I just said in conversation:

Je sais ce qu’il en coûte de recourir à cette méthode. Si vraiment on doit en passer par là, on pourrait peut-être au moins faire ...

I wonder in hindsight if I could have said "en arriver là" interchangeably. Or do these two carry any nuance here?

Je sais ce qu’il en coûte de recourir à cette méthode. Si vraiment on doit en arriver là, on pourrait peut-être au moins faire ...

Usually, "passer par" and "arriver" denote two different actions, of course, but in this specific (metaphorical) context, I wonder if we really need to make a distinction between the two? After all, they both centre around the idea that "if we have to resort to that".


2 Answers 2


I'd say there is a nuance: "En passer par là" implies that you need to go through something unpleasant to achieve a goal. 'En arriver là" implies that you have to resort to some drastic measure to achieve a goal. A common variation of "en arriver là" is "en arriver à de telles extrémités" but in this case the drastic measure aforementioned is already known to your interlocutor.

  • Interesting. So the focus is on "unpleasantness" vs "extremity"? Nov 29, 2017 at 22:43
  • Pretty much, yeah..
    – user45784
    Nov 29, 2017 at 22:55
  • En passer par lá is not always unpleasant.
    – Lambie
    Nov 29, 2017 at 23:08
  • @Lambie only when you are masochist. The phrase (En) passer par là means "endure a hardship".
    – jlliagre
    Nov 30, 2017 at 0:12
  • 1
    Littré dit "en passer par" "se résigner, se soumettre". La connotation négative est assez forte, il me semble...
    – user45784
    Dec 1, 2017 at 19:14

Here is an André Gide excerpt from Retour de l'U.R.S.S, Retouches à mon retour de l'U.R.S.S. that shows the nuance is slight but exists between both expressions.

Car pour eux il ne s'agit pas seulement de montrer comment on en est arrivé là (ce qui est, somme toute, assez facile à comprendre) mais de prouver qu'on a raison d'en arriver là, ou du moins d'en passer par là, d'abord et en attendant mieux...

However, in your particular sentence, both idioms are close enough for being equally usable.

  • So in the sentence I said, would you use "en passer par là" and "en arriver là" more or less interchangeably in practice? Nov 29, 2017 at 22:55
  • 1
    In my experience, these locutions are typically used towards desobeying children. "S'il faut en arriver là, tu seras privé de dessert" or "s'il faut en passer par là, je vais te priver de dessert". So yes, there's a nuance that is reflected in the fact that an active proposition fits better with "en passer par là" whereas a passive one fits better with "en arriver là", but at the end of the day, what is conveyed is very similar. Nov 30, 2017 at 9:45
  • @QuentinRuyant So I see your opinion on their interchangeability is the same as jlliagre's. PapaPoule pointed this out too, but I find this "active vs passive" difference convincing indeed. It's beyond me why Lambie insists on comparing the literal difference in physical movement between "arriver" and "passer par" whereas we are all discussing the nuances perceived in their metaphorical usage. Nov 30, 2017 at 10:46
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2017 at 22:52

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