Many students of French are aware there’s a French pronunciation phenomenon in the French language called “liaison”.
However, they are often unaware of the precise rules that govern the liaisons in French and hesitate with the pronunciation of French liaisons.
Understanding where and why we apply liaisons will surely make things easier.
This free French lesson – like many on French Today’s blog – features audio recordings. Click on the link next to the headphones to hear the French pronunciation.
Let’s start by answering a simple question: what’s a liaison in French?
What’s a Liaison?
Since the word liaison exist in both French and English pronunciation, let me start by explaining the difference.
What’s a Liaison in English?
In English pronunciation, you use the word liaison when words are linked together in pronunciation.
What’s a Liaison in French?
In French, the liaison is not simply a gliding of strong consonant sound.
According to Merriam-Webster, a liaison is the pronunciation of an otherwise absent consonant sound at the end of the first of two consecutive words the second of which begins with a vowel sound and follows without pause.
In simple words, what we call “une liaison” in French pronunciation is the fact that the final written consonant of a word becomes the first sound of the following word.
That sound may be the sound of the written consonant, or change slightly.
Let’s take an example.
The final S of “ils” is totally silent. “I-L-S” in French will never be pronounced [ils] nor [ilz]
However, the final silent S of “ils” will affect the following word, the “ont” in liaison.
“Ont” (pronounced [on]) will be started by the S of the “ils”, which becomes a Z sound in liaison.
So in pronunciation, “ils ont” is pronounced [il zon]
Ils ont (T)été ou ils ont été – tu fais la liaison toi, ou pas ?
They have been – do you apply a liaison or not?
In this free French lesson, I’m going to explain all the rules really clearly. But first, I’d like to familiarise your ears with the sounds of liaisons in French.
Examples of French Liaisons
Let me start this free lesson about French liaisons with some examples with audio recordings.
- Un ami – a/one friend – liaison in N between “un” and “ami”
- C’est un ami – He’s a friend – 2 liaisons in a row here: liaison in T between “est” and “un”, liaison in N between “un” and “ami”.
- Un petit enfant – a little child – liaison in T between “petit” and “enfant”.
- On a – we have – liaison in N between “on” and “a”.
- Chez elle – at her place – liaison in Z between “chez” and “elle”.
- Un grand enfant – a tall child – liaison in T between “grand” and “enfant”
- Nous avons – we have – liaison in Z between “nous” and “avons”.
- Ils ont – they have – liaison in Z between “ils” and “ont”.
- Deux heures – 2 hours – liaison in Z between “deux” and “heures”.
- Ce n’est pas ici – It’s not here – liaison in Z between “pas” and “ici”.
- Ils ont été – they have been – double liaison: first one in Z between “ils” and “ont”, second one in T between “ont” and “été”.
- Mon premier amour – my first love.
I would like now to insist on the correct pronunciation of liaisons in French and point out a common French liaison pronunciation mistake.
⚠️ French Liaison Pronunciation Mistake
It’s not because the French words are linked by a liaison that they are pronounced together.
I mean, if someone speaks fast, they might sound as if they were pronounced together. You certainly don’t pause in the middle of a liaison.
But if someone was to enunciate very clearly each word, each word would keep its own place in the sentence as to respect the French pronunciation rhythm and flow.
The concept of liaison is often translated in English by “word linking”: the students then assume the two words become one – when really, it’s the second word’s pronunciation which changes.
The first word usually doesn’t change at all.
Ask a child who hasn’t studied spelling thoroughly to write “les hommes“.
They will probably write “lé zom”. It’s not the “lé” that becomes “léz”, it’s “hommes” that becomes “zom” !! They won’t write it all in one word either: they know enough French to know they are two different words.
Now, liaisons being something that affects French pronunciation, how would you write down a liaison?
How Do You Write a Liaison in French?
Well, you don’t! A liaison is strictly a French pronunciation phenomenon.
Although there is no written sign for a liaison, many books would underline part of words or use a bridge-like sign under (sometimes over) part of French words to indicate there is a liaison.
However, this is not a formal written mark such as a French accent… it’s just a symbol used by books.
Personally, I don’t like it. It reinforce the idea that the 2 words become one, and doesn’t show the correct pronunciation of the letter in liaison (like an S pronounced like a Z).
