French keyword: 'faire'

The verb faire is a commonly occurring verb. In our sample of French literature, the present tense form fait is the second most commonly occurring verb form (second to est).

Generally speaking, faire covers much of the scope of both English do and make, including when these verbs have more 'functional' or auxiliary uses. However, there are some particular cases where an idiomatic English translation uses other verbs, including uses as an auxiliary where English uses verbs such as have or help.

Lexical uses

By 'lexical' uses, we mean cases where the verb faire is used as the 'main' verb of the sentence and implies a particular action; we'll contrast this type of usage with functional or auxiliary uses where, for example, it stands in for another implied verb, or is involved in a construction with another verb which functions more as the 'main verb'.

The make sense

When it implies a 'constructing' action (and possible French synonyms are often construire, créer, bâtir, préparer etc), then make is often an idiomatic English translation:

il fait trop de bruit
he makes too much noise
IBM fait des ordinateurs depuis 1953
IBM have been making computers since 1953
je te fais un café?
shall I make you a coffee?

Note that there's sometimes a little bit of overlap even in English: in the last of these cases, shall I do you a coffee? would also be possible.

The do sense

Just like English do, the French verb faire can be the main verb in a sentence with the notion of 'generally carry out an activity'.

il fait beaucoup de sport
he does a lot of sport
est-ce que tu as fait tes devoirs?
have you done your homework?
je fais anglais, français et mathématiques
I'm doing English, French and Mathematics
il fait son piano
he's doing his piano (practice)
l'Eurostar fait Londres-Paris en moins de quatre heures
the Eurostar does London to Paris in less than four hours

Occasionally, an alternative verb is common in English whereas faire remains the most common verb in French. For example, in the first example here, it would be common to say he plays a lot of sport. (In French, an alternative would be il pratique beaucoup de sport but this is apparently much less common: a mere 50 hits on Google as opposed to around 5,000 for faire. On the other hand, a comparable search suggests that plays is roughly twice as common as does in English.)

In the sense of play, act, act as

In French, faire is used with theatrical roles. The usual English translation in this sense is with play, act, act as, serve as (in the case of inanimates) or even simply be:

il fait le Roi Henri
he's playing King Henry
ne fais pas l'imbécile!
don't play the idiot (with me)!, don't act like an idiot!
mon ordinateur fait télé aussi
my computer serves as a TV as well
il fait prof d'anglais
he's working as an English teacher, he's an English teacher

Use with measurements and prices

Notice the following use of faire with measurements. In English, the verbs measure or simply be would be common translations:

ça fait 2 mètres de diamètre
it's 2 metres in diameter
la salle à manger fait 4 mètres par 3
the dining room measures 4 by 3 metres

With prices, faire carries the notion of fetch. Informally, it is also a common way of asking the price of something.

ça fera un bon prix
it'll fetch a good price
ça fait combien, le parapluie?
how much is the brolly?
(Note that faire un bon prix can also have the sense of "do a good price", "do a deal": il me fera un bon prix = "he'll do me a good price".)

faire qch de qch

Note the following case where English uses the preposition with, whereas French uses a noun phrase with de, or the clitic en.

qu'est-ce que j'ai fait de mon sac?
what did I do with my bag?
qu'est-ce qu'il va faire de son bleu?
what will he do with his overalls? (Renaud)
qu'est-ce que je peux en faire?
what can I do with it/him/her?

Functional uses

By functional uses, we mean cases where faire is used in a way that "enhances" another verb, where it can't stand on its own as the main verb in the sentence.

The verb faire repeating or standing for another specific verb

It is very common in English for do to serve to 'repeat' a previously-specified verb. Often in French, it is more common simply to repeat the verb, or to omit the verb entirely. For example:

je travaille le weekend et lui aussi
I work weekends and so does he
je préfère le vin et lui aussi
I prefer wine and so does he
j'ai mangé du poisson et Marie (en a mangé) aussi
I had some fish and so did Marie

However, it is occasionally possible to use faire in this type of 'substitution'. One type of case is when a comparison is involved. In this case, the so-called 'expletive ne' appears before the verb faire:

il le dit mieux que je ne fais
he expresses it better than I do
vous me connaissez mieux que je ne fais moi-même
you know me better than I do myself

The construction ne faire que... is equivalent to English to do nothing but...:

il ne fait que travailler
he does nothing but work, he's always working, he won't stop working
il n'a fait qu'essayer
he did but try

The phrase le faire can be used to mean 'do it', similarly to English, but note that a possible translation is to omit the 'it' in English:

je n'ai pas nettoyé la chambre, c'est lui qui l'a fait
I didn't clean the room, he did (it)

The expression "faites, je vous en prie!" is similar to English "Please, go ahead!" or "Please do!".

Causative faire + infinitive

A common construction in French involves faire directly followed by an infinitive. This is sometimes called a causative construction: the idea is that the subject of the sentence "causes" the object to carry out the action of the infinitive. A common translation in English is make, have or get (as in get sb to do sth) if there is some element of 'forcing' or involuntary action involved; otherwise, let or sometimes help are common translations. In some cases, a phrasal version of these verbs such as let in, help across etc is a more idiomatic translation.

tu me fais pleurer!
you make me cry!
il me fait travailler, ce chef!
the boss doesn't half make me work!
il l'a fait entrer
he let him/her in
il a fait sortir le chien
he let the dog out
je vais les faire parler anglais
I'm going to get them to speak English
je lui fais traverser la rue
I'll help him across the road
j'ai fait manger un biscuit au bébé
I gave a biscuit to the baby (to eat)

Notice that when the infinitive has a direct object, the person being made to perform the action is represented by the pronoun lui, or with à plus noun.

Sometimes these sentences are slightly ambiguous as to whether the meaning is 'letting' or 'making'. For example, a possible interpretation of the last sentence would be I made the baby eat a biscuit.

Passive causatives

In French, the infinitive after faire can be interpreted as passive. This is equivalent to an English sentence such as I had the car repaired. Notice the difference in translation in the following depending on whether the agent (person carrying out the action of the infinitive) is specified:

j'ai fait réparer la voiture
I had the car fixed
j'ai fait réparer la voiture à Jean-Luc
I had Jean-Luc fix the car

Note that it isn't grammatical to put causative faire in the passive. So the following aren't possible in French:

il a été fait pleurer
("he was made to cry")
il a été fait manger un biscuit
("he was given a biscuit to eat")

In these cases, the equivalent to the English passive would be a sentence such as on l'a fait pleurer for he was made to cry.

Further reading

For more detailed (and technical) information on the syntax of causatives in French, see [ROWLETT2007:168ff].

This article copyright (c) Javamex UK 2007. All rights reserved.