For this week’s French word of the week blog, we are going to take a slightly different tack. Instead of looking at one word, we’re going to look at two – grand and gros – and compare some of the differences in their usages. Click below to hear the audio file for grand…:
Both grand and gros are adjectives, and their feminine forms are grande and grosse respectively. You will also see the plural forms grands/grandes and gros/grosses. Both words are usually translated into English as big or large and, like many adjectives of size, they usually appear before the nouns that they modify:
une grande maison a big house
une grosse voiture a big car
The fact that they share a very common meaning can result in learners of French getting the two terms confused. So when should you use grand, and when should you use gros? Here are some general rules of thumb that might help if you’re stuck.
Use grand/grande to talk about:
Height or length:
- un grand bâtiment a tall building
- faire de grands pas to take long strides
Space or area:
- un grand hôtel a big hotel
- Votre jardin est très grand. Your garden is very big.
Number or abundance:
- une grande foule a huge crowd
- une grande quantité a large quantity
Importance or excellence (especially in positive descriptions):
- un grand nom a big name
- un film à grand spectacle an epic film
- Elle fut une grande femme de lettres. She was a great woman of letters.
- ma grande sœur my big / older sister
- une grande personne a grown-up
Use gros/grosse when referring to:
Mass or volume:
- une grosse pomme a big apple
- une grosse boîte de chocolats a big box of chocolates
Body mass (often pejorative):
- un gros chien a big / fat dog
- Il est assez gros. He is quite large / fat.
Extent or intensity (often, though not always, in negative descriptions):
- un gros rhume a bad / heavy cold
- une grosse erreur a big mistake
- On va faire de gros travaux dans ce bâtiment. They are going to do major renovation work in this building.
Sums or amounts of money:
- une grosse somme d’argent a large sum of money
- des grosses pertes huge losses
Temporary states (size, intensity):
- une grosse mer a stormy sea
- le gros temps bad weather
It’s worth emphasizing that using the word gros to describe a person’s size should be avoided in polite conversation: you may see a sentence such as il n’est pas mince (he is not thin) used instead for personal descriptions.
There are lots of things that may be described as either grand or gros, but the emphasis of these two terms is quite different, and they aren’t usually interchangeable. While grand and gros can be considered fairly neutral terms in the main, they can sometimes carry certain connotations, particularly in less formal language: gros may be used to introduce a more negative or pejorative connotation, while grand may be seen as a more positive term to use in many contexts.
Here are just a few examples and descriptions that may help illustrate some of the nuances between the two terms:
- un grand arbre: a tall tree
- un gros arbre: a large tree (i.e. one that’s wide as well as tall)
- un grand livre: a book that’s considered to be figuratively significant or impressive
- un gros livre: a thick or heavy book that has many pages
- un grand problème: a serious, and generally universal, problem, e.g. climate change, disease, poverty
- un gros problème: a serious, but generally individual, issue, e.g. a car breaking down, an injury
- les grands mots: important ideas and concepts, e.g. “love”, “hate”, “war”, “peace”
- les gros mots: swearwords, bad language
- avoir le cœur grand*: to be big-hearted, generous
- avoir le cœur gros*: to be heavy-hearted, upset
*(Note that the adjective appears after the noun in these set expressions.)
There are lots more differences between grand and gros that you will come across as you continue to learn French, but hopefully these points may be in some way useful as you learn more about this big topic. See you next time for a new French word of the week.
Written by Gina Macleod, language content editor
All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.
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