I prefer adding the consonant sound in between parenthesis before the word:
So this is the way I will write down liaisons in this article. Of course, the (N) is only a way to reinforce the pronunciation: don’t start writing down your liaisons in front of the words your French tests… But you may want to adopt my method when you write your French notes or do your French flashcards…
Before we dive into the rules of liaison in French, please let me address something that may help you understand the concept of the French liaison better: why is there liaison in French?
Why Is There Liaison in French?
Some French words’ pronunciation change in liaison because… well it follow a long set of rules and habits of French pronunciation…
Usually there’s a liaison because it’s easier for a French mouth to pronounce it this way. I tend to call this “a lazy mouth rule”…
Try saying “un/ami” out-loud without doing the liaison… well, there’s a clash of vowels. It’s not easy on the jaws to say “un/ami” if you don’t overly enunciate. It’s much easier to pronounce “un (N)ami“. Go ahead! Try it for yourself!
Sometimes, there’s a liaison in French because doing a liaison shows you know how the word is written… so it’s kind of a “show your good education” kind of rule!! And often, in this case, that liaison tends to be dropped nowadays in modern spoken French pronunciation.
For example, I don’t know anyone nowadays who would make a liaison after the “ent” of “regardent” when saying “Pierre et Anne regardent (T)un chat noir“. Unless they were reading French poetry out-loud.
Now, let’s tackle an important point: do French consonants change pronunciation in liaison? Let’s see…
How Do You Pronounce French Liaisons?
As you have probably noticed on the examples above, many French consonants keep their regular consonant sound when used in a liaison, except for:
- S and X which become a Z sound in liaison : les (Z)enfants, deux (Z)heures.
- D which becomes a T sound in liaison : un grand (T)ami.
Some combinations of letters also slightly change pronunciation in liaison:
- the nasal consonant “on” becomes an open O sound + N : un bon ami (“bon” sounds just like the feminine “bonne” in liaison…)
- the ending “ier” becomes an È sound + R : mon premier ami (“premier” sounds just like the feminine “première” in liaison)
There may be more… I can’t think of other examples at the moment! If you think of something, please add it to the Disqus comment section below, and I’ll add it to this free lesson.
So usually, liaison affects the pronunciation of the second word… but as we’ve just seen, sometimes it also slightly affects the pronunciation of the first word. So it’s important to get the right French pronunciation of liaisons by studying with audio recorded by a French native.
Now, to have a liaison in French, you need some basic conditions.
When Is There a Liaison in French?
2 Basic Conditions To Have A Liaison In French
A liaison will only happen if these two conditions are in place:
Condition 1 To Have A Liaison In French
The first word needs to end in a silent consonant.
Example : les.
The French definite article “les” ends in a silent S. What I mean by that is that this S does affect the pronunciation of the E (it becomes a È sound), but the S is not pronounced like a S sound. Therefore, in French we say the S is silent.
Condition 2 To Have A Liaison In French
Now, if these conditions are present, is there always a liaison in French? Not at all… I’ll now explain when there are or aren’t liaisons in French.
French Rules of Liaisons
Are All French Liaisons Mandatory?
As I said above, it’s not because a word ending in a silent consonant is followed by a word starting with a vowel or a silent h that there will be a liaison.
- Sometimes, applying a liaison in French is mandatory.
- In some instances, doing a liaison is forbidden. Why? Because it’s dangerous! Just kidding! I was doing a bad pun on the movie “Les Liaisons Dangereuses“…
- Many times, liaisons are optional, especially in modern spoken French pronunciation.
So, let’s study this in depth.
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5 Mandatory French Liaisons
There are five main cases of mandatory French liaisons. Not only are they mandatory by rule, but also everybody in the French speaking world is likely to make them. It would sound really bad if you didn’t make a liaison there.
Mandatory Liaison After A Pronoun
Let’s take the French verb avoir in the present indicative tense and see the strong liaison you’ll hear between the French subject pronouns and the verb.
- On (N)a une voiture bleue – we have a blue car
- nous (Z)avons des (Z)amis à Paris – we have friends in Paris
- vous (Z)avez une jolie maison – you have a pretty house
- ils (Z)ont les (Z)yeux verts – they have green eyes
- elles (Z)ont un chien – they have a dog
Remember, S makes a liaison in Z
The pronouns can also have other grammatical value and have a liaison.
