7 Ways of Saying “by” in French

It may have only two letters, but “by” is a big a word!  We use it in so many situations, from giving directions, to talking about art and literature, to expressions – and so much more.

But unlike many other words like this, “by” doesn’t have an exact, constant French equivalent.

Luckily, if by chance you want to learn how to say “by” in French, by Jove! you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s look at how to say “by” in French, how the word is used (and thought of) differently than it is in English, and how to translate some common “by” expressions.

How to say “by” in French

There is no single way to say “by” in French.

That may sound confusing or frustrating, but as you’ll see, it’s really just about rethinking how to phrase or express something. And that’s only in some cases; in others, “by” is simply replaced by another word or words.

Here are the French equivalents for the most common ways to use “by”:

1. to attribute a creation or action to someone

A typical way we think of and use “by” in this context is to show that someone created a work of art. For instance, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, or “This is my favorite album by The Beatles.”

You can also use a verb with “by” in this sense: “This was painted by Vincent Van Gogh.”

The same goes for French, but in each case, the word that’s used for “by” changes.

If you’re talking about someone who’s created something without using a verb, “by” is de.

For example :

Son livre préféré est L’Assommoir d’Émile Zola.

His favorite book is L’Assommoir by Emile Zola.

Il ne faut pas confondre La Femme au perroquet de Courbet et La femme au perroquet de Manet.

You mustn’t confuse Woman with a Parrot by Courbet and Lady with a parakeet by Manet.

C’est une chanson de ma groupe préférée.

It’s a song by my favorite band.

If you’re talking about someone who created something and use a verb, “by” is par.

For example :

L’Assommoir est un roman écrit par Émile Zola.

L’Assomoir is a novel written by Emile Zola.

Cette toile a été peinte par Manet pour se moquer de l’érotisme de celle de Courbet. 

This work was painted by Manet to mock the eroticism of Courbet’s painting.

Cette chanson a été écrite par Claude François.

This song was written by Claude François.

Par is used this way in non-art related statements, as well. For instance :

Le chat a été adopte par une gentille famille.

The cat was adopted by a nice family.

L’arbre a été déraciné par l’orage.

The tree was uprooted by the storm.

You’ve probably noticed that using a verb and par  means that a sentence is in the passive voice. Although the passive voice is used fairly often in French, as in English it’s generally preferable to use the active voice.

2. to indicate proximity

In English, we use “by” to suggest that something or someone is close to something or someone else.

For instance, “The post office is by the supermarket” or “He was standing by me.”

When using by to suggest proximity, the French are more a precise than us native English speakers, though. This means that they don’t use a sort of default word, but opt for something more exact.

So, in French, there’s no exact one-word equivalent of “by” when talking about proximity. Instead of by in French, you’d use phrases like:

à côté de (next to/beside)

près de (close to)

These are just two common examples; it also depends on if there’s an even more precise choice.

For instance, take the first example in this section, “The post office is by the supermarket.” You could use près de, but it sounds a bit vague, especially if you’re giving someone directions. À côté de would signify that the post office is to one side of the supermarket or immediately after it. But what if the post office and supermarket are across from each other? In that case, you’d opt for en face de.

Basically, when it comes to “by” as an expression of proximity, we English-speakers have to change our way of thinking entirely, opting for a more exact preposition.

It sounds complicated, but I promise that over time it will become automatic. I know that’s the case for me. If someone here in Paris asks me where the post office is, I would either give them directions, or use a precise preposition. I don’ t feel a need to default to something like “by”.

3. to explain how someone accomplished something (arrived somewhere, made or created something, etc.)

When you think about it, there are many expressions in English that use “by” to show how something was accomplished. For instance, if you made a journey, how did you do it? By car? By plane?

In French, as you may know already, you use different prepositions with different forms of transportation – for instance: Nous sommes venus en voiture, mais Lucie est venue à pied et Pierre a fait le trajet à velo.  You can read more about which prepositions go with which form of transportation here.

We talk about accomplishing other things with “by”, as well. For instance, “He made it by hand” or “She killed the witch by throwing a bucket of water at her.”

In French, think more “to” when it comes to expressions like these. Most of the time, you’ll see either à or en used. Here’s how those two examples in the previous paragraph would be translated into French: Il l’a fait à la main;  Elle a tué la sorcière en jetant un seau plein d’eau sur elle. 

