"To happen" in French seems to be shared between two verbs; se passer and arriver and I'm trying to understand when to use one over the other.

To ask questions of happen, such as "What happened? What's happening? What will happen?" is ok for me "Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé? qu'est-ce qui se passe? et qu'est-ce qui se passera?".

But translations of "What happened to him / her" use "arriver" for example; "Que lui est-il arrivé"

Also, while not 100% accurate below I have seen "arriver" used when "happen" is used in non-questioning statements like; "I knew it would happen." "I happen to be good at that." "It will happen tomorrow." "Let's talk about what actually happened".

Can someone help give some clarity around "to happen" en français and when arriver and se passer are most appropriate?

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    You might find the answers to your question in this other question: Que veulent vraiment dire « se passer », « se produire », « survenir » et « échoir » ? – Laure May 7 '17 at 17:04
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    Though not worth a separate answer, it just might happen to be worth noting here that one of the examples in your paragraph about “non-questioning statements” (“I happen to be good at that.”) is, imo, different enough from the other examples found in that paragraph to justify using something other than "arriver." I interpret that use of “happen” to mean “as it turns out/come about [by chance],” which I translate to French with either “se trouver [justement] que”, “s’avérer que” or even “Comme par hazard”=”Il se trouve que//Il s’avère que//Comme par hazard, je suis doué/e pour ça/cela.” – Papa Poule May 7 '17 at 21:31
  • Donc, a traduire le phrase "I happen to be a good dancer" serait "Je me trouve que je suis / sois un bon danseur"? – johnmacward May 13 '17 at 11:48

When something happens generally, it's se passer, if you do not use an indirect object.

When something just happens: it's se passer.

What happened last night? Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé hier soir?

Compared to:

What happened to him: An indirect object.

Qu'est-ce qu'il lui arrive? What's happening to him?

Qu'est-ce qu'il lui est arrivé hier soir? What happened to him last night?

[I use the qu'est-ce here which is more usual in speech)

Now, if you want to say: What happened to him last night with se passer, you can do it like this:

Qu'est-ce que c'était passé avec lui hier soir?

But that is a bit different: What happened with him last night?

  • "se passer" is never used with an indirect object. However, "arriver" can be used both with and without indirect objects as in "ça arrive" (it happens). In this case, "ça se passe" would translate to "it's happening". So the difference is more subtle. We can also say "c'est arrivé hier" or "ça s'est passé hier", which is sightly different. – Quentin Ruyant Nov 30 '17 at 12:28
  • @Quentin Ruyant You can say a thousand things. I was pretty clear in my observations. – Lambie Dec 1 '17 at 17:55
  • Well, when something just happens, it can be "ça arrive". That's my point. – Quentin Ruyant Dec 2 '17 at 3:20

S'il t'arrivait quoi que ce soit, je ne saurais pas quoi faire.

With « arriver », the focus is on whether something happens or not. And it's a one-off, happening rather quickly if it does, like an accident.

Tout s’est passé comme elle l’avait prédit.

Tout s’est déroulé comme elle l’avait prédit.

With « se passer » or « se dérouler », on the other hand, you can express how something happens. Also, it continues for a certain period of time rather than being over in an instant. Everything she had predicted came true one by one.

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    You could also say tout est arrivé comme elle l'avait prédit, and s'il se passe quoi que ce soit, je ne saurais pas quoi faire. – Laure May 7 '17 at 17:09

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