The Differences Between Confusing French Pairs

Correctly use an/année, jour/journée, matin/matinée and soir/soirée

Happy new year in French written in shaving foam on a mirror.

kalimf/Getty Images

The French word pairs an/année, jour/journée, matin/matinée, and soir/soirée can be confusing to students because each pair has a single English translation. The important thing to understand is that the difference between the words in each pair has to do with two different ways of considering time.

The short words an, jour, matin, and soir (note that they are all masculine) indicate a simple amount of time or division of time. For the purposes of this lesson, we'll call these "division words."

  • Je suis en France depuis deux jours. --> I've been in France for two days.
  • Il est fatigué ce soir. --> He's tired this evening.

In comparison, the longer words année, journée, matinée, and soirée (all feminine) indicate a duration of time, usually stressing the actual length of time. I'll call these "duration words."

  • Nous avons travaillé pendant toute la matinée. --> We worked all morning.
  • Elle est la première de son année.* --> She's the first in her year/class.

*Though année is feminine since it begins with a vowel you have to say son année (not "sa année")

Division Words vs. Duration Words

Here are some general rules about when to use division words vs. when to use duration words, as well as some important exceptions. But if you consider them carefully, you'll see that the exceptions follow the basic differences outlined above.

Use division words with:

1. Numbers, except when you want to emphasize the duration or when the word is modified by an adjective.

  • Un homme de trente ans. --> A 30-year-old man.
  • Il est arrivé il y a deux jours. --> He arrived two days ago.
  • Dans trois ans, j'aurai terminé mes études. --> In three years, I'll have finished my studies.
  • J'étais en Afrique pendant trois années, pas deux. --> I was in Africa for three years, not two.
  • Ils ont passé sept merveilleuses journées à Paris. --> They spent seven marvelous days in Paris.
  • demain matin --> tomorrow morning
  • tôt le matin --> early in the morning
  • hier soir --> last night

Use duration words with:

1.de + a descriptive noun

  • l'année de base --> base year
  • une journée de travail de huit heures --> an eight-hour workday
  • les soirées d'été --> summer evenings

2. with nearly* all adjectives, including:

  • l'année scolaire --> the school year
  • certaines années --> certain years

interrogative adjectives preceded by a preposition

  • en quelle année --> in which year
  • ma journée --> my day

However, note that an/année is far more flexible than the other pairs; for "last year" you can say l'an dernier or l'année dernière, "next year" can be l'an prochain or l'année prochaine, etc. Except for demonstrative adjectives, which are used with division words:

  • cet an - cet an que j'ai vécu en France --> that year - that year that I lived in France

(But when talking about the current year, say cette année - this year.)

  • ce jour - ce jour où nous sommes allés au musée --> this/that day - that day we went to the museum
  • ce matin, ce soir --> this/that morning, this/that evening

The indefinite word tout has a different meaning with division vs. duration words; it is an indefinite adjective with division words and an indefinite pronoun with duration words.

  • tous les matins, tous les jours --> every morning, every day

vs.

  • toute la matinée, toute la journée --> all morning, all day

Note that when referring to the day of the week, you need the division word:

  • Quel jour est-on? Quel jour sommes-nous? --> What day is it?
  • Vendredi est le jour de la fête. --> Friday is the day of the party.