Friday’s French – offrir

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You’ve probably heard of faux amis, literally “false friends” or “false cognates”, which are words that look the same in two languages but have different meanings. The word blocage which I talked about last week is an excellent example. Sometimes the meaning is totally different while in other cases, it’s quite subtle.

Take offrir and “offer”. Maybe you think they mean the same thing, but they are really not interchangeable at all.

We’re walking along, looking at the market stalls. I see something I like, but hesitate to buy it. Je te l’offre, says my husband. That means that he’s going to pay. We wouldn’t say in English “I’ll offer it to you”, but something more along the lines of “Why don’t I get it for you?” or “My treat”.

If I want to tell someone that my husband bought me a watch for my birthday, I’d say, Mon mari m’a offert une montre pour mon anniversaire rather than Mon mari m’a acheté une montre pour mon anniversaire which is perfectly correct but not nearly as elegant. Jean Michel would certainly not say it!

If I were to say, “my husband offered me a watch for my birthday”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what he ended up buying. What it really means is that he “offered to buy me a watch” and I could say yes or no.

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In English, we talk about offering flowers and it’s the same in French : il m’a offert des fleurs.

We also offer someone a drink in English; in French we would say proposer à boire or offrir à boire when there is no danger of confusion. When there is a possibility of refusal, proposer is usually the appropriate  term. Note the use of boire (to drink) for “a drink”. Even a toddler will say à boire if he’s thirsty or à manger if he’s hungry and not boisson or nourriture.

“Il m’a proposé deux vins différents” is quite different from “il m’a offert deux vins différents”. In the first case, he gave me a choice of two different wines while in the second case he gave them to me as a present.

“I offered to help him” = J’ai proposé de l’aider whereas Je lui ai proposé de l’aide could mean that I offered him financial help.

And here’s another time we say “offer” in English but not offrir in French. “I’ll raise the subject when a suitable occasion offers itself” = Je lui en parlerai lorsque l’occasion se présentera. And there’s that very annoying future tense that you have to use in French when we use the present in English. Remember the rule: when future is implied, future must be used and especially with quand and lorsque.

To offer one’s sympathy is faire/présenter/offrir ses condoléances. And while we’re on the subject, an American friend asked me recently what she should say to her neighbour whose wife had just died. The answer is very simple. You shake the person’s hand and simply say Toutes mes condoléances or Je vous/te présente toutes mes condoléances. In English, we would say “I’m very sorry about your wife”,”You and your family are in my thoughts”, “I am sorry for your loss” “You have my deepest sympathy” and so on.

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9 Responses to Friday’s French – offrir

  1. Dinah says:

    Very interesting article! Thank you!

    I am a native French speaker and I have learnt so much from your post. Nevertheless, I’d like to add some elements for the French part. When it comes to drinks, you said that we usually say “proposer à boire”. You are totally right but we could also (like in English) say when the context is clear : “qu’est-ce que je peux vous offrir ?”. When it’s the apéritif time and we know we are all gonna get a drink, the host can say that. Now if you say the same thing in a bar to all your friends, that means that you are gonna pay for the drinks of everybody.

    The other expression that seems a bit awkward to me is in the case of a death, to say just one simple word : “condoléances”. I have never said it so abruptly and never heard it either. Like in English, we would elaborate a bit more and say: “Je te/vous présente toutes mes condoléances”.

    Thank you again for your very interesting posts! 🙂

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Hi Dinah and thank you for your comments. I shall add your information about “condoléances”. I told my husband, since he’s the one that taught me to say it and he says you’re perfectly right but that since that is what the people around him (work, family) say, he doesn’t want to stand out. Maybe, then, it’s also a question of “milieu”. From now on, I’ll say “je vous présente toutes mes condoléances”.

  2. Dinah says:

    Sorry I forgot an option: it’s also possible to say: “Toutes mes condoléances”.

  3. Jacqueline says:

    a very common usage of offrir is when you are buying anything in a store. The clerk will ask, c’est pour offrir? which means is it a gift because if it is she will wrap it for you. By the way re “je lui ai proposer de l’aide” after the preposition “de” the verb would be in the infinitive. Aider can be one of those verbs that have multiple meanings too, like help financially. If you want to be sure it’s more manual rather than financial, it;s common to say je lui ai proposé de lii donner un coup de main.

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Thank you for your input, Jacqueline. I’ve corrected my sentence and put “j’ai proposé de l’aider”. I hadn’t thought of the ambiguity. That’s what’s great about comments!

  4. Susan Walter says:

    Really useful and informative post, clarifying some things I kind of knew but couldn’t have explained. The implications of the differences when you offer a drink I didn’t know, and your point about elegance is well made too. I must try to be more elegant…

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Go for the elegance! Though you will see from Dinah’s comment that you can say “Qu’est-ce que je t’offre à boire?” I was actually thinking more of the sentence “Il m’a proposé deux vins différents” and not “il m’a offert deux vins différents” – in the first case, he gave me a choice while in the second case he gave them to me as a present.

  5. Frederic says:

    Great article, showing how one word like “offrir” can be put in many different contexts, just like in English. I enjoy reading this kind of posts!

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