How to Say “but” in French (And Vary Your Vocabulary)

There are some words that hold entire sentences together but get overlooked. We spend a lot of time learning complicated verb tenses and intriguing vocabulary words in French, but we may not give much thought to those little, essential elements.  And then, one day, you might find yourself wondering about one of them.

For instance, maybe you find yourself asking,  “How do you say ‘but’ in French?” Or maybe you know the answer to that already and are thinking of something more specific, like, “How do you say ‘But why?’ in French?” or “Sometimes I hear the word mais used on its own – what’s that all about?”

Do we have the answers to these questions? Mais oui ! (But of course!).  Read on to learn all about how to say and use “but” in French.

How do you say “but” in French?

As a general rule, “but” is one of those words that has a more or less exact French equivalent: mais.

Like “but”, mais can mean:

  • however (a point of contestation/contradiction)
  • only (again, in the sense of contradiction; for “only” in the sense of an amount or exception, see further on)
  • a way to emphasize something. For example: Mais oui (But of course!), Mais je vous en prie ! (Of course, I insist!), Non, mais tu es fou ou quoi ? (Are you crazy or something ? – Note that this expression is very informal)

Mais also has meanings that don’t translate to English as “but”.  These include:

  • an outraged interjection (kind of like Hey!/Hey, what gives!/Come on!)
  • a transition word (sort of like Anyway/But anyway in English)

There are some additional ways to translate “but” into French for some old-fashioned or unusual expressions – for instance, “all but”, or phrases like “She was but a child”. To learn how to translate expressions like these into French, check out WordReference’s page on “but”.

How to translate “but” into French in other contexts

In English, there are a few more ways to use “but” than there are in French. One very common one is “but” as “except (for)”.  For instance, “Everyone but Mary came to the party.”

In French, you wouldn’t use mais to express this; instead, you’d use the word it signifies: “except”. So, the sentence would be translated: Tout le monde est venu à la fête, sauf Mary.  Here’s another example: Tous les enfants sont ici sauf un. (“All of the children are here, except one.”)

This is the most basic way to translate “but” as “except (for)”. There are, of course, other ways to say “except (for)” in French that you could substitute in certain situations.

 Another way you might use “but” in English that doesn’t translate into French is in a sentence like “I can’t but agree with you.”  When using this structure, you would use ne…que in French: Je ne peux qu’être d’accord.

This use of “but” is fairly rare in many versions of English. For example, as an American, I would tend to say “I can’t help but agree with you” instead, and if I did that, “can’t help but” is translated completely differently( as we’ll see a little further on).

How to use mais

Like its English equivalent “but”, you can place mais either at the start of a sentence or in the middle.

Another thing mais and “but” have in common is that its placement is a point of contention for grammarians. Some claim that starting a sentence with mais (or any of its synonyms, which we’ll see later on) is grammatically incorrect. Still, everyone from famous authors past and present, to newspapers, to people in everyday life does this, so it seems like a moot point.

With this in mind, feel free to put mais and its synonyms at the start or the middle of a sentence. But if you’re communicating with stuffy grammarians, you may want to consider sticking to the middle.

Where mais differs from the English usage of “but” is that, in certain contexts, you can also use it on its own or put it at the end of a sentence or statement.

Since mais can sometimes be used as an outraged interjection, you may hear people say something like Non, mais !(Unbelievable!)  or even simply Mais! (Come on!).

Mais! on its own is usually used in the heat of the moment, say if two siblings are fighting over something and one tries to grab it out of the other’s hands. The one holding it could say Mais! to signify that they’re outraged and annoyed, and, essentially, protesting the other person grabbing this object from them.

“Mais !”

Note that using mais in these ways is very informal. Additionally, unless someone is writing a true-to-life contemporary dialogue or possibly chatting online, you probably would never see mais used these ways in a written context.

How to say some common phrases with “but” in French

Some common English expressions or phrases that use the word “but” translate to something similar in French.  Mais some others translate quite differently.

