In French, liaisons are created by connecting the final sound of one word (which usually isn’t pronounced) with the beginning sound of the following word.
For instance, in the phrase vous avez, the s at the end of vous is pronounced and connects with the a at the beginning of avez. Or in the phrase mon amour, the n at the end of mon connects with the a at the start of amour .
Liaisons, along with their cousins, enchaînements, are a big part of what makes French sound the way it does.
Unfortunately, despite how common and important they are, French liaisons are far from intuitive for non-native speakers. But the good news is, French liaisons generally fit into categories and groups, which you can use as a guideline.
Let’s look at French liaison rules and learn more about this crucial part of the French language!
The three major categories of French liaisons
French liaisons usually fall into three major groups: obligatory, optional, and forbidden.
Depending on the sources you use, or even the French people you talk to, liaisons that are considered obligatory versus optional may vary slightly. For instance, this excellent source has some slight disparities with this page from the online version of respected dictionary Le Robert.
But generally speaking, most of these categories will remain more or less the same.
One thing that will never differ, though, is the list of forbidden liaisons.
Obligatory French liaisons
In French, you must make a liaison when:
Certain short adverbs are followed by a word that starts with a vowel
Common short adverbs in French that make a liaison with a word starting with a vowel include très, bien, plus, and moins.
A determiner precedes a noun that starts with a vowel
A determiner is a word that indicates whether a noun is general or specific, and/or how much or many of it there is/are. Determiners include definite and indefinite articles, numbers, and possessive pronouns.
When a determiner precedes a noun that starts with a vowel, you should make a liaison.
Example sentence: Les enfants ont vu dix éléphants.
A pronoun ends in a consonant and the verb following it starts with a vowel
Example sentence: Nous avons trois enfants.
An adjective precedes a noun that begins with a vowel
Example sentence: Il adore dormir à la belle étoile.
A single-syllable preposition precedes a word that begins with a vowel
Example sentence: Nous arriverons chez elle dans un instant.
A compound noun is in its singular form (most of the time)
Compound nouns (mots composés) and phrases in French are usually joined together by hyphens. In most (but not all) cases, they follow the rules of liaisons – unless they’re pluralized.
Examples of compound nouns or phrases with liaisons:
One notable example to this rule is les États-Unis (The United States); there is a liaison between the “s” in États and the “U” in Unis — maybe technically because these words are pluralized but they stand for a single country?
There are some exceptions the other way, too – a few singular French compound nouns may not follow the liaison rule. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to know which French compound nouns and phrases are an exception.
A word that ends in a consonant precedes a word that begins with a silent h
This is usually called un h muet or un h non-aspiré.
The silent h in French always follows liaison rules, as opposed to an h aspiré, which NEVER takes a liaison. More on that a little later.
Example sentence: Il est toujours bien habillé.
How can you tell if an h is silent or aspiré? Unfortunately, the best way is to memorize them. Fortunately, many of these words are used often, so you’ll get used to seeing and hearing them in sentences with (or without) a liaison.
This webpage includes a good list of common French words that start with an h muet.
Optional French liaisons
Some French liaisons are optional.
You can choose to make a liaison when…
A form of être is followed by a word that starts with a vowel
A conjugated verb and a verb that starts with a vowel and is in the infinitive
A verb that ends in any consonant but “s” is followed by a word that starts with a vowel
Note that there are some exceptions to this rule – for instance, you might hear Je préfère rester ici, with a liaison between the r at the end of rester and the i at the start of ici or you might not hear the “r”. But you would never hear Il préfère parler anglais.
Most cases when this optional liaison is made seem to involve a verb conjugation that ends in t or a t sound, and sometimes the t sound transforms into a sort of z sound.
So, all of this to say, this is an optional liaison that’s good to know about but not necessarily good to use,unless you’re absolutely certain a particular choice will work.
Avoir or être is used with a participle that begins with a vowel.
A plural noun is followed by an adjective (including a compound adjective that starts with a preposition) that begins with a vowel
Forbidden French liaisons
Some French liaisons are impossible to make. Sometimes, this may be for clarity reasons, as in est vs et. But in other cases, it may just be that the sound is painful to native French speakers’ ears. Whatever the case, remember to avoid these forbidden French liaisons!
DON’T make a liaison when….
