Using the verb ‘To Meet’ is easy enough in English, but it is not so in French: we use several verbs such as “(se) rencontrer”, “retrouver”, “réunir”, “rejoindre”… and they are not interchangeable. Let’s study the differences, although you’ll see the rules are not really set in stone.
1. Rencontrer = to Run into by Chance, or to Meet for the First Time in French
Let’s start with this verb that is well-known by students of French but unfortunately often leads to mistakes. “Rencontrer” means to run into someone by chance – you didn’t plan on doing so. A typical example would be:
J’ai rencontré mon voisin dans la rue.
I ran into my neighbour in the street.
Try to remember that example. Remembering examples often works much better than trying to remember a translation or a rule…
The second use of “rencontrer” is to meet someone for the first time. To make their acquaintance.
J’ai rencontré mon mari chez des amis.
I met my husband (for the first time) at some friends’ house.
In both cases, this meeting was not planned. You didn’t know you would run into your neighbour, nor did you know that this guy you met was to become your husband.
Note that “rencontrer” is often used in the French reflexive form, the “se” form:
Denise et moi, nous nous sommes rencontrées chez des amis il y a deux semaines, et puis nous nous sommes rencontrées par hasard chez le coiffeur hier.
Denise and I, we met at some friends’ two weeks ago, and then we ran into each other by chance at the hairdresser yesterday.
2. Retrouver = to Meet up with Someone / to Find Something That was Lost / to see Someone Again After a Long Time
Now, this is the verb you will be using most of the time. It is often used in the reflexive form as well.
“Retrouver” means to meet up – as a result of a planned reunion.
J’ai retrouvé mon mari au restaurant.
I met up with my husband at the restaurant.
“Retrouver” is also used to say to find something that was lost. (“Trouver” is often used to say: ‘to find something that you didn’t have but needed’. It’s also used to say: ‘to figure something out’, ‘to discover something’. It’s not set in stone though and we often use one for the other, but I’m digressing…)
Chéri, j’ai retrouvé tes clefs !
Darling, I found your keys!
With a person, “retrouver” is also used to say to rekindle a friendship / love / get back together romantically.
Pierre était mon petit-copain au lycée. Et puis nous nous sommes retrouvés l’année dernière.
Pierre was my boyfriend in high school. Then we got back together (romantically) again last year.
“Se retrouver” is also often used to say “to find yourself in…”
Je me suis retrouvée coincée.
I found myself stuck.
3. Réunir = to Get Together, Meet, Gather up
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The verb “(se) réunir” is much less used. It’s specific to the context of a reunion, and usually involves more than two people. It’s mostly used in the reflexive form with people.
Notre club de bridge se réunit tous les mardis.
Our bridge club meets every Tuesday.
4. Rejoindre = to Join up With
“Rejoindre” is very specific, and easy to use for an English speaker since it has the exact same meaning as in “to join (up)”.
Pierre va nous rejoindre plus tard.
Pierre is going to join up with us later.
An even more formal way to say that would be “se joindre à nous” – Pierre va se joindre à nous plus tard. I would never say that out loud. I may write it in a very formal invitation…
Note – to join a club is a false cognate. We don’t use “joindre” or “rejoindre” but “devenir membre” (to become a member).
5. Faire la Connaissance de Quelqu’un
“Faire la connaissance de quelqu’un” means to meet someone for the very first time, and is quite formal. It’s mostly used in the formal French greeting “ravi(e)/enchanté(e) d’avoir fait ta/votre connaissance” (it was nice meeting you / it was nice making your acquaintance).
J’ai fait la connaissance du Prince Machin-Chose en 2010.
I met Prince So-And-So in 2010.
In everyday French, we’d say: “j’ai rencontré le Prince Machin-Chose en 2010”.
6. Rencontrer and Retrouver – Not Set in Stone
Unfortunately, all this is not always set in stone… And sometimes, being French and able to rely on what “sounds right” is the ultimate solution.
For example, this morning we had an appointment with someone we had exchanged emails with, but never met in person. So, would you use “retrouver” (since we had an appointment) or “rencontrer” (since we met this person for the first time)?
Honestly, I am not too sure… My ear tells me “retrouver” sounds better, because to me, “rencontrer” would sound like we ran into this person by chance, and could carry the wrong message.
Nous avons retrouvé David au Black Dog – We met up with David at the Black Dog (it was planned, which is true in this case)
Nous avons rencontré David au Black Dog – We ran into David at the Black Dog (which wasn’t the case) / we met him for the first time (which was actually the case)
I supposed that if I wanted to be precise and say that we met him for the first time and be clear about it, then I’d have to use:
Nous avons fait la connaissance de David au Black Dog – Yet, one could argue that we had actually first met by email….
So all this is very complicated indeed!
To Sum it up, Watch out: Se Rencontrer ≠ Se Retrouver
Se Rencontrer is not the same as Se Retrouver and it’s what you mostly have to be careful with.
It’s a mistake that I hear very often, and it sounds quite bad because it may create a confusion in the other person’s mind: did you just meet him or did you meet “up” with this person?
J’ai rencontré mon mari chez des amis – Picture the scene: you are meeting him for the first time.
J’ai retrouvé mon mari chez des amis – Picture the scene: you are meeting up with him.
Finally, now that things should be clearer, let me confuse you a bit. In the past, “Rencontrer” was used for “to meet up”, so it is not impossible to find is used that way in books or older movies. Nowadays, it would be quite old fashion and rare, and I strongly encourage you to use “retrouver” for “to meet up”.
I will soon write an article about the different words we use in French for reunions, conference, meetups etc… So make sure you subscribe to the French Today newsletter – or follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
If you liked this article, you may also like:
- Aller, Venir, Retourner, Revenir, Rentrer… to go (back), to come (back), to return
- Amener, Emmener, Apporter, Emporter, Rapporter… To Bring and To Take in French
To learn the correct pronunciation of French greetings, understand tu versus vous, and master French politeness, I suggest you check out my French Greetings and Politeness Audio Lesson.