How to Pronounce + Use Dessus vs. Dessous

This week’s lesson on French pronunciation — especially dessus vs. dessous — is actually brought to you by my mom! Last week, my son was crawling around my living room and managed to sit under our couch. It was funny, so I sent my mom a photo on WhatsApp and she answered with this:

(Instead of: “sous le canapé”)

My mom is Mexican and arrived in France 39 years ago. She never took formal French lessons, so she often makes some very common French pronunciation and vocabulary mistakes.

She struggles with “u” [y] vs “ou” [u] sounds, and never knows how to use “sur / sous” “dessus / dessous”, “au-dessus / au-dessous”, “par-dessus / par dessous”… Exactly like you do!

Today, Maman, I’ll show you how to use and pronounce these French prepositions. This will help you speak French with less mistakes and more confidence.

And, of course, if you’re not my mom I think you will still enjoy this lesson 😉 .

Bonjour I’m Géraldine, your French teacher.
Welcome to Comme une Française.
I’ll help you get better at speaking and understanding everyday French.

Today, like every Tuesday, let’s dive into a new French lesson together. C’est parti !

Index:

1. Sur (= on) / Sous (= under) + complement
2. Pronunciation: “u” and “ou”
3. Dessus (= on top) / Dessous (= underneath)
4. Par-dessus, au dessous and more
    a) Au-dessus (= above)
    b) Au-dessous (= under)
    c) Par-dessus, par-dessous (= over / from below)

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1. Sur / Sous

In French, we use sur / sous (= on / under) when there’s a complement right after it, with a noun or a pronoun.

For example:
La girafe est sur le livre. = The giraffe is on the book.
Sur [quelque chose] means “on (something).”
(The two things are touching each other.)

Le livre est sous la girafe. = The book is under the giraffe.
Sous [quelque chose] (with a silent “s”) means under something.”

2. Pronunciation

Yes, this pronunciation is very difficult for non-French speakers! If you have trouble making these “u” and “ou” sounds, you are not alone.

The biggest problem: the u sound doesn’t exist in Mexican Spanish! (Nor does it exist in English!)

Here’s a trick for you. The French words that mean “under” (or something similar, like “underneath” or “below”) all have a silent “s” and a ou sound. It’s pronounced like the u in the English word “blue.” This applies to words like:
Sous – Dessous En dessous – Par-dessous

(Keep reading — we’ll explore more of these words in the rest of the lesson.)

All the words that mean “on top” (or similar) have the u sound, such as:
Sur – Dessus – Au-dessus – Par-dessus

The French sound u doesn’t exist in English. It’s like ou, but it comes from further forward in your mouth. In phonetics, it’s the sound [y]. Be sure to watch the video lesson to better understand.

Unfortunately, these sounds are very common in French and they’re often the only difference between two similar words (besides context). Try to pronounce these pairs out loud, by marking the difference between u and ou!

For example:
Tu (= singular you) / La toux (= a cough)
Tu as une toux ? = Do you have a cough?

Nous (= We) / Nu (= Naked)
Nous sommes tous nus ! = We’re all naked!

(We say “tous” with a “s” that is NOT silent. Learn why (and more) in this lesson:
All you need to know about “Tout”)

Vous (= plural you) / Vu (= seen)
Vous nous avez vus ? = Have you seen us? / Did you see us?

(“Vous” is also used as a singular “you” when you want to show respect rather than familiarity. Find out more in my lesson on French grammar: Tu or vous? How to say “you” in French.)

Now you know how to pronounce some of the words in this lesson. For example, you can say:
La girafe est sur le livre. = The giraffe is on the book.

But, what if you don’t want to repeat “le livre” over and over? Do you always need a noun? Here’s where another pair of words comes into play.

3. Dessus / Dessous

Où est le livre ? Tu es dessus ! = Where’s the book? You’re on (top of) it!

a) Dessus
Dessus means “on top of it” / “on it” / “on the topside.” It’s pronounced with the “u” sound (and a silent “s”.)

