'Tiens': What Does This Oh-So-French Expression Mean?

From polite command to mild interjection, 'tiens' is a classic

Tiens !
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Tiens, pronounced tyeh(n), is a classic informal expression that does a lot of jobs in the French lexicon, from the polite command "Here, take this" to the interjections "Hey, Listen, Look" and more. Literally, it means "Hold," but its usage goes far beyond that.

As a Polite Command

The expression tiens may be short, but it's long on meaning and extremely common in spoken French. Tiens is the imperative form of the verb tenir, which means "to hold." The literal meaning of tiens, and its vous form tenez, is simply the command "Hold," as when you hand something to another person and ask that person to hold it for you.

For example:

  • Tiens, j'ai besoin des deux mains pour conduire. > Here [take this], I need both hands to drive.

You can also use the imperative tiens when giving someone a gift or responding to a request:

  •    Tiens, je t'ai acheté des fleurs. > Here, I bought you some flowers.
  •   Tu me prêtes ton appareil photo? Alors, tiens. > Can I borrow your camera? Here you go.

As an Interjection or Filler (More Common)

But tiens and tenez are even more commonly used as interjections or fillers, with essentially three different meanings:
1. When you spot someone, you say tiens or tenez. This is equivalent to saying something along the lines of, "There you are" or "There he is."

  •    Tiens, Marie ! > Marie, there you are!
  •   Tiens, voilà Pierre. > Look, there's Pierre.

2. It also functions as a filler to draw attention to what you're about to say, roughly equivalent to saying in English, "Look," "See" or "You know."

  •   Tiens, il faut que tu saches quelque chose... > Look, there's something you need to know...
  •  Tenez, ce n'est pas une bonne idée. > You know, that's not a good idea.

3. It delivers a note of surprise as well, like "Hey!" or "How about that":

  •    Tiens, je viens de trouver 10 euros ! > Hey, I just found 10 euros!
  •    Aujourd'hui, j'ai fait aucune faute. Tiens? > Today, I made not one mistake. Really?

'Tiens, tiens'

Two tiens said in quick succession is an expression that suggests surprise or something unexpected. Tiens, tiens means "well, well," "oh, my," "how about that" or "tsk, tsk."

   Tiens, tiens, tu es enfin arrivé. > Well, well, you're finally here.

Homographs

Homographs are two or more words that have identical spellings but different meanings, derivations or pronunciations. Such false matches can cause confusion, so beware of these.

In the case of tiens, there are two other words with the identical spelling of our expression that mean completely different things.

  1. The expression tiens is the second person singular imperative, but another tiens is the conjugated form of the verb tenir: the first and second person singular of the present tense (je tiens, tu tiens). 
  2. Another tiensle tiens—is the second person singular possessive pronoun, as in: J'ai trouvé mon livre, mais où est le tiens ? ("I found my book, but where is yours?")


Additional Resources

Expressions with tenir
Most common French phrases
Tu vs. vous