TNs, U12: Clothing (Idiomatic Plurals, Diacritics, Nasal Vowels)

Idiomatic Plurals

English has a number of idiomatic nouns that appear the same whether singular or plural and care must be taken when translating them into French.

For instance, "the pants" can mean one or more pairs of pants in English, but le pantalon is singular and means one pair of pants in French. Les pantalons is plural and refers to multiple pairs of pants, never a single pair. Similarly, when translating le pantalon back to English, you can say "the pants" or "the pair of pants", but "the pant" is not correct. This also applies to un jean, un pyjama, un short ("a pair of jeans/pajamas/shorts").

Please note that un vêtement refers to “a single article of clothing”, and it's incorrect to translate it as "clothes" Clothes is invariably plural in English and refers to a collection of clothing. “Clothes” would be des vêtements.


The acute accent (é) only appears on E and produces a pure [e] that isn't found in English. To make this sound, say the word "cliché", but hold your tongue perfectly still on the last vowel to avoid making a diphthong sound.

The grave accent (è) can appear on A/E/U, though it only changes the sound for E (to [ɛ], which is the E in "lemon"). Otherwise, it distinguishes homophones like a (a conjugated form of avoir) and à (a preposition), or ou (“or”) and (“where”).

The cedilla (ç) softens a normally hard C sound to the soft C in "cent". Otherwise, a C followed by an A, O, or U has a hard sound like the C in "car".

The circumflex (ê) usually means that an S used to follow the vowel in Old French or Latin. (The same is true of the acute accent.) For instance, île was once "isle".

The trema (ë) indicates that two adjacent vowels must be pronounced separately, like in Noël ("Christmas") and maïs ("corn").

Nasal Vowels

There are four nasal vowels in French. Try to learn these sounds by listening to native speakers.

IPA Letter Sequence Examples
/œ̃/ un/um un/parfum
/ɛ̃/ in/im/yn/ym vin/pain/syndicat/sympa
/ɑ̃/ an/am/en/em dans/chambre/en/emploi
/ɔ̃/ on/om mon/ombre

These aren't always nasalized. If there's a double M or N, or if they are followed by any vowel, then the vowel should have an oral sound instead. For instance, un is nasal, but une is not. Also, vin is nasal, but vinaigre is not.

Please see this discussion for more information about nasal vowels.

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2 months ago


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