How do you say going in French?

On this page, we'll look at how to translate into French sentences such as I'm going to France, he's going to work etc. But what we say will apply to other sentences as well.

In English, it's common to use the words am, are, is etc with a word ending in -ing. For example: am working, are waiting is going. To translate these into French, the first step is generally to remove the -ing, so that we're left with the "basic" word: work, wait, go.

Then, we look up this basic form in our dictionary. Looking up go in the English-French dictionary on this site, for example, gives an entry looking as follows:

As in many cases, the whole entry is split into several sections. Each section gives translations and examples of a particular use of the verb go. For now, we'll concentrate on the first part, marked (a), which gives the most general use. The basic translation of go as indicated in the dictionary entry is the word aller.

Now, just as the English word go changes its form (going, gone etc), so does the French word aller. So we need to find out which particular form of the word aller we need for our particular sentence.

To find out about the different forms of the French word aller, we switch to the French-English side of the dictionary and look up aller. We see that there are two versions of the French word aller: one that means "outward journey" (which isn't the one we want here), but another that, reassuringly, means "to go". Under this part of the entry, we find a section between horizontal lines that looks as follows:

This is the section that's going to tell us which particular form of the word aller we need. To make a sentence meaning I'm going, he's going etc that talk about a "present" action (or in fact, an action that's about to happen), we need the forms under the heading marked Present. These forms are always listed in a particular order, according to the subject (the "person carrying out the action"). In French, the common subjects are:

je = I
tu = you (talking to a single friend)
il = he
elle = she
nous = we
vous = you (multiple people or speaking to somebody who's not a friend)
ils = they (males or a mixture of male/female)
elles = they (females)
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So, for example, to say I'm going, we read off the form listed with je; to say you're going, if speaking to a friend, we read off the form listed with tu. To say he's going and she's going, we see that the French form is essentially the same, but we need to choose between il or elle:

je vais...I'm going...
tu vas...you're going...
il va...he's going...
elle va...she's going...
nous allons...we're going...
vous allez...you're going... (speaking to more than one person, or to somebody not a friend)
ils vont...they're going... (speaking about males or a mixture of males/females)
elles vont...they're going... (speaking about females)

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Where are we going...?

To make je vais..., tu vas... etc into a complete sentnce, we need to add a phrase to say where the person in question is going (in the words of the dictionary entry, the "destination"). The dictionary entry actually includes some examples of how to do this, but we'll look in more detail at how to do this. Essentially, we have two problems:

  • we need to choose the right French word for "to";
  • we might need to translate the name of the place.

Which word we use for "to" depends on the type of place (name of a town/city, name of a country, name of a place where an activity is carried out such as a bank, shop etc).

going to a town/city

This is often the easiest case. The French word for "to" is almost always à when followed by the name of a town or city. For example:

je vais à Leeds
I'm going to Leeds
elle va à Manchester
she's going to Manchester

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A slight difficulty is that a few towns and cities have French names that are different from English, particularly capital cities:

ils vont à Londres
They're going to London
nous allons à Bruxelles
We're going to Brussells
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There are also a few towns that have the word Le "built in" to the start of the name, e.g. Le Havre, Le Mans. In this case, Le may become au (because in general in French, à + le = au):

Il va au Mans
He's going to Le Mans
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However, this is optional: it is still possible to say e.g.

Il va à Le Havre
He's going to Le Havre
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going to a country

Before a country name, "to" is usually translated as follows:

  • en with a feminine country or masculine country starting with a consonant (practically all countries ending in -e1);
  • au with a masculine country (most other countries);
  • aux with a plural country (e.g. États-Unis);
  • à with a country that is also an island (e.g. Cuba).

For example:

MasculineFemininePluralIsland
je vais au Canada
I'm going to Canada
je vais en Angleterre
I'm going to England
je vais aux États-Unis
I'm going to the US
je vais à Cuba
I'm going to Cuba
il va au Mexique
he's going to Mexico
il va en France
he's going to France
il va aux Pays-Bas
he's going to the Netherlands
il va à Malte
he's going to Malta
elle va au Royaume-Uni
she's going to the UK
elle va en Italie
she's going to Italy
elle va aux Philippines
she's going to the Philippines
elle va à Chypre
she's going to Cyprus

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1. Mexique (Mexico) is masculine: Il va au Mexique.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.