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?


4 Answers 4


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. Jun 15, 2013 at 13:24
  • Are "deux ans de travail de perdus" and "deux années de travail de perdues" equally usual? Jul 11, 2019 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. Jul 11, 2019 at 13:12

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, 2016 at 2:37
  • I am unable to understand how "cinq ans" does not express a notion of duration Jul 11, 2019 at 13:07

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.


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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