19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote Le beau est toujours bizarre. (The beautiful is always bizarre). Although he wasn’t talking about the word beau itself, he might as well have been.
Beau and its feminine form, belle are the French words for “beautiful” or, depending on the context, “handsome”.
That seems pretty straightforward. But the more you use them or see them used, the more you realize that there are a lot of rules they don’t follow, and a lot of other rules that exist only for them and a handful of other bizarre adjectives.
Intrigued? Let’s discover how to say “beautiful” in French!
How do you say “beautiful” in French?
So to say “a beautiful woman”, you would say une belle femme. And to say “a beautiful man”, you would say un bel homme.
Similarly you would say:
Cet arbre est très beau en automne.
This tree is beautiful in autumn.)
Quelle belle robe !
What a beautiful dress!
If you didn’t know that this pair was just the masculine and feminine version of the same adjective, don’t feel bad. After all, normally in French, when an adjective modifies a singular noun, it stays the same if the nouns is masculine, or an “e” is added if the noun is feminine. For example: un chat bleu/ une rose bleue (a blue cat/a blue rose).
Not so for beau and belle, masculine and feminine forms that look very different from one another!
But when it comes to beau/belle’s strangeness, that’s just the beginning. You will learn more about this in the second part of this article.
How to properly use beau/belle
Beau/belle comes before the noun it modifies
In the second example a few paragraphs back, you may have noticed another bizarre thing about beau/belle: Although most French adjectives follow the noun(s) they describe, beau/belle comes before the noun it describes, not after.
So, you would never see something like, un garçon beau or une fille belle – it would always be written or said un beau garçon or une belle fille.
Beau changes in the plural form
We’re not finished with beau/belle’s bizarreness just yet!
Beau changes its appearance when agreeing with different kinds of nouns.
Normally in French, if an adjective modifies a plural noun or group of nouns where even one is masculine, an “s” is tacked onto it. If the noun/group of nouns is feminine, you add “-es” to the end, and call it a day.
des renards malins/des souris malines
clever foxes/clever mice
Belle, the feminine form of beau, follows these rules just fine. If you have a feminine noun, just use belle as-is, since it’s already feminine. If there’s a plural noun or a group of all-feminine nouns, just add an “-s” to it.
Hélène est belle, et ses sœurs Rachel, Laure, Sarah, et Christine sont belles aussi.
Helene is beautiful, and her sisters Rachel, Laure, and Christine are beautiful, too.
C’est une belle maison./Ce sont de belles maisons.
That’s a beautiful house./Those are beautiful houses.
But, like so many romantic heroes it could be used to describe, beau is a rebel.
When beau modifies a singular masculine noun, it stays as-is, since it’s already in its masculine form.
But when it modifies a plural masculine noun or a group of nouns where at least one of the nouns is masculine, you add, not an “s”, but an “x” at the end.
Jean-Charles est beau, et ses frères Henri, Loïc, et Romain sont beaux aussi.
Jean-Charles is handsome, and his brothers Henri, Loïc, and Romain are handsome, too.
C’est un beau tableau./Ce sont de beaux tableaux.
That’s a beautiful painting./These are beautiful paintings.
Okay, this isn’t actually that strange; beau simply follows a rule of pluralizing French words that end in “-eau” with an “x”, instead of an “s”. Still, it is one more thing to pay attention to when you’re using it in writing.
Beau changes to bel when it’s followed by a noun that starts with a vowel
Beau isn’t always the same even when it’s modifying a singular noun.
When it precedes a singular masculine noun that starts with a vowel, beau becomes bel.
Here are a few examples:
- un bel oiseau (a beautiful bird)
- un bel oeuf (a beautiful egg)
- notre bel Étienne (our lovely/handsome Étienne)
Note that beau ONLY becomes bel when it precedes a noun. If the structure of the sentence or phrase separates beau from the noun it’s modifying, it’s always beau, whether the noun starts with a vowel or not.
