Approximate Numbers

Des centaines d'arbres - approximate French numbers
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Nombres approximatifs

Approximate numbers are very useful for talking about generalities, making estimates, and just flat-out guessing. English only has one approximate number, content to use "about" in front of cardinal numbers any time a guess is required.

In contrast, French has about a dozen approximate numbers, most of them formed by adding the feminine suffix –aine to the cardinal number, some of which undergo a minor spelling change.

Approximate French numbers

  Cardinal Approximate Spelling Notes
8 huit une huitaine   Usually means "about a week"
10 dix une dizaine x to z  
12 douze une douzaine e dropped A dozen
15 quinze une quinzaine e dropped Often means "about two weeks"
20 vingt une vingtaine    
30 trente une trentaine e dropped  
40 quarante une quarantaine e dropped  
50 cinquante une cinquantaine e dropped  
60 soixante une soixantaine e dropped  
100 cent une centaine    

The final approximate French number is completely different: un millier, meaning "about a thousand."

 Grammatically, approximate numbers are used like expressions of quantity: they are joined to the nouns they modify with the preposition de.

Par exemple…

une dizaine de livres   about 10 books
une trentaine de villes   about 30 towns
une centaine d’arbres   about a hundred trees
un millier de maisons   about a thousand houses

Some approximate numbers can be plural:

des dizaines de livres*   dozens of books*
des centaines d’arbres   hundreds of trees
des milliers de maisons   thousands of houses

 * Technically, dizaines means "tens," but idiomatically, in French we generally say dizaines while in English we say "dozens." However, if you’re using a specific number in front, then douzaine = dozen.

J’ai trois douzaines de stylos.   I have three dozen pens.

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French approximate numbers

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