Learning French: Common courtesies

No matter which language you’re speaking or whom you’re talking to, good manners are important for good communication. With that in mind, this instalment of our French conversation blog looks at common courtesies that we might come across in everyday interactions.

We’ll start by looking at the French equivalent of please. When asking for something, or requesting information, in most cases you would say:

S’il vous plaît. Please.

As discussed in our conversation blog about meetings and greetings, vous is the safest pronoun to use when speaking to someone you don’t know. On this note, if you’re addressing a stranger, it’s always most polite to refer to them as monsieur or madame.
Back to using please: if you’re addressing someone you know well, you can use a less formal expression using the informal tu form:

S’il te plaît. Please.

Let’s look at some examples of both expressions:

S’il vous plaît, où sont les toilettes ? Where are the toilets, please?
Est-ce que tu veux du vin ? – Oui, s’il te plaît. Do you want some wine? – Yes, please.

If you’re in a situation where you need to be particularly emphatic with your reply, you could use the phrase oui, volontiers, meaning gladly or with pleasure.

Now that we’ve learned about asking someone for something politely, the next step in the conversation would usually be to thank that person.

The most common way to say thank you in French is merci, but there are plenty ways of expressing your gratitude a bit more fully:

• Merci beaucoup. Thank you very much.
• Merci bien. Thanks a lot.
• Merci mille fois ! Thanks a million!
(literally ‘thanks a thousand times’)

While less common in conversational French, there is also a more formal construction that you can use when giving particular thanks to an individual or a group:

Je vous remercie or Je te remercie. I thank you.

One thing worth remembering is that when you are being offered something, you should stipulate either:

Oui, merci (affirmative)
Non, merci (negative)

This is important because just saying merci on its own could mean either yes, thanks or no, thanks.
In closing this part of the conversation, the usual responses to merci are as follows:

De rien ! You’re welcome! (informal, literally translates as it’s nothing).
Je vous en prie or Je t’en prie. You’re welcome. (more formal, literally translates as I beg it of you).

One final, important set of courtesies to learn about are apologies. The phrases excuse me and sorry both have lots of different senses in English, and there are various ways of translating these into French too – let’s look at some of them now:

• Excusez-moi. Excuse me.
This covers most situations, whether you’re looking to attract someone’s attention, making a polite request, or apologising.

Pardon. Pardon / Sorry.
You can use this as a polite apology. But when used as a question (pardon ?), you can use it to ask someone to repeat something they’ve said. If you’re just starting to learn French, this might be useful!

Je suis désolé(e). I’m sorry.
If you’re looking to express regret for something, or offering your sympathies, then you would use this phrase, or simply say désolé(e). Note that in written French, you would add an extra ‘e’ to désolé for the feminine form, but the spoken French pronunciation remains the same.

Je m’excuse. Excuse me / I’m sorry.
From the same verb as excusez-moi, this is mainly used to offer an apology, or to interrupt to make a request or get attention. However, although it’s relatively common, some people would say it’s not correct French. The phrase literally means I excuse myself. We would recommend using excusez-moi as a safer term to use, but you may hear je m’excuse among French friends in informal conversation.

Don’t forget…sorry, we mean please don’t forget to come back soon for our next blog to help you continue the conversation. Merci d’avance – thanks in advance!


Language In Use

This short dialogue shows how some of the key words and phrases from this blog might work in conversation.

A: Excusez-moi.
B: Oui, madame ?
A: L’addition, s’il vous plaît.
B: Voici l’addition.
A: Merci.
B: Je vous en prie.

Written by Holly Tarbet, freelance copywriter and 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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