How to Use (And Not to Use) Au Contraire

Au contraire means “On the contrary”. But if you’re an English-speaker, the phrase’s translation isn’t contrary at all; it turns out we use it the same way the French do.

Still, it’s not quite so simple. Let’s take a closer look at au contraire.

The meaning of au contraire

Important: There is only one way to write au contraire. Au contrare, oh crontaire and au contrair are both incorrect. Au contraire mon frère is also not something French people say.

Au contraire is the French way to say “on the contrary”. Of course, it’s also used in English to mean the exact same thing.

But there are some differences.

For one thing, although most English-speakers today will say it in a somewhat joking tone, in French, it’s  a serious or neutral expression.

Another difference is that in English, Au contraire is usually used on its own, but in French, it’s a little more versatile.

How to use au contraire in French

The French can use au contraire as a stand-alone statement, but the phrase can also be placed at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence.

For instance, you could say :

Interdire la diffusion d’un film ne ferait au contraire qu’augmenter la curiosité du public.

Banning a film will, on the contrary, only make the public more curious about it.

Or, if you’re reacting to a statement someone’s just made :

Au contraire, interdire la diffusion d’un film ne ferait qu’augmenter la curiosité du public.

On the contrary, banning a film will only make the public more curious about it.

Here are some other examples of how to use au contraire:

Je ne déteste pas ses tableaux, au contraire, je les trouve fascinants.

I don’t hate his paintings ; on the contrary, I find them fascinating.

Les rats ne sont pas totalement nuisibles ; au contraire, ils aident à éliminer beaucoup de déchets de notre ville.

Rats aren’t totally destructive ; on the contrary, they help get rid of a lot of garbage in our city.

Tu penses que je veux que tu partes ?  Au contraire ! Je n’aimerais pas vivre sans toi !

You think I want you to leave?  On the contrary! I wouldn’t want to live without you!

What does au contraire de mean ?

Two dogs run down a dirt path. One is a corgy and the other looks like a small mixed breed with medium-long fur. As dogs usually do when they're running, they look happy.

In French, you can also use au contraire with the preposition de . This modifies the phrase to be the equivalent of “Contrary to”.

For example:

Au contraire de sa sœur, Michel aime les chiens.

Contrary to/Unlike his sister, Michel likes dogs.

As you may have guessed, you can’t use au contraire de as a standalone statement. On the other hand, it can be placed in different parts of a sentence.

For instance, you could change its placement in the example sentence above: Michel aime les chiens, au contraire de sa soeur. (Michel likes dogs, unlike his sister.)

Two au contraire variants

You might come across one of these au contraire phrases:

Both mean “quite the contrary”.  But bien au contraire is far more common. You can use itin a sentence or as a stand-alone exclamation.

Here are some examples:

On pensait que le PDG de la marque serait très bien habillée ; bien au contraire, elle s’habillait comme un sac.

We thought the brand’s CEO would be extremely well dressed ; quite the contrary, she was a terrible dresser.

Assembler cette bibliothèque sera facile, non ? Bien au contraire !

Putting together this bookshelf will be easy, won’t it?  Quite the contrary!

Ceux qui n’aiment pas les chats disent que c’est un animal qui ne sait pas aimer les hommes. Bien au contraire ; les chats ont leur propre façon de montrer leur amour.

People who don’t like cats say that cats are animals who don’t know how to love humans. Quite the contrary; cats have their own way of showing love.

From my experience, French people tend to say tout le contraire  far more than tout au contraire. This still means “Quite the contrary” or “Quite the opposite”, and is generally only used in a sentence, not on its own.

For instance:

C’est tout le contraire de ce que tu m’as expliqué.

This is completely the opposite of what you explained to me.

This webpage features more information about the word contraire and the many expressions associated with it.

Do the French really say “Au contraire”?

Au contraire de some other famous French phrases I’ve written about , the French actually use au contraire.

It’s a perfectly standard, middle-of-the-road expression. You could use it in a formal or professional setting, as well as with friends (well, unless you and your friends only use extremely informal language around each other at all times).

Do the French say “Au contraire, mon frère”?

Two smiling bearded men stand side by side. We see them from their mid-nose, down. One is wearing a black tuxedo with a boutonniere , while other is in a light blue tuxedo with a red bowtie. The photo radiates happiness.

In English, au contraire is often paired with mon frère.

But the phrase Au contraire, mon frère isn’t used in French unless it’s in a very specific context where a person is talking to their actual brother (or maybe a friend they’d address as such), and even then, it’s not really a common thing to say.

I tried to look into the origin of Au contraire, mon frère, but couldn’t find a concrete answer. A few sources suggest that it may have first risen to popularity in English thanks to its use by comedian George Carlin. Then again, the phrase might have come into use simply because of its similarity to other rhyming, somewhat comic multilingual refusals, like “No way, Jose.”

Whatever its origin may be, while Au contraire, mon frère is used in a funny way in English, it’s not really a thing in French. As one website sagely advises, “Note that you should never say this in French unless you’re actually talking to your brother.”

Now you know all about au contraire. But if this post wasn’t contradictory enough for you, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite French quotations, attributed to legendary comedian ColucheJe ne suis ni  pour, ni contre, bien au contraire (I’m neither  for, nor against it, quite the contrary.).

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.