French, like most other languages, is full of slang, expressions, informal and formal vocabulary. Perhaps the most common situation in which we see such words or phrases used is in expressing an affirmative or negative response. An affirmative or negative response is just a grammatically technical way to describe a yes or no answer. Just to review, we use yes to affirm a previous idea or express a positive reaction. This would be an affirmative case. We use no to negate a previous idea or express a negative reaction. This would be a negative case.
Let’s start with some yes situations: touching on context, meaning, and tone. There are a lot of words in French that are basically variations of the word oui itself. For example, you might hear “ouais”, “ouaip”, “wesh”, or “yep”.
Some other common phrases that are simple are “bien sûr” (of course; for sure), “évidemment” (obviously); absolument (absolutely). These are self-explanatory in that you are expressing positive approval. Now let’s look at some of the more unusual examples.
We also have a formal way to reply oui as a short answer : “affirmatif”.
Est-ce que tu viens ce soir au cinema avec nous ?
Phrases which mean "oui"
All of the following words or phrases can be used to say yes: “tu as compris” “tu as tout capté”, “tu as tout saisi” and “sans doute”, “y a moyen”. “Tu as compris”, “tu as tout capté” and “tu as tout saisi“ are basically affirming that the other person has the correct idea.
The above phrases are more casual phrases used to imply something like : “oui, tu as bien compris” or “oui, tu as bien saisi”.
“Sans doute” means that there is no possibility that the contrary might be true (= il n’y a aucune possibilité que le contraire soit vrai”. These are some of the most common “oui” phrases that you likely will not find in your textbook.
“Y a moyen” is a shortcut to mean “ il y a moyen que…”, which means “c’est possible” (it’s possible).
Y a moyen que nous allions au resto ce soir. = Il est possible que nous allions au restaurant ce soir. (It’s possible that we go to the restaurant tonight).
Phrases which mean "non"
Now we can move on to “non” situations looking at context, meaning, and tone.
As a short negative answer, it’s possible to reply : “non”, “negative”.
- Est-ce que tu as preparé le repas?
- Non. (standard way). / - Négatif. (formal way)
We have some sentences which mean non.
“ Ça ne marchera pas” (that will not work); “aucune chance” (not a chance); “pas question” (no way).
All these in one way or another refer to the proposal or idea and indicate a negative response.
Here are a few more words or phrases used to say no: “c’est douteux” (doubtful): it means that a fact is full of doubt (so unlikely to be true or a good idea).
“La semaine des quatre jeudis” (litterally : “the week of four Thursdays”or “Quand les poules auront des dents” (litterally : “when hens will have teeth). In those two cases we are saying that something is simply not possible.
“Quand les poules auront des dents” implies that the answer will be yes when hens will have teeth which is impossible, so thus the answer will never be yes. Same thing and meaning for “la semaine des quatre jeudis”.
Most of French speakers know those expressions, but they appear in minority of French learning textbooks.
As we are treating on some ways to affirm or negate in conversation it’s a good idea to see some ways to express “l’incertitude” (uncertainty) as well. The most common word for this in French is “peut-être” (maybe). Like “oui” (yes) and “non” (no) there exists different ways to express the uncertainty that comes with a “peut-être” (maybe).
Beginning once again with the more commonly used expressions we have: “peut-être” (perhaps), probablement (likely), or “ il a une chance que…” (there is a chance that). Each of these examples expresses some level of uncertainty about the situation.
Some more informal options include: “qui sait” (who knows), “seul Dieu le sait” (God knows).
Each word and expression have its own meaning, tone can also be a key indicator of meaning. Usually the way a person speaks well clue you in as to whether or not their response is positive or negative. These are just some of the many ways to say "peut-être", "oui", and "non" in French. It is important to understand and learn to use phrases like the ones covered here that you probably will not learn from a textbook. Good luck to everyone!