- Tu nous (Z)as dit que tu viendrais – you told us you would come.
- Il les (Z)écoute chanter – he’s listening to them singing.
- Je vous (Z)aime – I am in love with you
Mandatory Liaison After Articles
Articles are everywhere in French. You’ll hear a strong liaison after “un”, “des”, “les”, “aux”.
- J’ai un (N)ami aux (Z)États-Unis – I have a friend in the US
- Les (Z)ordinateurs sont rapides – Computers are fast
- Elle doit acheter des (Z)oranges – She has to buy oranges
Mandatory Liaison After Most Numbers
French numbers are tricky because on top of learning them, their pronunciation is going to change depending on the word that follows. You may add a sound in liaison, drop one between numbers…
Once again, French numbers should always be studied with audio: if you don’t learn the correct pronunciation, you’re missing half of the info.
Mandatory Liaison After Adjectives
There are many different kind of adjectives in French. Many are little words that pilote nouns just like an article would… Since they are closely associated with the noun they modify, it’s only logical the ones that end with a silent consonant will start a liaison.
It’s the case for:
- possessive adjectives (mon, ton, son, mes, tes, ses, nos, vos, leurs)
- demonstrative adjectives (ces)
- interrogative adjectives (quels, quelles)
- Indefinite adjectives (aucun, tout, quelques)
but also the French adjectives that come before the noun such as “petit” or “grand”…
Let’s take some examples:
- ces (Z)affaires – these deals
- mon (N)oncle – my uncle
- ton (N)avis – your opinion
- son (N)auto – his/her car
- mes (Z)enfants – my kids
- ses (Z)animaux – his/her animals
- nos (Z)écoles – our schools
- vos (Z)erreurs – your mistakes
- leurs (Z)amours – their loves
- aucun (N)homme – no man
- tout (T)entier – in its whole
- quels (Z)avions ? What planes?
- quelles (Z)écoles ? What school?
- quelques (Z)uns. A few
- un petit (T)avion – a little plane
- un grand (T)aéroport – a large airport
Liaisons After Many Prepositions & Très
Liaisons are also mandatory in French after short, one-syllable French prepositions.
- Dans – In (inside)
- En – In
- Sans – Without
- Chez – At
- Sous – Under…
But also “très” (very, very much)
Let me illustrate this rule with examples:
- Le chien est dans (Z)une maison – the dog is inside a house
- Vous (Z)habitez en (N)Amérique – You live in America.
- Il ne peut pas manger sans (Z)avoir une serviette – he cannot eat without (having) a napkin.
- Je dîne chez (Z)elle – I’m having dinner at her place
- Le livre était sous (Z)un coussin – the book was under a pillow
- C’est très (Z)utile ! – It’s very useful!
On top of these 5 rules of mandatory French liaisons, there are many cases when there is a liaison… that cannot really be explained!
As I said above, you’ll often see a liaison with words that are closely linked in meaning. A natural liaison may also have developed in words that were difficult to pronounce together…
- Les (Z)États-(Z)Unis – the United States of America feature 2 liaisons in a row…
- Peut-(T)être – maybe
- Avant-(T)hier – the day before yesterday
- De temps (Z)en temps – from time to time
- Plus (Z)ou moins – more or less
- Tout (T)à coup – All of a sudden
- À tout (T)à l’heure – See you later…
- Comment (T)allez-vous ? – How are you?
- Quand (T)est-ce que tu viens ? – When are you coming?
- And many, many more…
Now let’s see the French rules which stipulate there shouldn’t be a liaison.
5 Forbidden Liaisons in French
1 – No Liaison Before A Pronounced H
Some H in French are “aspirated”. It’s silly if you ask me to call this “aspirated” since the french H is not pronounced at all compared to an English H…. However, in French, we have a series of French starting with this sort of H, and they will have no liaison or elision in front of them:
How do you know if an H is aspirated in French or not? You learn it by heart… There’s no other way to tell – unless you’re a linguist and know the origin of the word: “aspirated H” words have Germanic origins, or have studied with my Secret of French Pronunciation audiobook.