Let’s take a look at some common expressions with “but”, translated into French:

  • But of course! – Mais oui!/Mais bien sûr!
  • But why? – Mais pourquoi ? Note that, unlike in English, this expression tends to be used as part of a sentence in France. You’re more likely to see something like this: Mais pourquoi tu me parles quand je suis en train de m‘endormir?  (Why the heck are you talking to me when I’m trying to fall alseep?), rather than this: – Tu dois aller au marriage de ses chiens ce weekend ! – Mais pourquoi ? (You must go to her dogs’ wedding this weekend! – But why?). Generally, the person would just ask Pourquoi ?
  • anything but – tout sauf. Example: Il mange de tout sauf du poisson. (He’ll eat anything but fish.)
  • can’t help butne pas pouvoir s’empêcher de [faire quelque chose. Example : Je n’ai pas pu m’empêcher de prendre une deuxième part de gâteau. C’était plus fort que moi ! (I couldn’t help but take a second slice of cake. The temptation was too strong!)
  • to have no choice but to… – ne pas avoir d’autre choix que de… Example : « Si vous me provoquez, » l’homme mystérieux les a prévenu, « je n’aurai pas autre choix que de vous emprisonner dans ma forteresse. »  (If you provoke me,’ the mysterious man warned them, “I’ll have no choice but to hold you prisoner in my fortress.”)
  • still/but still – malgré cela/pourtant/cependant. Example: C’est un mauvais garçon ; malgré cela, Maude l’aime. (He’s a bad boy but still, Maude loves him.)
  • to name but a few – pour n’en citer que quelques uns/que ceux/celles-là.  Example: Ses talents sont l’écriture, la musique, et la danse, pour n’en citer que quelques-uns. (Her talents are writing, music, and dance, to name just a few.)
  • on one hand…but on the other hand… – d’un côté…mais de l’autre... Example : D’un côté, il faut éviter de manger trop de sucre, mais de l’autre, le sucre est délicieux ! (On the one hand, you should avoid eating too much sugar, but on the other, sugar is delicious!)

You can find more expressions with “but” and their French translations here.

Other common ways to say “but” in French  – and why it’s important to know them

French offers a good selection of synonyms for mais. These are especially important to know because repeating words is considered a huge no-no in French formal writing and speeches.

Of course, there are exceptions, notably slogans, song lyrics, and literary language. But when it comes to expressing thoughts, the French value a fine balance of concision and a lack of repetition above all.

On the other hand, in informal, everyday spoken French, this isn’t as important to keep in mind as it is when you’re writing, especially when you’re writing something formal, professional, or academic. Still, in any context, excessive repetitiveness could be seen as annoying or a sign of a lack of intelligence. Non-native speakers usually get a pass, however, so don’t worry too much. Still, it’s never a bad idea to expand your vocabulary.

So, if you’re writing an academic, professional, or other formal document in French, try to vary your mais’s with some of these alternatives. And even if you’re not in that situation, it’s good to know these because you’ll come across them in books, newspapers, TV, magazines, radio shows, websites, and so on.

Note that, with the exception of par contre and seulement , all of these words are at least a little more formal than mais.

And now, without further ado, here are the most common synonyms for mais:

  • cependant – nevertheless, however. This word can be used in the middle or at the beginning of a sentence.

Example: Jeanne préfère les chiens aux chats, cependant, elle travaille dans un bar à chats. (Jeanne prefers dogs to cats ; however, she works at a cat café.).

You can find more sentences with cependant here and here.

  • en revanche – in contrast, on the other hand, then again.  I love this phrase because it makes me think of another point of view taking its revenge!  En revanche can be used at the beginning of a sentence or in the middle.

Examples:

On dit que les chats sont peu sociables. En revanche, cela rend bar à chats plutôt facile à gérer, car les chats savent prendre de l’écart s’ils ont besoin de calme. (It’s said that cats aren’t very sociable. Then again, this makes it easier to run a cat café, since the cats know to remove themselves if they need some calm.) 

On dit souvent que les chats sont moins aimables que les chiens, en revanche, les chats sont plus populaires que les chiens comme animal domestique en France.  . (They often say that cats are less friendly than dogs; then again, cats are more popular pets than dogs in France.)

You can see more sentences with en revanche here.

  • néanmoins – nevertheless, nonetheless. This word can be used at the beginning of a sentence or in the middle.  

