The most common way to translate ‘big’ in French may be with the French adjective “grand”.
Grand = Tall but Sometimes Honorable
Grand has 2 main meanings:
- big as in tall in size
- great as in honorable, great, worthy
The feminine form is “grande” (ends on a final d sound).
When followed by a noun starting with a vowel, D “grand” makes a liaison in T.
Adjectives in French usually come after the noun, but “grand” is an exception and is usually placed before the noun.
- Un grand arbre = a big tree (note the liaison in T = gran Tarbr), meaning mostly a tall tree.
- Un grand immeuble = a big/tall building
- Ils sont grands = they are tall
The French expression “quand je serai grand” is commonly used by children: it means when I’ll grow up (therefore, when I’ll be ‘tall’)… The opposite expression is “quand j’étais petit(e)” meaning ‘when I was young (and therefore ‘little’).
The second meaning of “grand” is ‘honorable’, ‘great’, ‘worthy’… In this use, “grand” doesn’t describe the size but the quality of the person.
- Un grand homme = a honorable/great man (note the liaison in T = gran Tom)
- Une grande dame = a great lady
So, how would you describe a tall man?
One solution is to place “grand” after the noun. “Un homme grand”…
It’s possible but it doesn’t sound really good in French: so we’ll probably just clarify the meaning by saying “c’est un homme qui est grand”. If it’s clear from the context that you are talking about the size, you could then say “ah oui, c’est un grand homme, il est vraiment grand !”
You will find vocabulary in context on how to describe people in my French audio books.
Now let’s see another common adjective to translate ‘big’ in French.
Gros = Big and much more
Gros often translates as big in French, but it means so much more.
First, let’s see the spelling variations for “gros”
- Gros is one of these French adjectives that is placed before the noun.
Un gros chat – a fat cat
- Note the final S of gros is silent, but will be pronounced as a Z in liaison when it’s followed by a word starting with a vowel or a mute h.
Un gros éléphant [gro Zéléfan] – a big elephant
- Gros is spelled gros in the singular and plural.
Trois gros gâteaux – three big cakes
- Gros becomes grosse(s) in the feminine, and then you pronounce the S [gros]
Elle n’est pas grosse – she’s not big (as in fat)
Now let’s see the various meanings of “gros/se”.
Gros = Big / Imposing / Fat /Serious
Gros often means big, usually referring to ‘large’ in size, ‘fat’ for a person, and ‘imposing’ for a dog, a house
- Je voudrais un gros morceau: I’d like a big piece
- J’ai peur des gros chiens: I’m afraid of big dogs
- Cet homme est trop gros pour son pantalon: this man is too big, large, fat for his pants.
Gros = Serious in Modern French
Recently, “gros” has been used in colloquial French to reinforce a noun.
It can translate as serious.
- J’ai un gros problème: I have a serious problem
Gros and French Insults
Gros is often use to reinforce insults in French (so please pardon the vulgarity of the examples):
- C’est une grosse salope – she is a serious bitch = this doesn’t mean she is fat. It means she really is a bitch 🤣
- Gros con: dumbass.
Watch-out When Using Gros/Grosse For A Person
Using “Gros” for “fat” for a person can be quite judgmental. I hear people in the US calling themselves “a big person”. We don’t have an equivalent expression in French, but we would say something like “Je suis grande et large”.
To describe a friend, I would never say “il est gros” or “elle est grosse”: it’s kind of mean.
In this situation, we would prefer to use a negative in French: “elle n’est pas mince” = she is not thin. We’d also say “il est bien en chair”, which literally translated in “he is well in flesh”. See below for more info with the use of our third adjective: “gras, grasse”.
I would use “gros/grosse” for someone I don’t know, or to describe myself, specially if I’m fishing for compliments:
– “je suis trop groooooooooosse”
– “mais non, mais non, tu es très bien comme ça”… (no-no, you’re perfect the way you are…)
Gros For an Animal = Fat or Imposing
“Gros” for an animal could mean both fat or imposing…
So fat or large, big, imposing? The context will tell you.
Gros and Grosse Do Not Mean Gross
Finally, of course “gros” in French doesn’t mean “gross” in English: use “dégoûtant” (disgusting).
And now let’s see the third adjective we often use to translate big in French.
Gras = Fatty, Oily
Gras (s silent, same spelling in the plural) means fatty or oily.
The feminine form is “grasse”(ends on a final S sound).
Gras and Grasse are placed after the noun.
Only translators translate “fat” as “gras”. So, many students thing that if they wanted to say “he is big (as a kind way to say “fat” really…) the adjective to use would be “gras”.
But the problem is that we don’t really use “gras” to talk about a person in French…
Saying of a person: “elle est grasse” is not impossible, but it would really be mean, since it would be focussing not so much on the body shape, but the quality of the skin.
If you said: “elle est grasse”, you would be saying she is fatty, or oily…
It’s something you may find in a fairy tale when the ogre feels the arm of a child to see if he’s ready to be eaten… “ah oui ! Maintenant elle est bien grasse…” (Oh yes, now she’s all fattened up…)
So, as we’ve seen in the paragraph above, “fat” for a person is “gros(se)” not “gras(se)”.
“La graisse” is fat, not to be mistaken with the island “la Grèce” – Greece, although they are pronounced the same way.
Thank Goodness, inhabitants of Greece are called “un Grec, une Grèque” with a K sound 😅
Here are some examples of when you’d use “gras” in French.
- Ce poisson est gras = this fish is fatty.
- Elle a la peau grasse = she has oily skin.
11 Idioms With Gros, Gras, Grand
Then there are so many idioms and expressions based on these words that are very stretched from their original meaning.
- Grosses bises, gros bisous = Like “hugs and kisses” at the end of an email, a letter to friends
- Faire la grasse matinée = to sleep late
- Un gros mot: a bad word
- En gros : in bulk
- Faire le ménage en grand : to clean the house thoroughly
- Faire le plus gros du travail: to do the largest part of the work
- Le gros des troupes: the largest part of the troops
- Le gras de la viande: the fat in meat
- Quand je serai grand(e): when I will be an adult
- “Mardi Gras” comes from the tradition of using up all the food before Lent begins
- Gras is also what we use to say “bold” as in font type.
If you think of more useful idioms using gros/grand/gras, list them in the comments and I’ll add them to the article -merci !
A Fun French Tongue Twister + Audio
So now just for fun – here is a very famous exercise of pronunciation (a tongue-twister is called “un virelangue” in French).
It doesn’t mean much.
It has to do with a grain of barley becoming more or less fat and big.
It conjugates verbs that do not exist (oregerer et dégrorger etc… do not exist!)
It’s really just for the pronunciation of it.
Why did this make it through time? I have no clue! But it sure is hard to say fast!
Please press play on the audio player to hear the pronunciation.
Dis-moi gros gras grand grain d’orge,
quand te dégros gras grand grain d’orgeras-tu ?
Je me dégros grand grain d’orgerai
quand tous les gros gras grands grains d’orge
se dégros gras grand grain d’orgeront.
To learn more about adjectives in French, please check out my audio lesson.
You may also be interested in these articles:
Learn French in context, check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation.
You’ll find exclusive mini lessons, tips, pictures and more everyday on French Today’s Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest pages – so join me there!