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I have seen both an and année used almost interchangeably in both singular and plural. Are they really interchangeable? Does it depend on some dialects or something else?

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3 Answers 3

They are not really interchangeable — since in some situations one is nearly always used and the other isn't — but using one instead of the other will often be understandable, just non-idiomatic or losing a nuance.

As a rule of thumb,

  • an is used for the unit of time;

  • année is used for a period of one year, usually contiguous, often with a implied precise beginning (1st of January — année civile —, 1st of September — année scolaire —, date of birth, ...).

  • using année tend to focuses on what happened during the time span while using an focuses on the duration. For instance

    • deux ans de travail de perdus emphasises the lost time (which could have been used for something else)

    • deux années de travail de perdues emphasises the lost work (perhaps it has to be redone)

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I would not rely to much on this though: l'an un, l'an de grâce, l'an 2000, année-lumière, etc. –  Stéphane Gimenez Jun 15 '13 at 13:24

There is a difference.

Année is used to express a notion of duration which is not in "an" (unit of time):

J'ai travaillé cinq ans dans cette entreprise (simply informative)

J'ai travaillé cinq années dans cette entreprise (we want to underline the fact that it is a long time)

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I see another difference we may add to other answers. When we talk about a period of time in the History, we use the term années :

Cette technologie a été inventée dans les années 2000.

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