26

I have seen both an and année used almost interchangeably in both singular and plural. Are they really interchangeable? Does it depend on some dialects or something else?

17

They are not really interchangeable — since in some situations one is nearly always used and the other isn't — but using one instead of the other will often be understandable, just non-idiomatic or losing a nuance.

As a rule of thumb,

  • an is used for the unit of time;

  • année is used for a period of one year, usually contiguous, often with a implied precise beginning (1st of January — année civile —, 1st of September — année scolaire —, date of birth, ...).

  • using année tend to focuses on what happened during the time span while using an focuses on the duration. For instance

    • deux ans de travail de perdus emphasises the lost time (which could have been used for something else)

    • deux années de travail de perdues emphasises the lost work (perhaps it has to be redone)

  • 4
    I would not rely too much on this though: l'an un, l'an de grâce, l'an 2000, année-lumière, etc. – Stéphane Gimenez Jun 15 '13 at 13:24
  • Are "deux ans de travail de perdus" and "deux années de travail de perdues" equally usual? – Alan Evangelista Jul 11 at 13:06
  • How the fact that "plusieurs années" is the most usual expression (instead of "plusieurs ans") fits into this explanation? I am unable to see how it focus "on what happened during the time span" instead of on the duration. – Alan Evangelista Jul 11 at 13:12
7

There is a difference.

Année is used to express a notion of duration which is not in "an" (unit of time):

J'ai travaillé cinq ans dans cette entreprise (simply informative)

J'ai travaillé cinq années dans cette entreprise (we want to underline the fact that it is a long time)

  • 2
    Unless preceded by "longues" which would carry the meaning you describe, "années" just sounds out-of-place in this sentence -- "ans" fits better. – ApplePie Feb 24 '16 at 2:37
  • I am unable to understand how "cinq ans" does not express a notion of duration – Alan Evangelista Jul 11 at 13:07
2

I see another difference we may add to other answers. When we talk about a period of time in the History, we use the term années :

Cette technologie a été inventée dans les années 2000.

1

I'm not sure that soirée/matinée/année have to be about specific or special occasions or durations but they have some properties setting them aside from soir/matin/an:

  1. they do not have to be contiguous:
    • +J'ai passé deux années en Malaisie, 1991 et 2005
    • ?J'ai passé deux ans en Malaisie, 1991 et 2005
  2. they are compatible with internal quantification:
    • +toute la soirée/matinée/année vs ?tout le soir/matin/an
    • +la soirée/matinée/année entière vs ?le soir/matin/an entier
    • +pendant la soirée/matinée/année vs ?pendant le soir/matin/an
  3. In general, ans seems to avoid indefinite plural contexts:

    • ?des ans, ?quelques ans vs +des années, quelques années

And so it happens that we get :

  • un million d'années and not ?un million d'ans

As French has this strange thing with 1 000 000 which must be constructed as an NP taking the counted noun as an indefinite complement the same way un grand nombre does:

  • un grand nombre de chats
  • un million de chats

This naturally excludes ans from this context while allowing it in:

  • un million trois cent mille ans & un million trois cent mille années

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