Tips to Distinguish Words that are often Interchanged in French
It’s easy enough to interchange words that sound similar, but when they sound similar and also have similar meanings, they are extremely easy to mix up. Does anyone remember their grammar school teachers explaining that the way to distinguish the English nouns desert and dessert was to remember the extra s in the word that you would want more of? If you are not particularly fond of dessert, this wouldn’t be that helpful, and you would need to rely on the phonetic differences linked to stress patterns that place the emphasis on the first syllable in the former and the second syllable in the latter. To make this even more confusing, the verb desert and most of its conjugations have stress patterns that mirror the noun dessert e.g., “The birds desert the area in wintertime”.
The French words amener and emmener are also hard to distinguish from each other, as are apporter, and emporter. The differences between these are linked to vowel changes in the first syllable rather than changing stress patterns (remember that French places even emphasis on syllables within one word). Each pair above is distinguished by a single vowel sound, i.e., /ɑ mә ne/ and /ɑ̃ mә ne/; /ɑ pͻʁ te/ and /ɑ̃ pͻʁ te/. Not only are these distinguished by a single vowel sound, but by nasalized and denasalized versions of the same vowel. In addition, they have meanings that are close. In fact, amener and apporter are both frequently translated into English as “bring”, while emmener and emporter are frequently translated as “take”. In its “Ne faites plus la faute” series, the Figaro points out that in everyday conversation amener, emmener, and apporter are often interchanged, and offers guidelines for remembering the differences between these words based on their components (porter, mener), as well as their Latin origins.
The “Dire, ne pas dire” section of the Académie française’s website also points out the tendency to interchange the words amener and apporter, but states that while apporter takes an inanimate object, such as a piece of paper or, in a more figurative sense, assistance, amener takes an animate object, such as a person or animal.
In addition, amener can be used to designate a thing being brought to a place or to a person. Thus, we could say “On apporte dix exemplaires à la réunion”, “Cette amitié m’apporte de la joie”, “On amène une amie au concert”, and “Il amène la voiture à la maison”.
Usages of these French Words
The Larousse defines amener as “faire venir quelqu’un avec soi ; provoquer la venue de quelqu’un ; transporter quelqu’un, quelque chose vers un lieu”. It contains the verb mener, which means “lead” and gives the sense of mener vers, leading to. The prefix a, according to L’Office québécois de la langue française, indeed signals a movement toward. We can thus say: “Le train nous amène à la gare”, which reflects the use of the verb mener in the sentence “ce chemin mène au grand parc”. We can also say, in a more figurative sense: “j’amène mon adversaire à reconnaître mon point de vue”.
Rather than transporting, the verb emmener gives the sense of bringing something that is able to come on its own. The Larousse defines emmener as “mener quelqu’un avec soi d’un lieu dans un autre ; conduire, transporter ; se faire accompagner de quelqu’un pour faire quelque chose, aller faire quelque chose avec quelqu’un” and states that “on emmène ce qui peut se déplacer seul, personne ou animal, ou bien ce qui peut être déplacé sans être souvelé du sol”. Like amener, emmener contains the verb mener, but in this case, the emphasis is on the point of departure, what is being left behind, as the Office québécois de la langue française indicates. This coincides with older versions of the word, as mentioned in the Centre national de ressources textuelles et lexicales (CNTRL), which points to its twelfth-century origins in the words em meinet, meaning “mener hors du lieu où l’on est, en quelque autre lieu”. Thus we can say: “nous emmenons les enfants en vacances” and “mon cheval m’emmène au bois”.
The verb apporter can also indicate bringing something somewhere, but takes an inanimate object. The Larousse defines it as: “porter avec soi quelque chose en venant dans un lieu ; porter ou transporter quelque chose jusqu’à un lieu ; venir auprès de quelqu’un pour lui annoncer quelque chose, lui transmettre un message ; fournir, procurer, donner quelque chose (à quelqu’un, à quelque chose)”. The verb apporter indicates, furthermore, a movement from point A to point B. It comes from the Latin word apportare, which the Trésor de la langue française indicates as “porter quelque chose à quelqu’un”. This is exactly what was requested by a French person giving us exams at uni during lunch hour: “N’oubliez pas de m’apporter un sandwich”.
The verb emporter has the sense of taking away or taking with. The Larousse defines it as: “prendre quelque chose avec soi en quittant un lieu ; prendre quelque chose avec soi en allant quelque part, l’y transporter ; entraîner quelqu’un, quelque chose (quelque part) dans son mouvement”. This last definition relates to the one given by the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, which emphasizes something taken in a forceful manner: “prendre de force dans un mouvement irrésistible”, as with a strong current taking objects down a river or a horse running off with its rider. Its tenth-century origins can be found in the words en porter, another reference given by the Académie française, which signifies “porter d’un lieu à un autre”. If you are ordering Chinese takeaway in France, it will also be labelled as à emporter.
In case you are looking for more similar-sounding words, words that remind you of the differences between desert and dessert, for example, the verbs described above have certain homonyms. The conjugation amène of the verb amener sounds like the word amen, which is how Christians close their prayers. The word apporter sounds like à porter in the term prêt à porter, which means “ready to wear”. Luckily, with the above guidelines, you will know when to distinguish these terms from the verbs above, and how to distinguish the above verbs from one another.
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