Homophones, including French Homophones, are words that are pronounced in the same way but are written differently. They also have a different meaning. Hmm.. I guess you are wondering now how can the difference in writing be important while you might be only interested in speaking and practicing the language. Actually, it is extremely important and really helpful to understand the function and meaning of every word in order to construct correct sentences, and know which words to use and why.
As in all languages, in the French language, homophones are pretty common. However, in this present article we are going to deal with only three of them: a/à, son/sont/sans, ou/où.
In order to understand the difference between these two letters, let’s see what are their respective natures and functions.
À is in fact one of the most important and used prepositions in the French language. It is generally used to introduce the complement of a sentence, a destination, place, time, or to express belonging, manner. In English it might translate to:
- To – Je vais à la bibliothèque. (I am going to the library.)
- At – Je suis au restaurant. (I am at the restaurant.) or Je suis sorti(e) à 8h. (I went out at 8 o’clock.)
- In – Tu habites à Paris. (You live in Paris.)
- On – Elle va à pieds. (She went on foot.)
- Of – Cette voiture est à mon frère. (This car is my brother’s.)
Do not worry, it is not as complicated as you think. As you can see, it has specific usage and the key to learning is practice. So go ahead, give it a shot and leave us a comment with a sentence containing the preposition à.
Another thing that we need to bare in mind when we use à is contractions. That is, when à is followed by a definite articles (le, la, les).
- À + le – au: Tu vas au stade. (You go to the stadium). ‘Stade’ is a masculin noun, thus, introduced with the article le. In this case, à and le trun into au.
- À + la – à la: Tu vas à la maison. (You go to the house). ‘Maison’ is a féminin noun, thus, introduced with the article la. In this case, we do not have a contraction.
- À + les – aux: Je donne des graines aux pigeons (I give seeds to pigeons). À followed by les contracts to aux.
So to recapitulate, à is a preposition that can introduce the complement of a sentence and that can be contracted into two other different prepositions; au and aux. Now let’s look at the other ‘a’.
The accent is not the only difference between the two. A, without an accent, is in fact the verb avoir (to have) formed with the third-person singular pronoun: il, elle, or on (he, she, or the familiar way to say ‘we’).
- Ma voisine a une belle voiture. (My neighbour has a nice car.)
- Il a une bonne moyenne en mathématique (He has a good average/mark in mathematics.)
- On a un test la semaine prochaine. (We have a test next week.)
See? It is pretty simple now to make the difference between the two once we understand the nature of each. One à is a preposition, the other one is a verb! If you want to have another tip not to get confused, here is one.
If in a sentence we can replace a with avait (the verb avoir in the past), and the sentence would still make sense then we put a without an accent. For example: ma voisine avait une belle voiture (she had a nice car).
If not, then we put “à” with an accent. For example, if we say L’étudiant va avait la bibliothèque (the student goes had the library); the sentence is grammatically wrong and does not make any sense.
Again, when learning French homophones, we need to first see what is the nature and function of each word. For son, sont, and sans, it is very simple. Let’s look at them one by one.
Son is a possessive adjective (his/her) used with masculine nouns.
- Il prend son cours d’anglais en ligne (he takes his english lesson online)
- Elle a mis son téléphone dans son sac (she put her phone in her bag)
It is important to note here that there are certain exceptions to the rule. But let’s not get distracted by that. Let’s focus on French homophones, and we will look into possessive adjectives in detail in another article.
Sont, however, is a verb. It is the verb être (to be) formed with the third-person plural pronoun ils (masculin) and elles (féminin) (they).
- Les élèves sont à l’école (students are at school)
- Elles sont très gentilles (they (féminin) are really nice)
Finally, sans, is a preposition that is used similarly to ‘without’ in english.
- Vous êtes sortis sans parapluie (you went out without an umbrella)
- Je suis venu ici sans prévenir mon amie (I came here without telling my friend)
So, sans, can be used to express absence, lack of action, or negation as well. In fact, many English words and phrases with -less, non-, un-, etc. are equivalent to sans plus the corresponding French noun.
Here are some examples:
- sans abri – homeless
- sans arrêt – non-stop
- sans blague – no kidding
- sans domicile fixe (SDF) – homeless
- sans doute – doubtless
- sans égal – unequaled, peerless
- sans préjugés – unbiased, without prejudices
- sans repos – relentless, without stopping
Easy peasy ! Do not hesitate to use these new expressions as well !
The last French homophones that we are going to see in our article are ou and où. Again, one single accent makes all the difference. Let’s look at the function and meaning of each one.
Ou is a coordinating conjunction. To connect two words or groups of words of the same nature and function, we use it. It indicates an alternative, and is the equivalent of ‘or’ in English.
- Vous préférez le bleu ou le rose? (do you prefer blue or pink?)
- Je vais lui parler maintenant ou peut être demain (I am going to talk to him now or may be tomorrow)
Où, on the other hand, can be an adverb that marks the place, the time, and the situation or a relative pronoun. In this case, it can be translated to ‘where’, ‘when’ or sometimes ‘that’.
Let’s look at these examples:
- Le restaurant où on a mangé lundi dernier était très bien (the restaurant where we ate last monday was pretty cool/nice)
- Le jour où j’ai fini mes études était l’un des plus beaux jours de ma vie (the day when I graduated was one of the best days of my life)
- Où vas-tu? (where are you going?)