Imagine you leave your French friends after sharing a drink with them, you’ve already said goodbye in French, and now want to add ‘have a good night’ in French.
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Note that when applicable, I used a modern spoken French pronunciation.
You’ve learned in your French studies that ‘night’ was “la nuit” in French. So you prepare your sentence, place the irregular adjective before the noun, do the agreement (kiddos!!), and wish them a confident “bonne nuit“… and they all start laughing.
What went wrong?
1 – How to Say Good night in French?
To answer this, we need to compare the intent behind “good night” in French and in English.
Good night in English
In English, it is quite common to say “good night” as in “enjoy the rest of the night”, the night here referring mostly to the social evening.
Good night in French
Well, the good news is that it’s common to do this in French as well.
The bad news is that you can’t translate literally.
In French, there’s a different expression used for hoping that someone will enjoy the rest of their social night, and it doesn’t involve the word ‘night’.
If you translated ‘good night’ literally in French you’d get “bonne nuit“. Pronounce it like [bun nwee].
Unfortunately, “bonne nuit” means ‘sleep well’. It’s what you say to someone before they go to bed…. 💤
Before leaving someone who is going to bed, the French usually say : “bonne nuit“: have a good night’s sleep.
We may add “fais/faites de beaux rêves“: sweet dreams!
You imagine that if you were to say “bonne nuit” to someone who is going out for the night; it may come as a surprise… And surprise is often met with laughter.
They’re not laughing at you. They’re laughing because you said something unexpected, something that got lost in translation.
Please don’t take it personally, laughter is only a human response to surprise. It may not be a pleasant experience to feel laughed at but it’s likely there will be many occasions in your French journey that you’ll make a fool of yourself. Trust me, I’ve been there many times in English! So better grow a thicker skin right now and learn to laugh with everybody.
So if ‘have a good night’ is not “bonne nuit”, then what should you say?
3 – Have a Good Night in French = Bonne Soirée
When wishing someone a good night as a pleasant evening, you should say “Bonne soirée“.
“Une soirée” is an evening span. You could say:
- Bonne soirée
Have a good evening
- Passe/ passez une bonne soirée
Have a good evening
- Je te/vous souhaite une bonne soirée
Literally, I wish you to have a good evening
If you are relating your evening, you could say:
- J’ai passé une (très) bonne soirée avec Pierre
I had/enjoyed a (very) good evening with Pierre.
or on the contrary
- Quelle mauvaise soirée ! J’ai vraiment passé une soirée nulle avec Pierre…
What an unpleasant evening! I really had a bad time with Pierre.
Note that in French, “une soirée” is also a party. Of course the French would associate evening time with partying, right?
4 – What about “Bonsoir” in French?
Wait! What about “bonsoir”? Can you use “bonsoir” to say ‘good night’ in French?
Yes you can. But “bonsoir” is more of a greeting, or way to say hello in French when you arrive somewhere in the evening, or sometimes “goodbye” when you leave in the evening.
Originally, of course “bonsoir” does mean “bon soir” = ‘good evening’. But now, it’s rather ‘flat’: you are not really expressing the notion of ‘I wish you a pleasant evening’ – you’re just saying ‘hi’ or ‘bye’ using an appropriate expression for the time of the day.
5 – In Short
Here is what you should memorize to avoid faux pas.