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Revenir, repleuvoir, redevoir… along with many others, these are verbs which I've come across that simply mean the same as the root verb + “again.”

But then you have words like “resavoir” and “se ressouvenir” which do not mean the same as the root verb.

When is it okay to add a “re” before a verb? Can it be done to every verb in the French language, or is it only for the pre-existing cases, words which are already established as repeat verbs?

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3 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

First, the re- prefix doesn't always connote re-petition (e.g. recompter), it may also indicate re-currence (e.g. rebondir), re-action (e.g. rebondir with a different meaning), re-adjustment (e.g. rehausser), or state re-covery (e.g. revenir), re-ciprocity (e.g. redevoir), among others.

Most verbs do not admit such a prefix. I would advise you against making words you have never seen. Prefer adverbial locutions such as “de nouveau”, “à nouveau”, “une fois de plus”, “encore une fois” to express repetition.

Note: resavoir does not exist, it sounds very odd and would not be understood (with whatever meaning).

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re- is a productive prefix. You can add it before any verb that denotes an action (and many verbs that don't), and the meaning will be “do again” unless the verb already exists with a different meaning. –  Gilles Jun 18 '12 at 21:13
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You can do it in most cases and it should be understood: reparler, remonter, revoir, reprendre, recourir, relire

but it will sound weird in some cases, even if it makes sense: raimer (aimer), se révanouir, rehaïr, repréférer, recomprendre

and in some cases it means something else entirely: réviser, reporter, remiser, répondre, ressentir, regarder… and in this case, adding another re- will sound awkward.

So I would advise to do it in informal context, and especially orally: native speakers do it all the time, I have even heard « J'ai re-ressenti » and « J'ai re-regardé » ; but you shouldn't try it in formal context, or in write it if you are not sure of how it sounds. Note that it should be ré- before a silent h as in réhabituer and in some cases before a vowel réarmer, réapprendre.

For more insight on using re-, le wiktionnaire has good usages notes.

Now if you are not sure or don't want to use re-, in most cases, and especially for dynamic verbs, using encore is a good replacement in composite tenses

J'ai re​joué → J'ai encore joué

while de nouveau sounds right in simple tenses

Je re​joue → Je joue de nouveau

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There are lots of pre-existing case (everyday use) of verbs with re- before: rebondir, rejaillir, retordre, retrousser

But the re- form enables you to make new verbs with a meaning of repetition or not, which are not provided (directly) by the French language. You can use the re- before a verb with almost every verbs or nouns in French.

A very good article form the Office Québécois de la langue française: le préfixe re-.

Or some examples in the french Wikitionary.

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Note: rebondir does not exactly mean bondir de nouveau, rejaillir does not mean jaillir de nouveau. Trousser is barely used anymore, retrousser does not mean trousser de nouveau. –  Stéphane Gimenez Jun 18 '12 at 8:18
    
And there are cases where both verbs actually have more or less the same meaning: culer is a specific boating term which essentially means the same as reculer. –  Joubarc Apr 4 '13 at 14:09
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