C’est un bel écureuil.
That’s a beautiful squirrel.
Je trouve cet écureuil particulièrement beau.
I find this squirrel especially beautiful.
If this rule is blowing your mind, take a deep breath and remember that it’s not as uncommon as you might think. After all, even in that last example, another word followed the same rule: ce has a t added to it because ce followed by a vowel sound is ugly to the French ear, too.
The indefinite article des becomes de when it precedes beau/belle
You’ve probably spent many hours of your French learning experience drilling the fact that des is the main French plural indefinite article into your head.
Well…here’s another exception when it comes to beau/belle.
Essentially, French grammar dictates that when an adjective precedes the noun it’s modifying, des can’t be used. Instead, it has to be de. That’s why the examples that I marked with an asterisk aren’t typos.
So, to recap: You may think you should say Ce sont des beaux livres or Ce sont des belles robes BUT NO! It’s Ce sont de beaux livres and Ce sont de belles robes.
This remains the rule with most adverbs. For example, Ce sont de très beaux livres or Ce sont de très belles robes.
Note that this rule doesn’t necessarily apply to spoken French. In oral language, using des with this kind of sentence structure is generally accepted (although not officially grammatically correct). But in writing, you should always use de.
Using adverbs with beau/belle: Generally easy, with a few exceptions
What if you want to say that someone or something is more than just beautiful or handsome?
Generally speaking, if you add an adverb to beau/belle and a noun, you would just place it before beau/belle. This will make the phrase’s structure change slightly, by pushing beau/belle after the noun it modifies – for example, un garçon terriblement beau/une fille terriblement belle.
But there is an exception with what is probably the most common adverb you’d use – très. In this case, you’d keep the structure the same as it was without an adverb: un très beau garcon/une très belle fille.
This works the same way in the plural: des garçons terriblement beaux/des filles terriblement belles or de très beaux garçons/de très belles filles.
There are also a few adverbs that seem to se balader (walk around). For example, you could say » Jamais tu n’as vu une fille si belle » , as French crooner Eddy Mitchell sings. But you could also say, “Tu es une si belle fille.”
The first statement is a general one, with no particular context unto itself, just “Never have you seen such a beautiful girl.”/”Never have you seen a girl so beautiful.”.
But using un/une si beau/belle [noun] is almost always part of a larger statement, and implies that the person is so beautiful or handsome, they shouldn’t waste their life or make what the speaker considers a serious mistake. For example :
Tu es si belle, Marilyn, tu ne devrais pas te contenter de rester avec lui.
You’re so beautiful, Marilyn – you shouldn’t settle for him.
2 other ways to say “beautiful” in French
As I mentioned earlier, there are no other exact equivalents of “beautiful/handsome” in French, due to the French love of precision. So, you could choose words like magnifique, ravissant(e), impressionnant(e), etc., depending on what exactly makes you think the person or thing you’re talking about is beautiful.
Most of these adjectives follow the general rule of coming after the noun they modify, not before like beau/belle.
Here are two common “beautiful”-related words that you’ll hear or see quite a lot:
1. Joli(e) – Pretty
Pretty. In many cultures, the concept of “pretty” is usually used for a female or a baby or very young child of either gender. This is true for joli, as well. The masculine form is mainly used for describing animals, objects, and ideas whose grammatical gender is masculine. For example: un joli cheval; un joli uniforme.
Note that joli(e) is another exceptional adjective that comes before the noun it modifies. This means that it follows the same grammar rules as beau/belle when it comes to using de instead of des.
On the other hand, when using most adverbs, you can place joli(e) in various parts of a sentence. For example: Ce sont de très jolis lapins/Ce sont des lapins très jolis. Notice that in the second example, des is used, since jolis no longer directly precedes the noun it’s modifying.
- Quel joli tissu ! (What a pretty fabric!)
- C’est une jolie fille. (She’s a pretty girl.)
- Ce sont de jolis bijous. (These are pretty jewels)
- Regarde ces jolies jupes. (Look at these pretty skirts.)