The main thing to know about dessus is: there is no complement after it. It stands on its own!

That’s why we CAN’T say, for example, “dessus le canapé.

We’d say:
La girafe est sur le canapé. (= The giraffe is on top of the couch.)
La girafe est dessus. (= The giraffe is on top (of it.

Or, for example:
J’ai trouvé la télécommande, j’étais assise dessus !
= I found the remote control, I was sitting on it!

b) Dessous

Dessous means “under it” / “underneath” / “below”… with a “ou” sound. It’s used just like Dessus.

There’s nothing after it — no complement, no noun, nothing.

Le lapin est sur le livre, la girafe est dessous.
= The rabbit is on the book, the giraffe is underneath.

Now, what if the giraffe doesn’t touch the book, but hovers above it instead?

4. Par-dessus, en dessous, and more

That’s where we use “au-dessus”, “au-dessous” and some more variations on those words. Mom — I know you heard about them and use them randomly!

The main ones are:

a) Au-dessus

Au-dessus (= above) → It’s like “dessus”, but there’s no contact or it’s very high.

For example:
Voici une girafe. Le lapin est dessus. = Here’s a giraffe. The rabbit is on (top of) it.
Voici une girafe. Le lapin est au-dessus. = Here’s a giraffe. The rabbit is above it.

Contrary to dessus, we CAN add a complement after “au-dessus”:

au-dessus de (+ complément) = on top of (+ complement), above (something)

For example:
Le bateau est sur l’eau. = The boat is on the water.
Le bateau est au-dessus de l’eau. = The boat is above the water.
La girafe est au-dessus du bateau. = The giraffe is above the boat.

(Notice that with a masculine, “de le” becomes du. It’s a contraction.)

b) Au-dessous

The opposite of au-dessus is au-dessous / en dessous = underneath (both are synonyms)
→ When there’s no complement, you can just use dessous instead.

We also use au-dessous de (quelque chose) / en dessous de (quelque chose) = “underneath (something).”
→ With a complement, you can use sous (quelque chose) instead.

For example:
La girafe est en dessous ! = La girafe est dessous ! = The giraffe is underneath!

La girafe est en dessous du livre. = La girafe est sous le livre. = The giraffe is under the book.

But, what if the giraffe moves? Well, that’s where it gets more interesting.

c) Par-dessus, par-dessous

For an action, you can use:
Par-dessus = Over (action / movement / replacement)
Par-dessous = From below (action / movement / replacement)

You can use them like dessus / dessous (without a complement) or like sur / sous (with a complement directly after.)

For example:
La girafe est passée par-dessus le bateau. = The girafe went over the ship.
La girafe est passée par-dessous. = The giraffe went underneath.

To memorize them, you must practice! When you’re sitting on your couch at home, look at objects around you and make sentences… And Mom, ask your grandson next time, Tu veux lire une histoire avec moi sur le canapé ?” (= Do you want to read a story with me, on the couch?”)

These prepositions are tricky, but they’re also very common in everyday spoken French. Just like other French difficulties such as:
Plu(s) or Plus? When should you pronounce the “s” in “plus”?
Dès que vs Depuis: How to translate “since” in French, to talk about time?

Learn about them in the lessons linked above, or in this short playlist on YouTube.

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!

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Allez, salut 🙂

Géraldine

Join the conversation!

  • As in your video Géraldine, the “u” as in au-dessus causes great difficulty in English speakers because we have to push our mouths into a totally new configuration. Many simply say “ou” instead of “u”. It’s laziness really and usually we get away with it. However, with au-sessus and au-dessous, there is no escape if we are to be understood correctly! Pronunciation really matters. So all you Anglos out there, pout your lips as hard as you can and say “u” comme les français!

  • Great lesson Geraldine. But when you said “J’ai trouvé la télécommande, j’étais assise dessus !
    = I found the remote control, I was sitting on it,” I confused the imperfect + past participle with the plus-que-parfait. Why didn’t you use l’imparfait conjugation for asseoir instead of saying “j’étais assise?”
    Thanks,
    John C.

