The word beautiful is typical used to describe something (or someone) that is pleasing to the eye. Although the word beautiful is generally a strong word that is only used in certain circumstances, the French equivalents that we are going to talk about are often much softer and are much more commonly used.
There are also a few very important rules that one must know in order to properly use each. Fortunately for us, even if you’re new to French they aren’t that difficult to understand and once you understand them you likely won’t forget them any time soon.
The Difference Between Beau and Belle
Many nouns in the French language differ a bit depending on whether they are being used to describe something that is masculine or feminine (check out our article French Genders: Mastering Masculine and Feminine for help in determining genders in French.)
The words used to describe something as beautiful are no different.
Beau is used when describing a masculine noun as beautiful, whereas belle is used for nouns that are feminine.
One common way to remember which is which is to think of the name “Beau” which is a boy name and the name “Belle” which is the main character in Beauty and the Beast. Here are a few examples of both beau and belle used to describe people.
Il est beau – He is good looking / He is handsome
Elle est belle – She is beautiful / She is pretty
Son frère est beau – His/Her brother is good looking / handsome
Sa mère est belle – His/Her mother is beautiful
As you can see from the above examples beau when used to describe males is better translated as handsome or good looking.
The Difference Between Beau and Belle Compared to English
One of the most important things to remember about beau and belle is that contrary to the way it often is in English both of these can to describe things other than people.
In English you generally wouldn’t describe an object as beautiful or handsome, but in French you technically can. It’s for this reason that you should think of both of these terms as describing something that is pleasing to the eye rather than strictly beautiful or handsome.
If beau or belle is not being used to describe something tangible then you can often translate it as “nice”, “great”, “wonderful”, etc…
Here are a few examples of when you would use beau and belle to describe things other than just people.
Quelle belle voiture ! – What a nice car!
L’appartement est situé dans un beau quartier calme – The apartment is located in a nice calm neighborhood
C’est une belle tradition – It’s a great tradition (not pleasing to the eye, but pleasing nevertheless)
Merci pour cette belle experience – Thank you for this wonderful experience (also not pleasing to the eye, but pleasing nevertheless)
Like many other things in French it pays to learn vocabulary in context instead of memorizing exact translations (Read How to Memorize French Vocabulary for tips on memorizing French vocabulary.)
The above translations should serve as a starting point to train your mind to understand in which contexts to use beau and belle.
When to use Bel Instead of Beau
As you progress in your French journey you will undoubtedly learn (if you haven’t already) that many French grammar rules were created simply because they sound more pleasing to the ear.
This is not unlike how in English we say “I ate an apple” instead of “I ate a apple”.
The rule of using bel (pronounced just like belle) instead of beau is a great example of this.
When placing beau in front of a masculine noun (regardless of whether it’s a person or not) that starts with a vowel or non-aspirated h, you must switch it out with bel.
Again, this is only the case when beau comes BEFORE what’s being described. Let’s just take a look at a few examples so you can get an idea of how to properly use it.
Cet ordinateur est beau – This computer is nice √
C’est un bel ordinateur – It’s a nice computer √
C’est un beau ordinateur – It’s a nice computer X
Cet homme est beau – This man is handsome √
C’est un bel homme – This is a handsome man √
C’est un beau homme – This is a handsome man X
Knowing Where In A Sentence to Place Beau and Belle
You may or may not have noticed this in the previous section, but beau and belle are one of the few adjectives in French that are actually placed before the noun.
For the most part, adjectives are placed after the noun. If you’re brand new to the French language this may come as a bit of a surprise and be a little difficult to wrap your ahead around, but it’s an important part of the language that you absolutely need to know.
Here are a few examples showcasing this in action.
Il a une voiture rouge – He has a red car (literally he has a car red)
C’est un homme stupide – He’s a stupid man
C’est un sujet délicat – It’s a sensitive subject
Un lit confortable – A comfortable bed
Using Beau and Belle in the Plural
In the majority of cases, adjectives in French are made plural by simply adding -S or -ES to the end. This is exactly the case with the word belle whose plural is belles.
