When do you use an and when do you use année to say "year" in French?

As you are probably aware, French has two words for year: the masculine word an and the feminine word année. Choosing between these apparent alternatives is a common question for beginners (and indeed even more advanced students). So, when do you use an and when do you use année?

The basic difference between the two words has to do with how you "view" the year in a particular case. As a rough guide:

  • The word an tends to view the year as a single, objective "point" in time for the purpose of counting, stating a date etc;
  • the word année is more subjective: it is used to describe a particular year, or focus on the elapsed time and events that occur in a particular year or years.

In practice, this means that we can identify some common conditions that mean that an or année is used in a given case. These common conditions are summarised in the following table.

Casean or année?Example
Simply counting with "ordinary" numbers and no other adjectives, description etcanJ'ai 15 ans
Je l'ai lu il y a trois ans
Je travaille ici depuis deux ans et demi
Simply stating a year as a "date" when something happened or will happenanJe l'ai fait l'an dernier
L'an prochain je devrai trouver un nouvel emploi
En l'an 2000
Counting with tous les... (meaning "every ... years")antous les ans = every single year
tous les deux ans = every other year, every two years
Years used with an adjective, determiner (other than le/un), or other phrase/relative clause that is actually a description of the year(s) in questionannéeJe le fais depuis trois longues années
une bonne année
mon année
cette année
L'année Van Gogh
un tube des années 80 = "an 80s hit"...
Years with an ordinal number, or with a quantifier (equivalent of words like each, many, few etc. used for "indefinite counting")annéela troisième année
chaque année
plusieurs/quelques années
tellement/peu/trop d'années
depuis combien d'années?
A calendar date where you're focussing on the "experience or events" of a year or yearsannéeL'année dernière a été incroyable

As you will appreciate, not every single case is clear-cut. Given that an has a "counting" function, while année tends to "describe" or "focus on an experience", there are cases where either is potentially possible: whether you say j'y ai consacrée dans ans de ma vie ("I dedicated two years of my life to it") or ...deux années de ma vie depends on whether you wish to place more emphasis on the "counting the length of time" or on the "experience" of those two years.

Warning for literature students

For those students who are into their 19th century classics in particular, it is worth noting that the usage of an vs année has changed over time, including some changes in the relatively recent history of the language. Thus, up until the 19th century at least, it was common to use ans with quantifiers and ordinal numbers, whereas annéees is almost always used in such cases today. (In older literature, you will also find ans used readily with other determiners and adjectives: "en mes ans", "mes vieux ans" etc.) So if you are used to reading phrases such as "tout l'an", "les premiers ans de ma vie" etc in literature, be aware that nowadays people would generally say toute l'année, les premières années etc.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.