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I don't quite understand the difference in usage between content and heureux. For example, in the phrase "Plus la date de leurs vacances approchait, plus les enfants étaient heureux" I'm not quite sure as to why contents wouldn't be appropriate.

Is there a rule governing each word's use? What are the connotations of each heureux and content?

  • 1
    To make it simple: content = glad, heureux = happy – Graffito Oct 18 '15 at 21:36
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Simply said: content is included in heureux; so heureux expresses a deeper feeling.

For the example you mentioned, heureux is more appropriate than content.

  • Content: it is about contentedness, it's about being/feeling satisfied

  • Heureux= content + excited/happy

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"heureux" is deeper than "content".

When something specific brings you happiness, you can use "content", but it will be limited in time and scope.

"Heureux" can often be used in the same way, but it can also be used a state of happiness that lasts, that may not be linked to something specific. It's closer to "bliss" then.

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The short story is: one is content of something in particular, but heureux in general.

Je suis content de te voir.   (I'm glad to see you.)
Je suis content que tu aies pu venir.   (I'm glad you could come.)

Ils vécurent heureux et eurent beaucoup d'enfants.   (They lived happily ever after — lit. They lived happ(il)y and had many children.)

Content is rarely used without a qualifier (possibly implied) indicating what the person is happy about, though you can find it occasionally in literary usage.

Heureux can be used to mean that one is happy about something in particular, but it has a requirement that content doesn't have, which is that the person who is described as happy should be involved in the event. This is a usage trend, not an absolute rule. For example, “(?) Je suis heureux que tu puisses venir” sounds awkward; on the other hand, “Je suis heureux d'apprendre que tu pourras venir” sounds fine (it's a fairly standard formal construction, where one states being happy not of the event but of learning about it).

Note that this is only the short story. There are many nuances, many cases where the two words can be used interchangeably or where only one of the words fits despite not fitting the general/particular mold.

  • This raises an interesting question for me-- if one is referencing the oft-quoted line And they lived happily ever after, mais à l'orale et en français, ought it to be in passé simple since that's how it's usually written and thus how it would be recognized? Or is it switched to passé composé for such a verbal reference? – temporary_user_name Apr 21 '16 at 5:38
  • @Aerovistae It's an idiom, so it would be kept in the passé simple (and similarly the reference to having many children would be kept without implying that the people involved did in fact have many children). – Gilles Apr 21 '16 at 9:18
  • Is "ils vécurent heureux pour toujours" equally common, or is one more canonical? – temporary_user_name Apr 21 '16 at 14:20
  • @Aerovistae Nobody says “ils vécurent heureux pour toujours”. books.google.com/ngrams/… – Gilles Apr 21 '16 at 14:49

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