I'm writing a short story where one of the main characters is an elderly gentleman born in France but has lived in the UK most of his life. He speaks perfect English but I want to have him use slightly odd versions of everyday expressions which betray his French heritage. I'm thinking that he speaks in English but uses a literal translation of the equivalent French idiom.

He MUST NOT appear stupid or comic by doing this so I want the terms to be quite subtle so that only some of my readers will even spot what he's done.

Edit: Following comments I'd like to clarify:

  1. They need not be actual phrases, even single words can work.
  2. They must be fairly normal day-to-day speech that would come-up in normal conversation
  3. It would be good if the original French version is "better" than the English — so the character has unconsciously rejected the English version as being nonsensical and has chosen to use a literal translation of the French version instead.
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    It’s not quite clear what you’re asking for. Resources of literal translations of French idioms?
    – Édouard
    Jul 31, 2014 at 23:05
  • I want actual examples I can use in the story. Apologies but my French is pretty bad. As an example I could have him say "Good on" instead of "of course" but it's a very clumsy example that I would never use. They need to be far more subtle than that.
    – Lefty
    Aug 1, 2014 at 11:04
  • 4
    We can’t really list every French idiom and its translation. If you have specific sayings you’d like to know, you can ask for it, if you’d like some references you can ask for it, but asking for examples without guidance is bound to get few answers. By the way, “bien sûr” is not literally “good on”: “bien” is “well”, “sûr” is “sure” (“sur”, no accent, is “on”).
    – Édouard
    Aug 1, 2014 at 11:34
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    Ça me fait penser à amazon.fr/husband-integrale-Ciel-mari-Lint%C3%A9grale/dp/… Aug 1, 2014 at 13:50
  • @Edouard: I did say my French was bad! There is nothing specific - I want to get a list of 8 or 10 and will create the dialogue to fit around which ones I use. But you've made me think a little more about what I do want so I will clarify with an edit. HOWEVER, "Well sure" is an excellent example which I didn't know so that goes on the list!
    – Lefty
    Aug 1, 2014 at 21:51

4 Answers 4


A mistake I always do in English is to say "capacity" rather than skill. It seems like a good and suttle word that your character could say without appearing stupid nor funny.

  • 1
    But this is just one word, it would of course be easier if you were asking us for a french translation of a sentence that you want your character to say.
    – Pierre
    Aug 1, 2014 at 14:06
  • One word it may be - but it fits the bill really well. Well done @Pierre for understanding what I'm trying to achieve.
    – Lefty
    Aug 1, 2014 at 21:52

You could have your character use he or she when referring to some inanimate objects instead of the proper it. Native English speakers would never do that ... in fact they tend to be puzzled by the lack of a actual rule when deciding the gender of things.


Not exactly what you had in mind but your question reminds me of sacrebleu that has become a stereotype for French people in the US, since Agatha Christie had Hercule Poirot say that word in her novels, but no French people would ever use that word nowadays (and they didn't either when Agathie Christie wrote her Hecule Poirot novels).

Maybe in that line you could have your character swear in French, and say something like :

  • I like the idea of him swearing - but thought it might be too much of a cliché for him to say "Merde!". "Zut" may work - so long as it isn't too rude because that would be out of character...?
    – Lefty
    Aug 1, 2014 at 22:01
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    @Sifu: OP did say her character came from France - that's why I excluded sacrebleu which would de facto have made the character come from Quebec or other French speaking parts of the world other than France !
    – None
    Aug 2, 2014 at 5:55
  • @Lefty: I've added links to the English equivalent of those swearwords.
    – None
    Aug 2, 2014 at 5:57
  • @Laure, my bad, missed that part.
    – Sifu
    Aug 4, 2014 at 12:09

Having understood that "And she flies over the market" (Et elle vole, par dessus le marché") or "eventually" grossly used for "éventuellement" is not what you want, the best I could advise is to look for Web pages called "faux amis" or the equivalent for English. That's where you'll find the most subtle stuff. Or, if you prefer them obscure, you can invent them yourself, like, keeping in line with the above, in reply to "you're a twit", saying "you're a twat" after the French word "con".

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