Deux belles filles – Two beautiful girls
Il a plusieurs belles maisons – He has several nice houses
Using beau in the plural is only slightly more complicated. Instead of adding -S or -ES you add -X to make beaux. The pronunciation doesn’t change at all except for when it’s used in front of a noun that starts with a vowel or non-aspirated H.
Remember how we mentioned using bel instead of beau in front of a noun that starts with a vowel or non-aspirated H because it sounds better? Well when using beaux we no longer need to do that because we can carry the sound of the X over to the next word. The sound that is brought over to the start of the next word mimics the letter Z.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to go into French liaisons, but understand that beaux doesn’t change no matter what noun it’s in front of.
As a side note, adding X to the end of beau to make it plural isn’t really much of an exception at all. It’s an actual French rule to make words that end in -eau plural by adding an X. Most adjectives don’t end in -eau so if you’re new to French this may seem like a special situation when it’s actually not.
Using De in Front of Beaux and Belles
This is a slightly more advanced subject, but still important nevertheless. When you use beaux or belles without a specific number or other amount (as in the above examples with “two”, “several” etc..) you must place de in front of it. This is in contrast to most situations where you would use des. As with so many other parts of French grammar it’s best to learn through context so let’s take a look at some examples.
Des filles – Girls
De belles filles – Beautiful girls
Vous pouvez faire des promenades dans la région – You can take walks in the area
Vous pouvez faire de belles promenades dans la région – You can take beautiful walks in the area
Des histoires inspirantes – Inspiring stories
De belles histoires inspirantes – Inspiring beautiful stories
De (or des for that matter) in this context doesn’t really have an exact translation which can sometimes make it difficult for beginners to understand.
A lot of French teachers will recommend thinking of it as “some” as in “some beautiful girls – de belles filles”.
Although this isn’t a perfect translation, if it helps you to understand it then you can use it. It’s of course always best to ease yourself off of exact translations as you learn more and more French.
The last thing to note on this subject is that despite the above information being true, you’ll still sometimes hear native French speakers say des belles filles or des belles histoires inspirantes. As with any language, native speakers don’t always follow the grammar book. Just keep this in mind.
Exceptions To the Rules
It wouldn’t be French if there weren’t at least a few exceptions to the rules, right? Don’t worry too much though because they aren’t nearly as difficult as they could be. Let’s take a look at some examples of exceptions next to examples that aren’t exceptions.
Un beau chat – A beautiful cat
Un si beau chat – Such a beautiful chat
Un très beau chat – A very beautiful chat
Un chat terriblement beau – A terribly beautiful chat (exception)
Jamais je n’ai vu un chat si beau – Never have I seen such a beautiful cat (exception)
Alternative Ways to Say Beautiful in French
Beau and belle are probably the most common ways of saying beautiful in French, but they aren’t necessarily the only ways. There are a few other words you can use that we’ll want to quickly go over.
Joli (m) / Jolie (f)
Joli (m) / jolie (f) are pretty good alternatives to beau and belle and are quite similar in meaning. When used to describe a man or woman they typically mean “handsome” or “pretty”, whereas when used to describe an object they generally can be translated as “lovely”, “nice”, “pretty” or “beautiful” depending on the context.
Elle est devenue une jolie femme – She has become a beautiful woman
Tu as un très joli sourire – You have a very nice smile
Mignon / Mignonne
Mignon (m) and mignonne (f) are more often translated as “cute” or “sweet” more than they are as “beautiful” or “pretty”, but all of this sort of falls under the same idea.
There is no doubt exist situations where you may be tempted to describe someone (or something) as beau / belle or joli / jolie whereas mignon and mignonne would be more appropriate.
Je te trouve très mignonne – I find you very cute / sweet
Il est mignon quand il dort – He is cute when he sleeps
A very informal way describe someone as being attractive. Unlike the other examples that we have mentioned so far canon doesn’t change whether you’re talking about a man or a woman. It also can’t be used to speak about an object, only to describe a person. It’s also typically very strong and not generally used to describe someone that is just a little bit attractive.
Je trouve ton frère canon – I think you’re brother’s hot
C’est dangereux d’être canon – It’s dangerous being super attractive
If you can’t tell, splendide looks almost identical to the English word “splendid” and its definition in many cases is more or less the same.