Examples :

Si on ne peut pas avoir son propre chat, on peut néanmoins profiter de leur compagnie dans un bar à chats. (If one cannot have one’s own cat, one can nevertheless enjoy some feline company in a cat café.)

À Tokyo, il y a des bars consacrés à plusieurs sortes d’animaux, y compris des lapins et des chouettes. Néanmoins, les bar à chats restent les plus populaires. (There are many different kinds of animal cafes in Tokyo, including rabbit and owl cafes. Nevertheless, cat cafes remain the most popular.)

You can see more sentences with néanmoins here.

Si on ne peut pas avoir son propre chat, on peut néanmoins profiter de leur compagnie dans un bar à chats.
  • or – (and) yet, however. Note that or only means “yet” in the sense of a contradiction, not time, repetition, etc. (here’s how to translate those other meanings).  Or can be used in the middle or at the beginning of a sentence.

Examples:

Sandra aime les chats; or elle n’en a pas chez elle. (Sandra loves cats, and yet, she doesn’t have any at home.)

Dans cet immeuble, les locataires n’ont pas le droit d’avoir un animal de compagnie. Or, ils peuvent quand même avoir des contacts avec des animaux grâce aux endroits comme le bar à chats. (In this building, renters aren’t allowed to have a pet. Yet, they can still have contact with animals thanks to places like cat cafes.)

  • par contre – by contrast, on the other hand, however. Par contre can be used at the beginning or middle of a sentence.

Examples:

Max aime les chats, par contre il trouve que les lapins sont sales. Allons-nous plutôt au bar à chats. (Max loves cats, on the other hand, he thinks rabbits are dirty. So let’s go to the cat cafe.)

« Les chats font leurs besoins dans une litière, » Max explique. « Par contre, les lapins font leurs besoins n’importe où ! » (‘Cats relieve themselves in a litter box,’ Max explains. ‘On the other hand, rabbits relieve themselves anywhere they please.’)

You can see more sentences with par contre here.

  • pourtant – yet, however, though. 

Example : Les chats semblent préférer la solitude ; pourtant, des chercheurs (ainsi que de nombreux propriétaires de chats) ont découvert que les chats ressentent de l’affection pour leurs propriétaires. (Cats seem to prefer solitude ; however, researchers (as well as countless cat owners) have discovered that cats feel affection towards their owners.)

You can see more sentences with pourtant here.

  • seulement – but, except. Seulement most commonly means ‘only’ in the sense of “the only one”, but just as “only” can be used to mean “but” in English, seulement can mean mais.

Note that this synonym is one of the few on this list that’s somewhat informal – you shouldn’t use it to signify mais in formal or academic writing.

Examples:

J’aime ton chat, seulement, il me griffe chaque fois que j’essaie de le caresser. (I like your cat, only he scratches me every time I try to pet him.

Thomas serait bien allé au bar à chats avec nous. Seulement, il est allergique aux chats. (Thomas really would have liked to go to the cat café with us. Only, he’s allergic to cats.)

  • toutefois – however, notwithstanding, nevertheless. This word can go in the middle or at the beginning of a sentence.

Examples :

On a tendance à associer les bars à chats au Japon, toutefois, le premier bar à chats a été fondé à Taiwan. (We tend to associate cat cafes with Japan, however, the first cat café was founded in Taiwan.)

J’ai envie d’aller à un bar à chats. Toutefois j’ai peur d’avoir du mal à ne pas adopter un des chats ! (I’d like to go to a cat café. However, I’m afraid that I’d have a hard time not adopting one of the cats!)

You can see some additional sentences with toutefois here.

A note about punctuation

As you may have noticed from the examples, while certain linguistic aspects of French are very strict, compared to English, punctuation isn’t.

There aren’t many hard and fast rules when it comes to how to punctuate sentences with these words. For instance, semicolons don’t seem to be as commonly used in French as they are in English, so you’ll often find a comma in their place.

Now that you’ve read our guide, are you an expert on using mais and its synonyms? I hope you’ll answer <<Mais bien sûr !>>

Do you have a favorite expression with mais or a favorite mais synonym? Feel free to share it in the comments!

Photo 1 by Edvin Johansson on Unsplash; Photo 2 by Georgina Vigliecca on Unsplash ; Photo 3 by Heather M. Edwards on Unsplash

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. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

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