Casual vs Standard/Formal French: The Differences

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Working in France showed me one of the nuances of French that most learners rarely get exposed to: how to speak professional French in the workplace in a casual, approachable way.

Casual vs Formal/Professional French: The Differences, Words, andSlang

French learners will be familiar with formal French, where every phrase is meticulously constructed.

But French gets very casual very quickly. Many languages have an informal register. With French, though, people tend to use casual structures even in professional settings — generally anywhere you’d use a tu with someone rather than a vous.

Here are the major ways in which French gets casual, while staying professional.

Note: for “professional”, I refer to my own profession of working in startups as a consultant. The kinds of people I work with are COOs, General Managers, and so on, and generally are between the age of 25 and 45. Professional discretion normally applies: e.g. I would never use swearwords or over-informal speech when questioning someone’s work, or discussing a sensitive issue like workplace harassment.

Explained in this guide…

  • How French grammar is simplified in everyday use
  • Slurred words
  • Everyday slang

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Omission of the Negator “ne” in Casual French

In casual French, people drop the negator “ne”. In French books and classes, the ne negator causes constant headaches as English speakers aren’t used to this structure. Well, don’t worry… you don’t have to use it any more!

For example:

EnglishFormal FrenchCasual French
I can’t believe it!Je ne peux pas y croire!Je peux pas y croire!
Didn’t you eat a moment ago?Tu n’as pas mangé tout à l’heure?T’as pas mangé tout à l’heure?
That’s not what I meant.Ce n’est pas ce que je voulais dire.C’est pas ce que je voulais dire.
I don’t know anything about it.Je n’en sais rien.J’en sais rien!

In these phrases, the sentence is already of a casual nature. Adding in a “ne” negator (as in the formal French example) makes them sound stifled and over-pronounced.

In addition, you should slur those phrases. The second-last one would more likely sound like c’est pas c’que j’voulais dire.

Casual French’s Broken Phrasing & Sentence Fragments

The second way French gets simpler (and much easier to speak) is that people speak in broken phrases and sentence fragments.

For example

EnglishFormal FrenchCasual French
Is my pen around here?Est-ce que mon stylo est par la?Mon stylo, il est par la?
Please give me the bag which is on the tableS’il te plaît, donne moi le sac qui est sur le table.Le sac sur le table là, tu peux me le donner?
This guy is crazy!Ce mec-ci est fou!Il est fou, ce mec!

In all these examples, rather than create one complete sentence with subject-object matching, people prefer to break structures up.

It helps with comprehension, because it lets people draw attention to the most important part. If you’re talking about the “bag on the table”, you want to make sure it’s early in the conversation, not the thing you happen to mention at the end.

Omission of French “Question” Structure

In standard French we’re taught to use an est-ce to structure our questions. But this is rarely used in spoken French of any level.

EnglishFormal FrenchCasual French
Have you seen my pen?Est-ce que tu as vu mon stylo?Mon stylo, tu l’as vu?
When are you going to arrive?Quand est-ce que tu vas arriver?Tu vas arriver quand?
What’s is this?Qu’est-ce que c’est que cette chose?C’est quoi ce truc?

The phrasing in casual French is familiar, but still formal enough for the workplace. The formal French phrasing is so stilted that I wasn’t even sure that’s how you say it, and had to look it up.

One note is that to make the casual French more palatable, various “softeners” can be used around the sentences. For example to ask when someone will arrive, you might ask “Tu peux me dire quand tu vas arriver à peu près?” This softens up an otherwise abrupt phrase.

Preference for “on” vs “nous” in Casual French

The standard French way of referring to a first-person plural is to use nous and its various conjugations.

But in casual French, people prefer to use on, which in English is “one”. To emphasise that you’re talking about a group of people, you might even use nous as emphasis, too.

For example:

EnglishFormal FrenchCasual French
Where are you going for lunch? We’re going to the bakery next door.Où est-ce que vous allez manger? Nous allons à la boulangerie a côté.Tu vas aller manger où? Nous, on va à la boulangerie a côté.
I don’t know what we should do.Je ne sais pas qu’est-ce que nous devons faire.Je sais* pas ce qu’on doit faire.
Should we go?Nous en allons?On s’en va? or On se casse?