    • Hi there, it’s due to Géraldine using a different shade of meaning: imperfect “je m’assoyais” this means an action of sitting down an ongoing element: “I was in the process of sitting down” (my clumsy words). Géraldine said: “j’étais assise” litterally “I was seated”. There is no action here. The action happened and was completed in the past. Technically it’s a Present Perfect. I hope that this is helpful.

  • Great lesson Geraldine. But when you said “J’ai trouvé la télécommande, j’étais assise dessus !
    = I found the remote control, I was sitting on it,” I confused the imperfect + past participle with the plus-que-parfait. Why didn’t you use l’imparfait conjugation for asseoir instead of saying “j’étais assise?”
    Thanks,
    John

  • That was the best explanation of how to pronounce Sur and Sous (et al) I have ever heard. I have struggled with these vowels sounds for Years.

  • Superb leçon Merci. Blimey ! je suis heureuse qu’ il y a une grande difference entre l’anglaise Above and below parce que je trouve le difference entre dessus/dessous etc très difficile pour entendre :-/
    Aussi – c’est possible pour quelqu’un pour m’explique pourquoi il ya un autre “e” dans le lapin est passée le livre??

    • Hi Victoria !

      Il y a eu une erreur dans la vidéo avec le lapin, c’est pour ça qu’il y a un “e” en trop. Désolés !

      – Arthur, writer for Comme une Française

  • My brother is married to a Frenchwoman but even after 45 years living in France, his “fluent” French still has mistakes – according to ma belle-soeur! Once when I was visiting I asked her to help with the pronunciation of “au-dessus” and “au-dessous” as (despite being Scottish where it’s true we make that sound in words like “school”) I found it hard to hear the difference.
    So I was DELIGHTED to receive this lesson today. Merci, Géraldine.

  • Today, Maman, I’ll show you how to use and pronounce these French prepositions. This will help you speak French with less mistakes and more confidence. You should not use less in this context you should use fewer. Less is used for non countable objects such as flour. Fewer is used for countable objects such as mistakes. Hope you don’t take offence.

  • Bonjour Géraldine,
    J’espère que :
    1) Votre mère comprends bien l’anglais ! Sinon …. ça ne fait rien !
    2) Ce n’est pas la fin des haricots entre la relation avec votre mère ! Ma femme est très fâchée avec moi chaque fois je la corrige ses erreurs !
    Je plaisante bien sûr. Bonne journée.

  • I have been teaching French in Australia for many years. When I teach I use textbooks so I don’t teach mistakes. When I am having a conversation with French people however I am sure I make mistakes – they usually politely say I don’t. Dessus/ dessous certainly presents problems in pronunciation. Even when I say my very best ‘dessus’ a French person will say ‘dessus’ and make mine seem like ‘dessous’ ! A ballet teacher here (who has had many students accepted into The Australian Ballet Company) once asked me for help with this pronunciation before she conducted her annual ballet exams. Ballet terms as you will know are in French. If a student mistakes ‘dessus’ for ‘dessous’ they may lose points by doing the wrong move ! How difficult that was! Only by comparing the 2 sounds is it possible to make a reasonable distinction – ou (dessous) or ewww (dessus) (just joking).

  • Enfin, je comprends ce sujet! Merci mille fois, Géraldine.

    Peut-être une vidéo à venir sur là-dedans? 🙂

  • Merci beaucoup, c’est une des meilleures leçons que vous avez faites ! These words always confuse me, and as an English speaker it is still hard to hear the difference between dessous and dessus, but this give me a lot to practice with. Merci encore une fois.

  • Hi Geraldine, just to let you know that the ‘u’ sound would be quite familiar to Scottish and Northern Irish English speakers – possibly other English speakers as well. It is probably not used by English speakers or Americans.

    • Maybe ‘signez ci-dessus’ or ‘signez ci-dessous’ = sign here (on the line) above or sign here (on the line) below.

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