It also is sometimes used to describe someone or something as “beautiful” or “gorgeous”. As with anything, context is key to understanding the meaning of vocabulary.
Vous êtes une femme splendide – You are a beautiful woman
un splendide paysage français… – a beautiful French landscape…
Magnifique (looks like magnificent) if very similar to splendide in both usage and meaning. The only thing that I would add to both of these is that the words that both of them look like in English are used much less than their French “equivalents”. Another good reason to not rely on word for word translations.
Un jardin magnifique – A beautiful garden
Elle était magnifique sur les photos – She was beautiful in the photos
Ravissant (m) / Ravissante (f)
Yet another way of saying beautiful in French that is similar to the previous two. Contrary to splendide and magnifique, ravissant does indeed change depending on the gender of what it’s being used for. Depending on the context ravissant / ravissante can be translated as “ravishing”, “beautiful”, “lovely” or even “charming”.
C’est un ravissant chapeau – That’s a lovely hat
Le parc est ravissant en cette saison – The park is beautiful this time of year
Sublime is another way of saying beautiful in French that has more or less the same meaning as the English word that looks exactly the same.
As with many of the other vocabulary words that we’ve talked about in this article, sublime in French is probably used more than the English word with the same spelling. So don’t be surprised if you hear someone use it when you probably almost never hear it used in English.
Je voulais être sublime pour toi – I wanted to look beautiful for you
Une chanteuse avec une voix sublime – A singer with a beautiful voice
Génial generally isn’t a word that is thought of to be translated as “beautiful”. However, in many instances this is actually an appropriate translation.
Rather than using it to describe a person, animal or object, génial can be used as an exclamation of approval to a positive statement. This is similar to how in English we say “great”, “awesome” or of course “beautiful”.
Just like in English however this can also be used in an ironic or sarcastic way. Génial when used in this way can be considered slang so make sure to keep that in mind.
Tu viens à la fête ? Génial ! – You’re coming to the party? Beautiful!
Le vol a été annulé ? Génial… – The flight was canceled? Beautiful…
Expressions Using Both Beau and Belle
Hopefully at the point you have a pretty good idea of how and in which contexts to use beau and belle. Let’s now take a look at a handful of French expressions that use both of these.
When learning these expressions, it’s best to just take them as they are and not try to tie them to what we’ve learned above. Expressions don’t always make sense grammatically speaking.
Using beau and belle for in-laws and step family
This is a perfect example of when you should forget about any of the above definitions for either beau or belle. Simply put, when placed in front of a family member that family member becomes an in-law or part of your step family.
Because in French the same word is used for both of these you may need to provide some additional context when speaking to someone so they understand your family situation. For us French learners however this is just one less thing that we have to learn.
La belle-famille – Family-in-law / Stepfamily
Beau-père – Father-in-law / Stepfather
Belle-mère – Mother-in-law / Stepmother
Beau-frère – Brother-in-law / Stepbrother
Belle-soeur – Sister-in-law / Stepsister
Beau-fils – Son-in-law / Stepson
Belle-fille – Daughter-in-law / Stepdaughter
Our article titled Family Members in French goes over vocabulary for all family members. Take a look if you’re interested.
Ça, c’est le plus beau !
Literally translated as “That’s the most beautiful” Ça, c’est le plus beau ! is a rather sarcastic impression that is often translated at “That’s it!” or “Well that does it!” You would use it in situations where a series of bad things have recently happened in succession and you’re just tired of it.
It’s often at this point that people throw their hands up or give up on what they were trying to do.
It’s not that difficult to understand how to use ma belle, but it’s a little difficult to find an exact translation for it. It’s basically an affectionate term used for a woman.
You’ll see ma belle translated as “my beautiful”, “gorgeous” (as in the sentence “hello gorgeous”), “my pretty”, or even “my dear”.
What you should keep in mind is that even if these sound a bit awkward to say in English, it’s not as all awkward in French.
You’ve probably never used any of the various English translations in real life, but you can certainly use ma belle without sounding awkward.