You can sometimes hear “Joli!” as a sarcastic way to say “Good one!” – for example, if a friend trips while coming into the room. It’s usually a gentle context, not particularly mean.
Another common expression is joli(e) comme un cœur (pretty as a heart). This is like it sounds: a sweet, almost saccharine expression, so you won’t hear a virile action star use it, but it’s very common for women and children to say – usually about women, children, and animals, or fairytale princesses.
If you hang around young people or people who use a lot of slang in general, you’re bound to hear this word.
Canon is an interesting mix of the old and new school: Although it’s a recent term and very informal, it refers to the canon of beauty, which is a classic concept.
Note that because it refers to le canon, you keep it the same whether you’re talking about a male or female. Also note that, unlike beau/belle or joli(e), canon is used only to describe a person.
Il est canon, ce mec.
This guy is so hot.
Elle est trop canon.
She’s amazingly good-looking.
Note that there are two slang elements here: canon and the use of trop instead of très. Traditional French culture tends to downplay emotions and opinions (Proof: Saying something is pas mal means it’s actually pretty good).
Here are a few other ways to say that someone is beautiful in French:
- sublime – sublime
- ravissant / ravissante – ravishing
- magnifique – magnificent
- splendide (splendid)
- mignon / mignone – cute
Note that nowadays, if you say someone is sublime or magnifique to a French person, you might hear them giggle or repeat what you said in a strange accent. If this happens, they’re probably making a reference to Christina Cordula, a Brazilian former model who hosts several reality competition shows here. The French adore her way of pronouncing these words (you can hear her at the 1:36 minute mark of this video).
For more ways to say “beautiful” in French, you can do an online search for “Façons de dire belle” or “Façons de dire beau”.
What do the French think is beautiful?
The French have a reputation for excellent taste and being aesthetically gifted. While that can be true, reality TV and everyday life show that there are probably even more French people who like flashy fashion or have taste that many would dub “questionable”.
Nevertheless, there is an aesthetic that seems to be an ideal in French culture — but it may not be what you think. We’re often fed images of glamorous Parisians, and while those do exist, the French seem to prize a more natural look and a sort offhand, casual elegance. Take French fashion icons like Inès de La Fressange or Mademoiselle Agnès – they’re natural-looking women with a chic yet laidback style, not polished top models in haute couture.
The same goes for things like home décor. The ideal aesthetic in France (though not necessarily what most French people actually follow) is subtle, rather than bold and flashy. French interiors that are up-to-date tend to privilege clean lines, open spaces, and touches of color.
The popular house-flipping show Maison à vendre is an excellent thing to watch to get a glimpse of how many French people inhabit and decorate their homes…and what the people they’re trying to sell them to see as an ideal. You can watch some episodes of it on YouTube, by typing “Maison a vendre, Stephane Plaza complet”.
It’s funny that the French seem to be more open-minded when it comes to physical beauty. One of the things I love about French culture is that while you can definitely find people who appreciate the looks of your average Hollywood starlet, and while being thin is considered an ideal, anyone who is charming will win the tastemakers over, at least.
This means there is a certain appreciation for someone with imperfect teeth, like Vanessa Paradis, someone who’s a bit curvy or heavyset but utterly unique looking, like Beth Ditto, or someone with a dramatic presence and style, like Grace Jones.
Although there are shallow and vain French people and mean teenagers, the fact that the French as a whole seem to recognize different kinds of beauty always makes me happy, because personally, that’s how I see the world, too.
It’s also a tie to the past. Whether you’re talking about the French notion of beauty, or the word itself, what Baudelaire wrote nearly two hundred still hold true among many French people today: there is conventional beauty, but there’s also the kind that’s perfectly summed up by the lines Le beau est toujours bizarre – a beauty that comes from being intriguing, surprising, even sometimes inspiring.
Who or what in France or French culture do you think is beau, belle, or even trop canon?