* This might be slurred to “chais pas”.

French Slurred Pronunciation

French is full of dipthongs, liaison, and casual phrasing. The very nature of the language thus lends to a tendency to slur speech.

It happens particularly in casual French, and even more particularly with certain phrases that are almost never fully articulated.

This is a stark contrast to Spanish and Italian, its neighbouring Romance languages, who enjoy extremely crisp pronunciation (and who rely on it to be understood).

French slurring is a boon when you’re speaking it… but it does make it harder to understand!

Here are common examples of how French is slurred.

EnglishStandard FrenchSlurred Casual French
There are
There are heaps of restaurants here!
Il y a
Il y a plein de restaurants ici!
Y’a
Y’a plein de restos ici!
I don’t know
I don’t know what to do.
Je ne sais pas
Je ne sais pas quoi faire.
Chais pas
Chais pas quoi faire, moi
You have/You are
Have you eaten already?
Are you sure?
Vous avez
Est-ce que vous avez déjà mangé?
Etes-vous sûr?
T’as, T’es
T’as déjà mangé?
T’es sûr?
I am
I am the best!
Je suis
Je suis le meilleur!
Chuis
Chuis le meilleur!

There are many other examples, usually with vowels omitted from everyday full pronunciation (e.g. petit becoming p’tit). However, it’s best you experience these in person and pick them up naturally.

Slang in French

Many pages and books have been written on French slang.

But suffice it to say, it’s definitely one of the slangier languages I know. There’s slang in every language, but French has it to such a degree that it infiltrates every level of conversation, even in the workplace.

A few common examples of French slang (with example sentences) are:

EnglishFormal FrenchSlang
money
I don’t have money.
argent
Je n’ai pas d’argent.
fric, pâte
J’ai pas de fric.
police
I’ve already called the police.
police
J’ai déjà appelé la police.
les flics
J’ai déjà appelé les flics.
thing
What is this thing?
chose
Qu’est-ce que c’est que cette chose ?
truc
C’est quoi ce truc?
children
There are so many children here!
enfants
Il y a plein d’enfants ici!
gosse
Y’a plein de gosses ici!
woman
Do you know who that woman is?
femme
Est-ce que vous savez qui est celle femme-là?
meuf
C’est qui cette meuf là?
work
OK, I’m going to work.
travail
Bon, je vais au travail.
boulot
Bon, je vais au boulot.
guy
The guy came here a minute ago.
homme
L’homme est venu ici tout à l’heure.
mec
Le mec il est venu ici tout à l’heure.
completely
It’s completely ruined!
complètement
C’est complètement détruit!
carrément
C’est carrément foutu!
to leave
Get out of here!
s’en aller
Va-t’en!
se casser
Casse-toi!
a friend
My friend is coming.
un ami
Mon ami arrive.
un pote
Mon pote, il arrive.
a company
The company will pay.
une entreprise
C’est l’entreprise qui paie.
une boite
C’est la boite qui paie.
clothes
What are these clothes you’re wearing?
vêtements
Quels sont ces vêtements que vous portez?
des fringues
C’est quoi ces fringues que t’as mis?
annoying
This is so annoying!
énervant
Qu’est-ce que c’est énervant!
chiant
Putain, c’est chiant ça!*

* This contains a swearword. It’s just a common way you’d hear this word used.

There are obviously many more French slang words in everyday life. The above is just a sample of some I hear repeatedly.

French Swearwords

Anecdotally, there seems to be a lot more swearing in French, even in slightly formal situations.

It’s usually the lightest kind of swearwords. Just like in office in an English-speaking country you’d rarely hear serious profanity, you’ll only hear profanity in its milder forms. A common one, for example, is chiant, which is derived from the verb chier (to shit), and means “annoying”.

Still, as a French learner one should err on the side of caution and not actively use French swearwords — but I believe you can expect to hear them more often than you’d expect.

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