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Au Contraire: Understanding this French expression of opposition

Celine Segueg

The expression au contraire is a widely used phrase in both French and English. In its most basic sense, the French au contraire meaning in English is on the contrary. It’s generally used to express a contradiction or to counter a statement that someone else has made.

Today we’ll take a close look at this phrase from every angle. First we’ll define au contraire literally, before moving on to its various uses in context. We’ll round out the post by introducing a couple of related phrases such as au contraire mon frère, as well as a number of alternatives to au contraire in French.

Au contraire: Translations

Le contraire in French translates into English as the opposite, while its etymology bears a close resemblance to the English word contrary. Au is the contraction of à le, meaning to the or at the. Hence, our au contraire definition is literally to the opposite.

Better English equivalents for this expression include on the contrary, quite the opposite, or far from it.

From a grammatical perspective, au contraire is an adverbial phrase. It functions adverbially to qualify a verb, or to refer back to a statement built around a verb’s action.

Au contraire: Uses in French

Au contraire can be used in both a literal and a figurative sense. Let’s explore both options here.

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Au contraire: Literal uses

When used literally, we say au contraire to correct a factual inaccuracy or to introduce an opposing point. If someone makes a statement and we want to contradict it, we begin our response with au contraire. The most common use is indeed when the first statement is negative, where we can say au contraire to refute the negative and emphasize that something is, in fact, true.

  • Tu n’aimes pas le chocolat? / Au contraire, j’adore ça! – You don’t like chocolate? / On the contrary, I love it!
  • Ton Jack Russel n’est pas très intelligent. / Au contraire, mon chien est très brillant. – Your Jack Russel Terrier is not very intelligent. / On the contrary, my dog is very bright.
  • Ce détail n’est pas important. / Au contraire, c’est crucial. – This detail isn’t important. / Quite the opposite, it’s crucial.
  • Tu n’as pas aimé le film? / Au contraire, c’était génial! – You didn’t like the movie? / Far from it, it was great!
  • Elle n’était pas contente de la surprise? / Au contraire, elle était ravie! – She wasn’t happy with the surprise? / On the contrary, she was delighted!
  • Je pensais que tu n’allais pas à la fête. / Au contraire, j’y suis allé et je me suis bien amusé. – I thought you weren’t going to the party. / Quite the opposite, I went and had a lot of fun.

Au contraire: Figurative uses

We can also use au contraire in a more figurative sense to emphasize that not only is the preceding statement incorrect, but that the truth is the direct opposite. In this type of context, au contraire is used humorously or sarcastically to really make a point.

  • J’ai pensé que Charles était toujours célibataire. / Au contraire, il en a eu cinq copines l’année passée ! – I thought Charles was perpetually single. / Far from it. He had five girlfriends last year!
  • Tu n’as pas aimé le film, n’est-ce pas ? Il était un peu lent. / Au contraire, j’adore passer deux heures à regarder la peinture sécher ! – You didn’t really like the movie, did you? It was a bit slow. / Quite the contrary, I love spending two hours watching paint dry !
  • Tu penses que manger une pizza entière est une mauvaise idée ? / Au contraire, c’est exactement ce que mon régime recommande ! – Don’t you think eating a whole pizza is a bad idea? / Not at all, it’s exactly what’s needed to stick to my diet!
  • Tu n’es pas trop fatigué après cette longue randonnée ? / Au contraire, je me sens tellement frais que je pense que je vais aller courir un marathon maintenant ! – You’re not too tired after that long hike? / Oh no, not at all. I feel so fresh that I think I’ll go run a marathon now!
  • Cette série télé n’est-elle pas un peu trop prévisible ? / Au contraire, je n’aurais jamais imaginé qu’ils choisiraient l’option la plus évidente à chaque tournant ! – Isn’t that series a bit too predictable? / Far from it. I would never have imagined that they’d choose the most obvious option every time!

Au contraire, my friend

We have a couple of common phrases that are used almost as often as the expression on its own. Both have essentially the same meaning, but each should be used in its own particular context.

Au contraire mon ami

Au contraire mon ami, meaning quite the opposite, my friend, is the formal option that can be used with anyone. We can certainly use it with friends, but it’s also fine as a friendly gesture with people we don’t know.

  • Ce projet semble être un échec total. / Au contraire, mon ami, c’est une opportunité d’apprendre de nos erreurs. – This project seems to be a total failure. / Quite the opposite, my friend, it’s an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
  • Je suppose que tu es ici pour te plaindre comme tout le monde. / Au contraire, mon ami, je suis ici pour offrir mon aide et soutien. – I suppose you’re here to complain like everyone else. / On the contrary, my friend, I’m here to offer you my help and support.

Au contraire mon frère

Our next option is for when there’s a much closer bond to the other person, since we can translate au contraire mon frère as on the contrary, my brother.

This expression is usually reserved for friendships where there’s some real camaraderie. On the other hand, sometimes people who don’t know each other so well will use it as a way to intimate such closeness, or as a way to defuse any potential pushback that may arise from being contradictory.

A slang au contraire mon frère translation could be something like no way bro or not a chance, buddy, playing the brotherhood card while still telling the other person that they’re wrong.

Finally, we’ll note that this particular expression is pretty much just used between men; there’s no equivalent with au contraire ma sœur. Indeed, one of the main qualities of this phrase is the rhyming nature of au contraire mon frère!

