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Since yesterday I have been looking at a few dictionaries and forums online, looking for different words in French that mean "however". I want to learn about their usage. But I'm still confused especially because several of them have multiple meanings, most including the same one: However.

Some posters these terms are all pretty much interchangeable; one guy said that you can mainly distinguish them by where they appear in a phrase ("pourtant" will never be at the end of a sentence). Another said it has to do with degree of disagreement between statements, suggesting that, for instance, "par contre" is stronger than cependant. I also read a few people say that of all these terms, "pourtant" is the closest in meaning to "yet".

English is my native language and if someone asked me, I could not tell them exactly in what way "however", "yet", "nevertheless", "nonetheless", "on the other hand", etc, are different. And yet while (re)learning French, I am finding myself obsessing about these differences. Perhaps this is how I learn a new language, I don't know. Anyhow, I appreciate any guidance that natives or people with expertise in French can provide me. Thank you very much.

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    In multiple cases they are interchangeable, however I quite never use Cependant, toutefois et néanmoins when speaking, though they come quite often while writing. – Tim Oct 3 '16 at 8:02
  • pourtant peut se placer à la fin de la phrase, comme n'importe quel adverbe. "Par contre" n'est pas correct (mais employé fréquemment). – guillaume girod-vitouchkina Oct 3 '16 at 11:44
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Ah the subtle nuances of language! I believe that to understand how and when to use expressions or compound words such as these, one must delve into the basic meaning of the words that make up the expression.

Littré has a description of the main protagonists CEPENDANT, POURTANT, NÉANMOINS, TOUTEFOIS, and another of en revanche.

Since you are a native English speaker I'll try to translate as much as possible. Please note, however, that the reasoning is my own; you note that dictionaries aren't helping you very much!

  • cependant: literally something like "while this [is/was happening], meanwhile", originally with just that simple meaning, but later with the added meaning that concerns us here. Probably the same mechanism as "still"
  • pourtant: literally "for so much [to the contrary]" - probably the same mechanism as "even so"
  • toutefois: literally "every time" - maybe the same mechanism as "however"
  • néanmoins: literally "no less" - seems to be the same mechanism as "nevertheless" and "nonetheless"
  • en revanche: literally "in revenge" (though revanche is a much gentler "revenge" usually employed for games, such as a return match)
  • par contre: literally "by against", usually rendered in English by "in contrast", "on the other hand"

The first four are employed interchangeably, and Littré calls it an example of synonymous meaning with different etymologies. I'm sure that most native speakers have never consciously analyzed the oh-so-minor variations in meaning that I have tried to render here. I have found a little forum post in which the use cases of some of the English words are discussed

The last two are also synonymous (well, those who say "par contre" should not be used say that "en revanche" should be used instead, while those who admit both say that the first should be used to express opposition -- ).

As to the difference between the groups, I would say (really going out on an unsupported limb here) that the first is used to analyze an existing conflict or dilemma, while "en revanche" is used to express a back-and-forth list of arguments for-and-against (pros and cons). As for "par contre", personally I use it to introduce an opposing point of view, and I'm not alone in that!

  • thanks everyone for your views, and I think Law29's reply was the most helpful. I particularly liked that you tried to use your own words, as mere references to dictionaries had not helped me before. The quora link is also helpful. Just one question: can you use these words anywhere in a sentence, I mean at the beginning, end, and when introducing a new contrast? In particular I'm interested in néanmoins, toutefois, cependant, and toutefois. For instance in English I would not use "no less" in the beginning but end: Who should arrive but Jenny and her husband the senator, no less! – Jlente Oct 5 '16 at 20:51
  • Thanks! I would indeed use any of these expressions either at the beginning of a sentence or a clause (making a contrast with the immediately preceding sentence or clause), or at the end of a sentence, separated by a comma, to make a contrast with a preceding sentence. In fact I wonder if there are places where any of these constructions are not accepted. There are many examples for example at littre.org/definition/n%C3%A9anmoins of such words in the middle of sentences like just any adverb. – Law29 Oct 5 '16 at 21:26
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"par contre" doesn't exist in written French, my teacher said.

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    Well, one cannot really say it does not exist, it certainly does . . . otherwise Voltaire and Littré would not be quite so vehement in saying it shouldn't! – Law29 Oct 3 '16 at 17:43
  • I'm not sure but, once, I did my "synthèse des documents", I put a "par contre" to say "however" and my teacher marked it red and she told me not to use it in a paper. @Law29 – Annahri Oct 26 '17 at 18:21
  • She's not wrong in telling you not to use it, don't, especially with French teachers who are going to give you a grade, but that doesn't mean nobody uses it in real life. – Law29 Oct 29 '17 at 15:17

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