Search Engines as French Grammar Checkers

Do a preliminary check of your French with a search engine

When you're not sure about your French phrasing, a search engine can be a quick and dirty tool for getting a sense of whether you're on the right track. It's not foolproof by any means, but if you search for a short phrase and find fewer than 100 results, it's a pretty good bet that either you've invented a completely new concept or that your French is wrong. On the other hand, if you find hundreds of thousands of results, your phrase is potentially correct - but be careful! There are some caveats.

For example: I want to say "It's hot out" and the first thing that comes to mind is C'est chaud. So let's try searching for that in Google and Bing:

google1   bing1 

Big numbers, right? You're probably feeling pretty good about this phrase - but not so fast. If you start looking through the results, you'll notice that the two words aren't always next to each other: these aren't exact matches. Since we want to confirm that the phrase is correct, we have to put it in quotation marks. Look what happens:

google2    bing2

Wow, we've lost tens of millions of results! Let's take a look at what's left.

  1. Many of the results are for a webseries or a song named C'est chaud.
  2. Most of the rest are explanations of why c'est chaud is wrong (at least for translating "it's hot out").

So there you have it: despite huge numbers in Google and Bing, it turns out that C'est chaud does not mean "It's hot" in reference to the weather - it either refers to something like a stove being hot, or it means "It's dangerous, risky." The phrase does exist, but these searches have prevented me from saying something completely different than what I wanted to say.

Specialized search engine

A more accurate but more limited tool is the specialized search engine / editorial dictionary Linguee.fr, which searches bilingual texts and displays the results side by side, so that you can look at how your exact phrase and similar phrases have been translated by real people. It has the advantage of showing real-life, often certified translations, but the disadvantage of being limited to bilingual texts, which means far fewer results. In fact, in the case of "c'est chaud", there is only one:

linguee

Bottom line

Like grammar checkers, search engines can be useful tools for a preliminary check of your writing, but they cannot take the place of human correctors. If you have a question about a French phrase, try asking one of the French experts on our QandA forum.

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