2 – No Liaison After “Et” Meaning ‘And’
This is a tough one… there is no liaison after “et”.
Thomas et elle sont mariés maintenant – Thomas and she are married now.
3. No Liaison After A Noun
Whether it’s a French first name (like Anne) or a simple name (like “homme”), there will be usually no liaison after it.
- Les hommes / ont des livres – men have books
- Un étudiant / intelligent – a smart student
- Thomas / est français – Thomas is French
4 – No Liaison In French After A Verb (Except Être & Avoir)
There is usually no liaison after a verb… well, French forums go on and on about this one… You are actually supposed to make a liaison after a verb in the 3rd person plural (ils/elles form) but it would be extremely formal and outdated nowadays.
- Vous voulez / un croissant ? Would you like a croissant
- Je bois / une tasse de thé . I’m drinking a cup of tea
- Ils (Z)écrivent / un message (although liaison after the “ent” of a 3rd person in a verb is technically recommended). They are writing a message.
5 – French Numbers Eight, Eleven and Hundred and Liaisons
As we’ve seen above, there are usually liaisons after French numbers.
There is however no liaison before the numbers huit (8) and onze (11), and no liaison after the number “cent” and “un”.
- Elles ont / onze ans – They are eleven.
- Il est / huit heures – It’s eight o’clock.
- Les cent / un dalmatiens – 101 Dalmatians
We’ve studied the French liaisons that are mandatory, and the ones that are forbidden. Now what?
Optional French Liaisons
Let’s enter the grey area of liaisons… where liaisons are optional…
As all living languages, the French language is constantly evolving. If liaisons are still very much used in French today, some liaisons tend to disappear. So I’ll list them here as “optional”.
Liaison in French = Formal French
There’s a cultural point you need to understand about liaisons: the more you use them, the more “educated” you’ll sound. To use liaisons properly, you need to know how to spell in French. How to spell silent letters. Not everybody does.
So nowadays, liaisons are kind of linked to the notion of educated French. Formal French. “Pure” or “good” French some may say… I won’t judge, but the fact is that there’s definitely a cultural aspect to liaisons in French today.
I’ll use myself as an example: I may use an “optional” liaison at work, or when trying to impress someone with my eloquence (LOL)… and drop it with my friends in a casual setting…
Of course, this is the kind of subject that rubs French language purists the wrong way… French language forums go on an on about when liaisons in French should or shouldn’t be mandatory. And this whole pronunciation conundrum is reinforced by regional accents…
So right or wrong, here are some liaisons you may hear – or may not hear – in French!
Optional Liaison After Pas
Listen to my audio recordings to compare the pronunciation of the following sentences.
Optional Liaison After Short Adverbs & Conjunctions
Liaison in French is nowadays optional after many short adverbs and conjunctions such as “trop” (too many), “mais” (but)…
Optional Liaison After Être & Avoir
That’s a huge difference between formal French and modern spoken French. I’ll let you see by yourself when you listen to the recordings of the French verb to be conjugations in my free lesson.
Watch out though! The liaison between the pronoun and the verb is still mandatory and very much used in modern spoken French. Noone would days [il on] for [il zon] – ils ont.
Optional Liaison Before A Name
When the name is a common name, you may very well hear a liaison with it – or not, in this case the liaison is optional.
When it’s an uncommon first name, maybe a foreign first name, I suggest you don’t make a liaison as to not change the pronunciation of that name.
Of course, this kind of thing is subjective… you’d need to know common French names.
That’s why these optional liaisons is a grey area!
🗝 The Key To Mastering Liaisons In French
Here you go. Now you know the theory, the rules. Does this mean you master liaisons in French?
Of course not. I do hope understanding why we apply a liaison – or not – will help you, but you won’t master French liaisons without practice. And you won’t get that practice from books.
Time for you to pick a relevant audio method to learn French. Why relevant? Well, relevant to what YOU want to learn.
In any case, you will need a strong grammatical foundation – even to speak simply in French. If you want to pass exams, you should really study formal French. If you want to communicate in France today, then you also need to study modern spoken French – otherwise you will not understand the French when they speak.
So chances are you need both formal and modern spoken French: good! That’s exactly what my French audiobook method will provide! French Today’s bilingual audiobooks are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided French pronunciation.
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