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