We have many verbs in French to translate the notion of “to leave” based on the context, and they are, unfortunately, not interchangeable.
1 – Quitter – to Leave Forever + Break up With Someone
“Quitter” is followed by a direct object.
Quitter is used mostly in 3 specific situations:
- quitter son mari = to leave (break up with) your husband, your lover.
Je te quitte = I am breaking up with you.
- you can also quit a job, or quit a place forever = “quitter un travail, quitter un pays”.
- in the phone expression “ne quittez pas” to say ‘hold on’.
But watch out, we say “arrêter de fumer” (to quit smoking) – not “quitter”.
2 – Sortir (de, dans, sur…) – to Leave as in to Exit a Place.
Sortir is usually followed by a preposition of place and complement of place (not a direct object as in English).
- Je sors DE la maison. I am exiting the house – in French, you need a “de”.
- Je sors DANS la rue. I am going out in the street.
The focus in on the motion : so it’s more a description of your whereabouts, and when you exited a place to go in another one, and often both places are going to be specified.
With this meaning, “sortir” will take “être” in passé composé.
Je suis sortie DE ma chambre pour aller dans la cuisine. (I left/ exited/got out of my room to go in the kitchen)
3 – Sortir + Direct Object = to Take Something Outside
In this meaning, “sortir” will take “avoir” in passé composé.
- Je sors les chiens = I’m taking the dogs out
- J’ai sorti les poubelles – I took the garbage outside
It will take “être” in passé composé
- Ce soir, je sors = I’m going out (socially) tonight
- Il sort avec Anne = he is Anne’s boyfriend
- Il sort avec Anne = he is going out (to the movies) with Anne – the context will hopefully tell you the difference.
- Je suis sortie au cinéma = I went out to the movies.
Note the difference “je suis sortie DU cinéma” I left the movies / “je suis sortie AU cinéma” I went out to the movies.
On a related topic, you may enjoy my article on how to ask someone out on a date in French.
5 – Partir = to Leave Behind, to Depart
Partir is never followed by a direct object. It’s usually used alone, or with a complement of place (like a destination) or a complement of time.
Partir expresses the idea of leaving a situation to enter another one, rather than exiting a place to enter another one (in which case we would use sortir).
Partir also expresses the action of departing. It often involves a feeling,
Watch out! The verb is “partir”, not départir which doesn’t exist in French. The noun however is “le départ” = the departure. I know, it’s confusing…
And Partir takes “être” in passé composé.
- Je pars = I am leaving
- Je pars en voyage = I am leaving on a trip
- Je pars à 6h = I am leaving at 6 PM
- Je pars DE Paris: I’m leaving (from) Paris.
6 – S’en Aller = to Leave (Focusing on the Action).
“S’en aller” is a bit older. Before, it was used a lot and could be followed by a destination.
- Veux-tu nous en aller sous les arbres profonds (from a Victor Hugo’s poem) – We would NEVER say that nowadays.
Nowadays, the focus is on the action, sort of “I must be going” and can only be followed by a complement of time, never of place. We usually say “je pars” instead of “je m’en vais”.
- Je m’en vais = I am leaving. (or je pars)
7 – Contrast “Partir” and “Sortir”
- Demain, je vais partir de Paris pour aller à Nice. Tomorrow, I’ll leave Paris to go to Nice.
- C’est difficile de sortir de Paris le vendredi soir en voiture. It’s hard to leave (to exit) Paris on friday night by car.
- Demain, je sors = tomorrow, I have plans (to go out with my friends)
- Demain, je pars = tomorrow, I am leaving (leaving for how long, the sentence doesn’t say…)
- Il est sorti de sa chambre pour aller dans la cuisine = he went out of his room to go in the kitchen…
8 – Laisser – to Leave Behind/With Someone/ to let (allow)
In grammar, Laisser is followed by a direct object, not a complement of place introduced by a preposition… The direct object can be a place however!
Laisser takes avoir in passé composé.
- Je laisse ma voiture dans le garage – I am leaving my car in the garage
- Je laisse ma chienne à mon amie – I’m leaving my dog with my friend
- Je laisse ma chienne dormir dans mon lit – I let (allow) my dog sleep in my bed
- Je te laisse décider – I let you decide, I leave the decision up to you
9 – Exercise: Check if you can Understand and Then Translate
Aujourd’hui, j’ai laissé la cuisine en désordre (je n’ai pas sorti la poubelle) parce que je devais partir immédiatement. J’avais des projets pour sortir avec Pierre. Je suis sortie de la cuisine, j’ai mis mon manteau et puis je suis partie. J’ai passé une mauvaise soirée avec Pierre, et ce soir–là, j’ai décidé de le quitter.
Today, I left the kitchen in a mess (I didn’t take the garbage out) because I had to leave right away. I had some plans to go out with Pierre. I came out of the kitchen, I put my coat on and I left. I had a bad evening with Pierre, and that evening, I decided to break up with him.
The very best way to learn these French subtleties is to learn this vocabulary 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.