4. as the equivalent of “via”

One of the most common phrases you’ll see on mail from France, as well as decorative French-themed items around the world is Par avion. The French equivalent of “Air Mail” actually indicates that a letter or package was sent “via airplane”.

This is an easy way to keep in mind that one of the many meanings of par is “via”.

You’ll commonly hear par used as “via” in phrases about travel, like On est passé par Strasbourg. (We came via Strasbourg.).

You’ll also hear it used to suggest how someone passed from one spot to another – for instance, Au moment où l’oiseau est entré par la fenêtre, Guillaume est entré par la porte. (Just as the bird came in through the window, Guillaume came in through the door.)

5. to indicate a deadline

In English, we’d say something like, “Have this report to me by Friday.” Or “Your assignment should be turned in by five o’clock today.”

This is another case of having to think differently when it comes to French. You can use expressions of time like jusqu’à, or even simply express the entire idea differently.

For instance, “Have these documents to me by Friday” can be expressed in several ways, including:

Vous devez me rendre ces documents pour vendredi.

Vous devez me rendre ces documents vendredi au plus tard.

Ces documents sont pour vendredi.

Il me faut ces documents pour vendredi.

For “Your assignment should be turned in by five o’clock today,” you could say Vous avez jusqu’à 17h pour rendre votre travail, or even come up with an entirely different phrase that still expresses this idea, if you prefer!

Again, it may seem complicated to have to completely rethink how to say what might otherwise be an almost automatic expression. But I promise that you will get used to it.

6. to show dimensions (measurements)

In English, we would say something like “the window is six by three feet.” This time, there’s an easy substitute in French: just use sur

So, translated into French (and the metric system), this sentence would be La fenêtre mesure 2 mètres sur 1.

7. to express “out of” in the sense of why something happened/is so

For instance :

Il se sont mariés par amour.

They got married out of/because of love.

Quelqu’un m’a envoyé cette lettre par erreur.

Someone sent me this letter by mistake.

Other ways to say “by” in French

The uses of “by” in this article are the most common ones you’ll come across, but there are many other ways to use “by” in English and French.

As a general rule, if what you want to say doesn’t fall into the categories above, you can usually just use the word par . Or, if you’re not sure about that, see if you can rephrase the sentence.

You can see translations of other “by” expressions here.  And you can learn more about the uses of the word par, which is often associated with “by”, here.

Some common phrases with “by” in French

Here are the French equivalents of some common phrases that use “by”.

by the way – au fait ,à propos, d’ailleurs. Example : Au fait, tu as vu « Koh-Lanta » hier soir ? (By the way, did you see “Survivor” last night?)

by and large – globalementC’était un grave accident, mais globalement elle va bien. (It was a bad accident but by and large she’s doing well.)

by hand – à la main. Example : Cette veste a été cousue à la main. (This coat was sewn by hand.) (Note that you could also hear cousu(e) main in spoken French.)

by itself/myself/ourselves, etc. – seul(e)(s)/ tout seul(e)(s). Example: Dans ce livre de Roald Dahl, Mathilda, une petite fille, apprend à lire toute seule. (In this book by Roald Dahl, Mathilda, a little girl, learns to read (all) by herself.

You can see how to say additional phrases with “by” in French here.  But keep in mind that in many cases, the translations are only one option. You can often rephrase these expressions, since they aren’t the same in French to begin with.

How can I practice using “by” in French?

As we’ve seen, using “by” in French isn’t usually a straightforward matter of word-for-word translation. That may seem intimidating, but with practice and time you will master it.

The best way to change your mindset and learn how to express “by” in French is to expose yourself to as much French as possible. This means reading, writing, watching, listening to, and speaking it. Here’s our list of mostly free or inexpensive resources and activities to help you practice these.

Expressing “by” in French may seem pretty complicated, but don’t get discouraged – by and by (avec le temps) you’ll get the hang of it!

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.

2 thoughts on “7 Ways of Saying “by” in French”

  1. Salut Skol, thanks for your kind words -and for your fascinating comment! I’m very surprised “by” (haha) it. How, for example, would a non-American English speaker say something like “I saw him by the lake?” Would they replace “by” with another vague word, like “near”?
    I am genuinely intrigued and surprised and would love to hear more about this from you and our other readers! Thanks again for commenting!

    Reply
  2. Very useful thanks Alysa. As a small matter of interest I think it’s only Americans who use ‘by’ to mean near to. I’ve never heard it in English or Australian or New Zealand English. We tend to be as specific as the French in this.

    Reply

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