Although it’s pronounced like est (is), which is often involved in liaisons, et (and) is kept out of them, and in this case there’s actually a logical reason: it’s a way to differentiate between the two words.
Here are some examples to show you how a phrase with et should sound – that is, there should be no liaison: poires et abricots, puzzles et énigmes.
A proper name ends in a consonant and is followed by a word that starts with a vowel
A number is used as a noun
This isn’t super-common, but for instance, if you see something like tous les onze du mois (the 11th of every month), don’t make a liaison between les and onze.
A subject that’s not a pronoun is followed by a verb
We’ve seen that you’d make a liaison between a pronoun and a verb that starts with a vowel (for instance, on espère; ils étaient, elles avaient, etc.). But when the subject is just a regular noun, a name, etc., don’t make a liaison. For instance: Michelle espère qu’il sera là or Les filles avaient faim.
A verb is conjugated with tu and ending in an s in the present, subjunctive, or imperative tenses.
For instance: Tu es impatiente de le voir !
A word begins with an h aspiré.
I said we’d get to this one previously, and now we’re finally here! The h aspiré is essentially a placeholder for words in which the “h” was once pronounced in older versions of the French language.
Today, we don’t make an “h” sound with these words, but they are treated differently when it comes to liaisons, since they’re pronounced with a bit of a stop.
And so, we don’t make a liaison with them, unlike words with an h muet.
There’s no simple way to figure out which French words have an h muet and which ones have an h aspiré, one clue is that most adopted foreign words (like hooligan) tend to keep their hard h and thus fall into the h aspiré group.
But in general, you’ll probably have to memorize at least the most common h aspiré words. You can find them on this website’s excellent list of common French words that start with an h aspiré .
Is there a linked sound combination that seems to be missing from this list? You’re probably thinking of an enchaînement, a cousin to the liaison.
Although there is some overlap, this source explains the difference between these two similar features of spoken French: Essentially, enchaînements occur naturally, based on aesthetics and the natural flow of French, while liaisons follow specific rules.
Why are there liaisons in French?
Liaisons may be hard to get a handle on, but they are part of what makes French sound the way it does. The reason for their existence is a combination of etymology and aesthetics.
You can watch this fun and informative video about the history of French to find out how some specific liaisons came to be.
Do I have to make liaisons in French?
As we’ve seen, some French liaisons are optional, and others shouldn’t be made at all. But obligatory liaisons are, for better or for worse, obligatory, so you should make sure you are making them.
That said, we all make mistakes sometimes. I have to admit that even now, after decades of speaking French, I will occasionally forget to make a liaison or else make one that I shouldn’t (for some reason, the word haricots, which I use quite often when food shopping or at the market, ALWAYS trips me up!).
Most of the time, French people will still understand you. In fact, some of the liaisons you make or don’t make might even be considered a charming aspect of your foreign accent. But there is also potential for confusion, and any time you make a mistake about something fundamental in French, you also run the risk of people thinking you might not understand them well.
So, ideally, in order to speak correct French and be understood you should at least make the obligatory liaisons and avoid the forbidden ones.
Is there an easy way to know when to make a liaison in French?
There’s no surefire way to know how to make a liaison in French that can be summed up in a single sentence, rhyme, or helpful anagram. But there are some clues that can help you.
First of all, memorizing the categories of obligatory and optional liaisons is a good place to start.
This article also points out that most French liaisons involve a vowel sound and the sound z, t, n, p, or r, usually written using letters like s, z, d, x, t, n, p, or r.
This isn’t always the case, but as a very broad rule, it could be helpful.
How can I practice French liaisons?
Since knowing when to make liaisons in French is rule-based, I would suggest quizzing yourself often on this list of rules.
Another way to learn that’s equally important is to listen to French. That’s how I’ve learned most of the French liaison rules, personally.
There are lots of ways to listen to French, with seemingly infinite free videos by native French speakers on YouTube, easy access to French films and TV series, and plenty of websites where you can listen to French radio shows and podcasts (often for free).
Speaking French is also a great way to practice liaisons. A French conversation partner, whom you can find, among other ways, on free conversation exchange websites, will be a living example of liaisons, and will also (kindly) correct you if you make mistakes.
Liaisons in French may seem complicated, but with time and practice, they’ll mostly become intuitive. After a while, making them will become as natural for you as it is for a native speaker.