Je suis là, ma belle – I’m here sweetie
Je suis content de te voir, ma belle – I’m happy to see you, darling
J’ai beau essayer
Another expression with beau that you shouldn’t try too hard to directly translate. The best way to understand J’ai beau essayer is in situations where you tried something (typically over and over) but haven’t had any success.
Depending on the context phrases such as “I’ve tried and tried..”, “I tried as hard as I could..” or “No matter how hard I tried..” could be suitable translations.
You can technically use this structure with plenty of verbs, but for one reason or another it’s used with essayer the most.
For those with a little more French knowledge you may have the urge to write J’ai beau essayé instead of J’ai beau essayer. For this particular impression you’ll always want to use the infinitive. Just a little something to keep in mind.
J’ai beau essayer, je n’oublie pas – No matter how hard I try, I can’t forget
J’ai beau essayer, je n’arrive pas à comprendre – I’ve tried and I’ve tried, but I can’t understand
J’ai beau essayer doesn’t have to be used by itself like in the above sentences. It can also be part of the main sentence like in the examples below.
J’ai beau essayer de me dire que ça ne fait rien – I’ve really tried to tell myself that it doesn’t matter
J’ai beau essayer de ne pas avoir peur.. – I’ve really tried to not be afraid..
In all of the above examples we used, J’ai beau essayer is probably the most common way you’ll use this expression but it’s not incorrect to say il a beau essayer, elle a beau essayer, etc..
Se faire beau / Se faire belle
This is a pretty easy one to understand. Essentially it means “to make yourself pretty” typically before some kind of event where you would need to do so (such for a date or nice evening.) Other appropriate translations for this could be “to make yourself look your best” or “to get dressed up”.
Je me suis fait beau pour toi – I got all dressed up for you
On dit qu’il faut se faire beau pour être heureux – They say you need to look your best to be happy
Il y a des jours où on veut se faire beau – There are days when you just want to look good
Elles était trop occupée à se faire belle – She was too busy getting her look together
Beau Gosse (sometimes written as bogosse) literally translated as “handsome kid/guy” is a light-hearted expression often used between two males (as opposed to from a girl to a guy.)
You can think of it like when someone says “Lookin’ Good!” or when someone calls someone a “pretty boy” (which does sometimes have a negative connotation.)
Having that said, the meaning of beau gosse often goes further than just looks. It can be used to describe someone who is dressed well or even just acting in a cool way. Unlike most of the other expressions in this article beau gosse is definitely very informal and really only used amont the younger crowd. You’ll really never hear it in a formal situation.
Its usage can sometimes be a little difficult for learners to wrap their heads around so pay good attention to the examples to try an understand when and how you would use beau gosse.
Il est beau gosse – He’s a stud
Le beau gosse m’a séduite – The handsome guy seduced me
Il est beau gosse et drôle – He is handsome and funny
C’est trop tard, beau gosse – It’s too late, pretty boy
Beau comme / Belle comme
This is a super easy one to remember. It’s used when you want to compare someone or something’s beauty to something else.
Presumably, you would use it when comparing someone or something to something else that is typically pleasing to the eye, or at least has a reputation for being so.
Elle est belle comme le soleil – She is as beautiful as the sun
Il est beau comme un prince – He is as handsome as a prince
Tu es beau comme ton père – You are as good looking as your father
La fille est belle comme une rose – The girl is as beautiful as a rose
Un beau matin / Un beau jour
You probably won’t come across this in day to day life, but it’s still a good one to know. Literally translated as “one beautiful morning” or “one beautiful day” you’ll often see this one in stories (fairytales, kid’s stories, etc..)
Despite the usage of the word beau it’s not necessarily used to describe a morning or day that was particularly beautiful. Just think of it as “one morning” or “one day”, but mostly used in storybooks or similar types of texts.
Un beau matin, elle est partie – One fine morning, she was gone
J’espère la revoir un beau jour – I hope to see her again one day
Un beau matin du mois d’avril.. – One morning in the month of April..
C’était un beau jour d’automne – It was a lovely Autumn day
Hopefully at this point you should have a good idea of how to say beautiful in French in all sorts of settings and situations. With all the different ways out there you shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding the right word for any context For more guides on French vocabulary, head on over to the French vocabulary page.