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I’ve studied this quite a bit, and can’t seem to get my head around the difference between these two verbs. I hear that approcher isn’t used much anymore, and s’approcher mostly takes the spotlight. Is this true? Can someone explain the subtle differences please?

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    There's quite a range of meanings across approcher and s'approcher. The extensive WordReference list is a good start. One issue with WR is that it doesn't often tell you which meanings are more prominent. The one I encounter most often in terms of capturing the usual English "to approach X" is "s'approcher de X". – Luke Sawczak May 25 at 1:23
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The verb approcher can be used a reflexive way and means that the subject gets closer to the object.

Je m'approche de la fenêtre. (I'm getting near the window.)

The opposite is:

Je m'éloigne de la fenêtre.

While the same sentence might have been used a non reflexive way in the past, you don't really say in modern French (at least in France but it seems to sound odd in Canadian French too):

J'approche la fenêtre.

or

J'approche de la fenêtre.

These forms might be possible when approcher means to move something near something else, in which case the reflexive form is not possible, e.g.:

J'approche la chaise de la table (or better: je rapproche la chaise de la table) I move the chair toward the table.

The opposite is:

J'éloigne/écarte la chaise de la table

There are a few cases where approcher (de) is equivalent to s'approcher de:

Il approche la cinquantaine. (he is approaching his fifties)

Il approche de la cinquantaine.

Il s'approche de la cinquantaine.

Some where there is a nuance:

Il approche son client. He approaches his customer (The approach is deliberate and likely the first step of a plan).

Il se rapproche de son client. (He is getting closer physically or emotionally. That might not be deliberate.)

L'avion approche de Paris. (meaning L'avion est en approche de Paris. Its pilot is preparing the landing procedure)

L'avion se rapproche de Paris. (The plane is getting closer to Paris location but that might not be its actual destination.)

Some other where the reflexive form is unused:

Il approche le problème sous divers angles (also il aborde le problème...)

Il s'approche du problème sous divers angles.

See also "approcher" ou "s'approcher"

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    Je trouve j'approche la fenêtre étrange. Même j'approche de la fenêtre, quoique moins, je pense que je le dirais peut-être avec des lieux en auto, du genre j'approche de Québec. Je suis pas certain... – un3hiv3r May 25 at 3:09
  • Il y a des exceptions, et si cela se trouve dans les textes, ce doit être plus courant encore dans la langue parlée. – LPH May 25 at 9:45
  • @LPH Aucune règle ne dit qu'une expression rare à l'écrit doive moins l'être à l'oral. On approche de Paris se dit surtout quand on est dans un véhicule, une raison pour laquelle on approche du bureau n'est pas idiomatique. – jlliagre May 25 at 10:31
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Yes, it is certainly true, but to a point : The TLFi classifies the meanings into two parts;

I. Emplois vieillis, littér. ou figés.
A. Emploi trans.
B. Emplois trans. ind. Approcher de…

II. Emplois vivants A. Emploi pronom. S'approcher de…
B. Emploi intrans. Approcher.

However, as it can be seen from the categories, "approcher" as an intransitive verb is still quite current; although a preference is apparently given to the pronominal verb in the spoken language (personal impression) this ngram shows that in print the intransitive verb is sometimes used more frequently: "approcha de sa", "… de son", "…de cette".

There is no subtle difference as far as I can tell; the meaning is the same; I can impute this replacement to nothing else than the vagaries of usage.

For instance, from the two following possibilities only the second is correct (sense and usualness) (correction due to user jlliagre, see comments);

  • Après avoir approché du bureau il y a posé un livre.
  • Après s'être approché du bureau il y a posé un livre.
  • I can impute my -1 to nothing else than the vagary of your assertions... – jlliagre May 24 at 20:29
  • @jlliagre As far as I can see, there is no tangible reason for the replacement of the transitive verb by the pronominal verb; maybe I'll learn something interesting in your answer. – LPH May 24 at 20:37
  • You two disagree, so then are the two not actually equivalent or interchangeable? – tssmith2425 May 24 at 21:17
  • No, they aren't. Only the second sentence is acceptable. Every native French speaker would spot the incorrectness of the first one. – jlliagre May 24 at 21:26
  • @jlliagre I think I see what you mean; those forms do not belong to the so called "emplois vivants". I change my answer. – LPH May 24 at 22:15

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