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, mean “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 delve into all of the strangeness of beau/belle.
How do you say “beautiful” in French?
That may seem surprising for a language that’s associated with romance and seduction. But as you get to know the language and culture better, you’ll realize that this is because of the French’s love of precision. If you want to say someone or something is beautiful in a general way, that’s one thing. But there are many other words to describe an aspect or degree of that beauty. We’ll look at those a little later on.
So, now that that’s cleared up, remember that beau describes a masculine noun, and belle describes feminine noun.
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.
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.
For example: 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.
For example: 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.)
Or : 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.
For example: 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.)
Or: 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.).
Some common expressions with beau/belle
In addition to being a pretty common adjective, beau/belle is also used in some fairly common phrases. Here are the ones I hear most often in France (in no particular order:
Se faire beau/belle – Literally to make oneself beautiful.
In other words, to get dressed up or make yourself look your best – usually for a party or date. For example, Je me suis fait belle pour mon premier rendez-vous avec Roland hier soir. (I got dressed up for my first date with Roland last night.)
Ma belle – my beautiful one/my pretty/my dear.
This sounds a bit old-fashioned in English (or, for fellow fans of “The Wizard of Oz”, like something straight out of the mouth of the Wicked Witch of the West), but it’s used quite often in France today, especially between girlfriends or in a way that implies that the person addressing themself to a female audience is pals with them. Think of it as “ma chérie” but with a compliment added in. Bad news for guys, though: there is no masculine equivalent.
Beau gosse (sometimes written “bogosse”) – (literal translation: handsome kid) a handsome, super-cool guy.
Although its name implies a good-looking guy, this slang, informal term is about more than looks. It’s really about attitude. Someone might call a guy a beau gosse simply because he’s attractive, but it’s more about details like him being well-dressed or generally looking or acting cool.
You also don’t usually hear this as a compliment that a girl gives to a guy – it’s more often about admiration or teasing, especially between men. For example, the other day, my four-year-old son was wearing dressy clothes for school picture day. One of the young men from the after-school program saw him and said, “Oh là là, il est beau gosse!”
You might also hear Ça fait beau gosse or many other variations – or even simply the phrase uttered (or muttered) by itself.
This video from French YouTube megastar (and genuinely funny comedian) Norman Thavaud perfectly shows what being a beau gosse is all about (if you need to, you can use the gear symbol on the right side of the screen to put on French or English subtitles).
There is apparently a female equivalent, belle gosse, but I have never, ever heard or seen that used anywhere, in any context.
Remember that this phrase is very informal and associated with slang and young people. Older generations might understand it, but I’ve only heard people in their 20’s or younger actually use it, and never in a formal or professional setting.
Bogosse is an alternate spelling that’s pronounced and used the same way but is even more informal in written language; for example, you might see someone use it in a text message, but not if they were writing an article for French students on the proper usage of the term beau gosse.
father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, in-laws. OR stepfather, stepmother, step-brother, step-sister, stepson, stepdaughter, step-family.
As someone who has both in-laws and a stepparent and various step-siblings, I have a love-hate relationship with these terms. I LOVE that they use belle or beau – it’s such an optimistic way to view a new family member, even if the person doesn’t always turn out to be beautiful or handsome in any sense of the word. On the other hand, I hate the fact that you have to stop and explain which kind of relationship you’re talking about if there is any possible confusion as to whether you mean your in-laws or your step-family.
J’ai beau essayer – “Try as hard as I could…”/”No matter how hard I tried”/“I’ve tried and tried…”
This very common phrase is usually associated with je, but can be used with any subject (first person, second person, third person, etc.).
Note that although it doesn’t seem natural, in this particular phrase, the infinitive is used, not the past participle.
J’ai beau essayer de redémarrer l’ordinateur, il ne marche pas. (I’ve tried and tried to restart the computer, it doesn’t work.)
Elle a beau essayer de l’oublier, mais Jacques hantait ses pensées. (Try as hard as she could to forget him, Jacques haunted her thoughts.)
Although avoir+beau+essayer is the most common structure you’ll see, you can also do this with just about any verb that makes sense.
The phrase always implies failure and is usually followed by a statement that confirms it: J’ai beau pratiquer, je ne maîtriserai jamais le violin. (No matter how hard I practice, I’ll never master the violin.)
Just remember that the verb has to be in the infinitive. The phrase that follows can be conjugated in various tenses, or even simply be a phrase without a verb, depending on the context.
This R&B song with written lyrics gives some excellent examples of different ways avoir+beau+infinitive can be used.
Beau/belle comme… – As handsome/beautiful as…
You can use anything to compare with someone/something’s beauty – for example, Il est beau comme le soleil or Elle est belle comme une princesse.
You’ll also very often hear Il est beau comme tout or Elle est belle comme toute , meaning the person/thing is really beautiful/handsome.
Ça, c’est le plus beau ! – Well, that does it!/That’s it!
In this phrase, beau is being used sarcastically. Literally, it means “This, this is the most beautiful!” but it actually means that in a series of bad or frustrating things, this is the worst. It’s usually accompanied by someone throwing up their hands in exasperation.
Un beau jour/Un beau matin… – One day/One morning…
These phrases are often used in fairytales or children’s stories. The day or morning in question doesn’t have to be particularly beautiful; here the word seems to be used more for emphasis, as in J’ai beau essayer. Although it probably would be funny or strange if you used it to tell a story about a really bad day or morning, or one with very bad or gloomy weather.
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:
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.
Examples: 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?