead, and instead seems primarily focused on people trying to look photoshopped in real life.

Grammar may be a tiring, boring, non-magical task for the modern student (whose books are still super expensive but confer no status whatsoever), but What The French?! can help. And if you, too, manage to make French grammar seem effortless and cool, people might just start to see you as a super attractive warlock. It could happen.


¹(also spelled “glamor” sometimes in the US, but this is one of those extremely rare occasions for me where I feel like it looks dumb without the u)

²(that is, word origin. Not to be confused with entomology, the study of insects)

³(the American Heritage Dictionary online will give you etymologies of words. Pretty “cool”, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Meet a chanteur: Manu Chao

I first heard “Le petit jardin” on my car radio on a Saturday morning. The sun was out (in Seattle, so it was unusual) and traffic was light, and I felt shockingly OK with the world around me. In a way, the song sounds almost like Raffi dueling with a reggae band after they’ve all read and discussed Le Petit Prince. When I got home, I lucked out: the lyrics I happened to remember, when googled, led me to the song.

Have a listen for yourself:

Manu Chao, the singer-songwriter, is an interesting mec.


His parents were Spanish, but moved to France to escape the Franco dictatorship. He grew up surrounded by artists and intellectuals, but the eighties happened and he joined a bunch of bands. He’s done a lot of solo work since then, too, singing in, according to Wikipedia: “French, Spanish, English, Italian, Arabic, Galician, and Portuguese and occasionally in other languages.” Some of his music is rocksome, some is punkish, and sometimes the abovementioned reggae influences come to the foreground. The guy has been a huge success over his long career, but never really in the English-speaking world.

Maybe we should change that.

Bonus: the slightly less Raffi-reggae, sort of alternate-version “Dans mon jardin”:

Meet a chanteur: Georges Brassens

Georges Brassens was like a singing French hybrid of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut.

I mean that both visually:






(From left: Twain, Vonnegut, Brassens)

…as well as in terms of his personality.

He wrote hilarious, brilliant songs about the absurdity of society and human behavior. Like his moustached brethren above, his lyrics show a deep understanding of humanity, not always in a pleasant way, but always meaningful and somehow hopeful. Don’t believe me? Listen to this song. Look up a translation if you have to.

But Brassens not only got pictures with his pipe; his portraits also prominently feature cats:

Georges Brassens  June 23  1960

…is that enough? Are you convinced yet? Georges Brassens rules.



Illustrated idiom: “casser les pieds à quelqu’un”

casser les pieds

“Casser les pieds à quelqu’un” (literally, to break someone’s feet) means to get on someone’s nerves, to annoy them. 

Foot, meet mouth

In my tireless trawling of the internet for mild amusement, I came across this very short story:


Aujourd’hui, je suis assistante funéraire et une cliente a souhaité acheter une plaque pour son défunt mari. Je lui ai proposé d’y ajouter un texte en prenant pour exemple : “Que ton repos soit doux comme ton cœur fut bon.” La cliente, effarée : “Mais… mon mari est mort d’une crise cardiaque.”


(The source is The site contains stories about unfortunate events, and as such may contain some themes which are not appropriate for all readers. What I’m trying to say is, don’t come crying to me.)

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