An/jour/matin/soir vs année/journée/matinée/soirée

An vs année, jour vs journée
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Somewhat synonyms

French has two words for each of the following: year, day, morning, and evening, and they cause no end of difficulties for non-native speakers. Why is it that English can get away with one word when French needs two? The answer lies in how you look at these temporal markers.

Each word pair includes a short, masculine word and a longer, feminine word. The latter is little more than the former with the suffix -ée tacked on:

year   un an   une année
day   un jour   une journée
morning   un matin   une matinée
evening   un soir   une soirée

The masculine terms are what I like to call division words or quantity words: they express a simple unit of time.

Par exemple…

J’habite en Guadeloupe depuis deux ans et demi.   I’ve lived in Guadeloupe for two and half years.
J’ai passé trois jours en Italie.   I spent three days in Italy.
Je travaille chaque matin.   I work every morning.
Je me couche à 22h le soir.   I go to bed at 10 every every evening.

In contrast, the feminine words are duration or quality words: they emphasize the length of time.

Par exemple…

Pendant la première année, je cherchais une maison.   For the first year, I looked for a house.
J’ai passé trois journées à manger.   I spent three days eating.
Après une matinée de travail, j’aime me promener.   After a morning of work, I like to go for a walk.
Je passe mes soirées à lire.   I spend my evenings reading.

 Quantity vs Quality

There are rules about when to use each type of word, and with rules come exceptions.

Division / quantity words are used with

1) Numbers

Il a voyagé pendant cinq jours.   He traveled for five days.
Ils sont fiancés depuis 10 ans.   They’ve been engaged for 10 years.

But! you can use duration words for emphasis:

Six journées, pas cinq.   Six days, not five.
Dix années, c’est incroyable !   10 years, that’s amazing!

2) Adverbs of time

hier matin   yesterday morning
demain soir   tomorrow night

3) Demonstrative adjectives

Ce jour où je t’ai vu.   That day I saw you.
Je pars ce matin et lui, ce soir.   I’m leaving this morning and he’s leaving this evening.

But! when talking about the current year, use année.

J’ai appris beaucoup cet an.
 
 
vs
I learned a lot that year.
 
Je vais en France cette année.   I’m going to France this year.

Duration / quality words are used with

1) Interrogative adjectives

quelle journée ?   which day?
en quelle année ?   in which year?

But! not when asking which day of the week

Quel jour sommes-nous ?   What day is it?
Quel jour as-tu congé ?   What day do you have off?

2) Most other types of adjectives

une belle matinée   a beautiful morning
plusieurs années   several years

… including when there’s a number plus an adjective:

nos deux années ensemble   our two years together
ces cinq journées   those five days

But! watch out for tout, which has different functions and meanings depending on which type of word it’s used with.

tous les jours, tous les soirs
(tous is an indefinite adjective here)
 
 
 
vs
every day, every evening
 
 
toute la journée, toute la soirée
(toute is an indefinite pronoun here)
  all day, all evening
 

2) De + noun (often equivalent to an adjective)

journées d’émeute   days of rioting
une soirée de gala   gala night

 But! all that said, an and année often ignore these rules.

l’an prochain
l’année prochaine
  next year
l’an dernier
l’année dernière
  last year

 French expressions with

 There is a fifth word pair: la nuit / la nuitée, but it doesn’t follow the patterns above. Une nuit = night in all senses except when referring to a night in the tourism industy, which is une nuitée.

Par exemple…

J’ai passé une journée et une nuit à Barcelone.   I spent one day and night in Barcelone.
Une nuitée coûte 80 euros.   One night [in this hotel] costs 80 euros.

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An vs année, jour vs journée
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3 Responses

  1. Gaurav 3 December 2016 / 3:15

    Bonjour,

    I do not understand the difference between “I spent three days eating” and “I spent three days in Italy” – Both sound like quantity to me.

    • lkl 8 December 2016 / 16:47

      Bonjour Gaurav, Yes, technically that’s true. But spending three days eating is not a normal thing to do, thus the use of the duration word – to emphasize what a long period of time this is.

  2. Berdine 5 June 2016 / 15:22

    You are the best! I LOVE your lessons, so clearly and so simply explained. Please keep going.