So I am studying this new rule and there are two phrases the differences between which I can't get from the context.

Au loin: Au loin on voit un grand pavillon. and

De loin: De loin on n'entend pas ce qu'il dit.

I have a guess that it has something to do with the location of the speaker, but I am not sure

Could you please help me? Thanks


"Au loin" would be translated as "far away" while "De loin" would be "from afar".

Basically the difference is from which perspective you are considering things. In the first sentence, we are considering the subject as center of the action, and the object is far away from it. In the second sentence, the center of the action is object who's saying something and the subject is listening from afar.

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  • Au loin better translates to 'from far away' or 'from a distance' – Patrick Sebastien Dec 30 '19 at 16:12

"Au loin" is an adverbial that you can translate in English by "in the distance"; it means that what you are looking at is far away from you.

  • Au loin on pouvait voir une tâche de soleil sur la mer mais la plage était sombre, il n'y avait pas d'autre percée dans les nuages.

"De loin" is an other adverbial that expresses again that something is situated at a relatively important distance from the observer but it is not used as a descriptive term in a given situation, it is used for making a general statement that is always true when the distance is great or for giving the reason for a particular appearance; I mean by that that the locutor does not have in mind to tell you simply that what he is looking at is far away but that looking at it from afar explains a given state of things, which state of things is expressed in the same sentence; it is understated that he/she could look at it from a closer point of view. It is used sometimes in opposition to such adverbials as "de plus près", "de près". In English you could translate this adverbial by "from afar", "from far away", or "seen from afar" and "seen from far away", which is much more explicit. Nevertheless, you can also use to the same effect in French the longer form "vu de loin"; there are four variants though, each used according to the agreement that is necessary with the number and gender of the noun that represents what you are looking at (vu de loin, vue de loin, vus de loin, vues de loin).

  • (Vu) De loin on aurait dit une grosse cloche, mais de plus près il n'y avait aucun doute, c'était un énorme rocher parfaitement arrondi et évasé à sa base.

  • (Vus) De loin on les aurait pris pour des personnes réelles mais il n'y avait pas besoin de s'en approcher beaucoup pour se rendre compte que l'on avait affaire à des robots.

  • De loin, je n'ai pas pu voir s'ils avaient les poches pleines.

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loin in French generally indicates distance or the sense of "far away". The most common I hear it used is when someone is saying that one thing is far away from another or asking if one thing is far away from another.

For example:

C'est loin d'ici? (Literal translation: It is far from here?) (Proper translation: Is it far away?)

Let's work through your two phrases.

au loin

au loin does usually indicate distance in the direction away from the subject or the speaker. I tend to think of it in English as to the far away, which is a very literal use that helps me get by with such things when I learn languages. That being said, it can better be translated as in the distance.

In your example:

Au loin on voit un grand pavillon.

The sentences indicates that there is a large pavillion visible in the distance. Without more context, I can't tell whether or not the subject is a group of people or it is being used in the sense of one sees.

de loin

de loin can have two meanings. The first indicates distance in the direction toward the subject or speaker. I tend to think of it in English as from the far away but again, that's a very literal translation that serves my method of thinking. It is better translated as from a distance.

For example:

De loin, il semble beau. (Translation: From a distance, he seems beautiful.)

The second meaning of de loin: This does not have to do with distance in relation to a speaker, but is more expressive as an adverb in the sense of vraiment. It can be translated as by far or by a long way.

For example:

Je suis de plus le plus intelligent. (Translation: I am by far the most intelligent.)

There is a word missing in your sentence, but I tend to think your example:

De loin n'entend pas ce qu'il dit.

is probably meant to be written like this:

De loin, on n'entend pas ce qu'il dit.

Which would roughly mean that from a distance, what he is saying is not heard or literally translated:

From far away, one does not hear what he says.

Stylistically translated:

His words can't be heard from a distance.

So, it seems to me that your example involving de loin uses the first meaning I mentioned.

You can find more on the word here along with other usages.

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