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Is there any difference in meaning between "à la fin" and "en fin de compte"? It seems to me that both mean "in the end" in English. Examples:

  • J'ai essayé de l'appeler dix fois, et, à la fin/en fin de compte, il a répondu.
  • Ils se sont retrouvés coincés dans un énorme embouteillage. Néanmoins, à la fin / en fin de compte, ils sont arrivés à l'heure.
  • Everyone below explains the difference very well. I just want to specify that à la fin for en fin de compte, finalement is a rather obvious anglicism (in the end). – Circeus Oct 21 at 16:50
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They overlap but en fin de compte introduces a conclusion, an observation, is closer to finalement, en définitive (at the end of the day) while à la fin is more descriptive and states the precise time some event happened.

I would used either of them in your first example but en fin de compte in the second one because when you are coincé, you don't move.

Alternatives can be:

J'ai essayé de l'appeler dix fois et il a fini par répondre.

Ils sont restés coincés dans un énorme embouteillage mais (ils) sont finalement arrivés à l'heure.

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    You said that "en fin de compte" introduces a consequence and that it fits better than "à la fin" in the second sentence, but "arriving on time" is not a consequence of "being stuck in a traffic jam". An example of consequence would be being late. – Alan Evangelista Oct 20 at 10:11
  • Following OP's comment, I'd vote for replacing consequence with conclusion. The conclusion being or not consequent. – aCOSwt Oct 20 at 10:31
  • @aCOSwt Tha's right, done. – jlliagre Oct 20 at 11:17
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Especially in the first sentence, 'en fin de compte' makes me expect that you will

  • introduce an explanation: "J'ai essayé de l'appeler dix fois, et, en fin de compte il n'avait plus de batterie.", or
  • act: "J'ai essayé de l'appeler dix fois, et, en fin de compte je suis allé chez lui.".

(The 'Néanmoins' of the second sentence makes this a bit less likely.)

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Think of it this way:

à la fin: lorsque quelque chose se termine (that's all there is to it, really)

However, "en fin de compte" is more like

après tout, au bout du compte, tout bien considéré, finalement, en dernière analyse

They are not always interchangeable, there might be a few cases wherein en fin de compte can be replaced by à la fin and vice-versa.

J'ai essayé de l'appeler dix fois, et, à la fin/en fin de compte, il a répondu.

You repeatedly tried to reach him and thought he would never pick up the damn phone! But he ultimately/eventually did. (pardon my French)

J'ai essayé de l'appeler dix fois, et, à la fin/en fin de compte, il a répondu.

à la fin is on the last attempt (you would have not tried further). It happened at the end.

En fin de compte, ça peut nous rapporter gros.

When you think about it, it could actually yield a huge profit. It's also meaning on the long run.

A la fin, ça peut nous rapporter gros.

That's like saying "à la longue" (on the long run). At the beginning maybe not, but ultimately.

Two meanings according to this link and you'll note there is à la fin amongst its synonyms. But then again, synonyms are not always interchangeable, it's context dependent.

  1. après tout, en dernière analyse.
  2. adverbe qui marque l'opposition entre deux choses liées ou entre deux aspects d'une même chose. Cependant, mais, néanmoins, toutefois.

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