  • Il est impossible de changer les opinions des gens, n’est-ce pas ? / Au contraire, mon frère, avec de la patience et du dialogue, tout est possible. – It’s impossible to change people’s opinions, isn’t it? / Quite the opposite, my brother. With patience and dialogue, anything is possible.
  • Si, j’ai déjà payé ces articles à la caisse libre-service ! / Au contraire mon frère. Nous vous avons vu les mettre dans votre sac sans les scanner. – Yes, I already paid for these items at the self-checkout! / Not a chance, bro. We saw you put them in your bag without scanning them.

Similar French expressions to Au contraire

Now that we’ve defined au contraire and seen the various ways we can use it, let’s learn a few other alternative expressions in French that have similar meanings.

Bien au contraire

Bien au contraire, meaning quite the opposite, adds the bien to au contraire for emphasis.

  • Tu penses que ça me dérange de faire la vaisselle ? Bien au contraire, ça me détend. – You think that doing dishes is a bother? Quite the opposite; I find it soothing.
  • Il croyait que son commentaire allait me vexer. Bien au contraire, j’ai trouvé ça hilarant. – He thought his comment would bother me. Quite the opposite, I found it hilarious.

Tout le contraire

Tout le contraire emphasizes the opposite by adding the qualifier tout, meaning all or entirely.

  • Les pièces de théâtre de Shakespeare ne sont pas ennuyeux. En fait, c’est tout le contraire ! – Shakespeare’s plays aren’t boring; in fact, they’re entirely the opposite!
  • Le chat semble timide au premier abord, mais il est tout le contraire une fois qu’on le connaît. – That cat may seem timid at first glance, but he’s totally the opposite once you know each other.

À l’opposé

À l’opposé translates literally as to the opposite, but its best English equivalent is indeed on the contrary.

  • Ils pensaient trouver un village tranquille, mais ils ont découvert à l’opposé une ville bruyante et animée. – They thought they’d find a peaceful village, but on the contrary, they discovered a noisy bustling city.
  • Tu crois que je préfère le thé au café ? À l’opposé, je ne peux pas commencer ma journée sans mon café ! – You thought I preferred tea over coffee? On the contrary, I can’t start my day without my coffee!

En réalité

En réalité translates literally as in reality. Another good English equivalent is in fact. We use en réalité in French to emphasize a truth which may not have seemed so apparent at first glance.

  • Tu penses que je suis sorti hier soir ? En réalité, j’ai passé la soirée à lire. – You think I went out last night? In reality, I spent the evening reading.
  • Il paraît indifférent, mais en réalité, il est très attentif aux détails. – He may seem like he doesn’t care, but in fact, he’s very detail-oriented.

En fait

En fait in French is used in a very similar way to what we just saw with en réalité. Its best English equivalent is in fact. Like the other expressions we’ve seen so far, en fait is used to introduce an idea that contrasts with whatever was previously expressed.

  • Tu croyais que j’étais d’accord avec toi ? En fait, j’ai une opinion complètement différente. – You thought I was in agreement with you? In fact, I have a completely different opinion.
  • Elle semblait confiante avant l’examen, mais en fait, elle était très nerveuse. – She seemed confident before the exam, but in fact, she was very nervous.

Loin de là

Loin de là, meaning literally far from there, is used to indicate that the truth is indeed quite distant from whatever was previously stated. A better English equivalent is far from it. It’s an even more emphatic way to insist on the opposite opinion than the lighter forms of on the contrary in French that we’ve seen so far.

  • Cette solution a résolu tous nos problèmes, non ? / Loin de là ! Elle n’a fait qu’en révéler de nouveaux. – This solution resolves all of our problems, right? / Far from it! All it’s done is reveal new ones.
  • Il doit être facile de vivre à Paris, avec tous ses musées et cafés. / Loin de là, le coût de la vie et le rythme peuvent être assez difficiles à gérer. – It must be easy to live in Paris, with all its museums and cafés. / Far from it. The cost of living and the pace of life can be pretty difficult to manage.

Pas du tout

Pas du tout is used to categorically deny something, to express opposition, or to correct a false assumption. This is another fairly emphatic expression we can use in response to a statement we want to contradict.

Before we see it used in some examples, let’s consider our pas du tout translation literally, word by word. Pas is the standard French negation term, essentially meaning not. Du is the contraction of de le, meaning literally of the. And finally, in this usage, tous is a pronoun meaning all or everything. Taken together, the best pas du tout meaning is understood as not at all in French.

  • C’était une blague. Tu as compris, n’est-ce pas ? / Pas du tout, je l’ai prise au sérieux ! – It was a joke. You knew it, right? / Not at all, I totally took it seriously!
  • Tu es prêt à partir maintenant ? / Pas du tout, je n’ai même pas commencé à me préparer ! – You’re ready to go now? / Not at all, I haven’t even started to get ready!

Conclusion: Au contraire

Well this has been a very quick lesson on basic French expression, right? Au contraire! In fact, we saw just how much there was to learn about this essential phrase!

So what does au contraire mean? The short answer is simply on the contrary, but the possible uses of au contraire in context offer us so much more versatility!

In reality, understanding when and how to use au contraire provides us with a valuable tool for expressing disagreement or contradiction in French. It’s often used rather formally to introduce a counter argument, while it’s also commonly used in jest to show sarcasm.

We saw common variants of the phrase such as au contraire mon ami, which is fairly benign and inherently friendly. In contrast, we looked at au contraire mon frère, which can be used among close friends to show camaraderie, or in an attempt at defusing potential escalation by invoking some brotherliness along with the opposition.

Finally, we saw that French offers us a variety of other expressions for stating opposition, from à l’opposé to en fait to pas du tout, each with their own subtle nuances.

Taken together, you should now be well equipped to enter into any conversational debates with finessse, knowing the best French expression in any context for clearly stating your opposition!

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