Some French verbs are more complicated than others for Anglophones, most especially those that don’t have an exact counterpart in English. Such is the case with the verbs retourner, revenir and rentrer.
Many English speakers assume these three verbs translate as “to return” “to come back” and “to re-enter” respectively, and can be used interchangeably. But, alas, in French that’s not the case.
While each of these French verbs do generally indicate someone going back to a place, they must each be used in a specific – and different – set of circumstances.
Let’s take a closer look:
Meaning #1: To go back (to a place where the speaker is not)
Meaning #2: To go back (to a place where the speaker is not) for a short time.
Meaning #3: To return something (to give back)
As the definitions above indicate, “retourner” is used to refer to a return to a place where the subject of the sentence was previously and where the speaker is not.
Example #1: Ma mere adorait Rome. Elle voudrait y retourner l’année prochaine.
My mother adored Rome. She would like to return there next year.
Example #2: Paul était sur le point de nous retrouver, mais il avait oublié son porte-monnaie à la boulangerie. Il y est donc retourné le chercher pour nous rejoindre après.
Paul was about to meet us but he forgot his wallet at the bakery. So he’s going to go back there to look for it and meet us afterwards.
Example #3: Tout article non retourné sera facturé
Any missing items will be charged
Meaning: To come back (to the place where the speaker is).
Revenir is used to refer to a return to a place where the subject of the sentence was previously and where the speaker is currently.
Example #1: Où est Marie? Elle est partie. Mais elle a dit qu’elle reviendrait plus tard
Where is Marie? She left. But she says she’ll come back (here) later.
Example #2: “Zut ! Je dois retourner au bureau car j’y ai laissé mes clés! Je reviens tout de suite!”
Darn it! I have to return to my office because I left my keys there. I’ll come right back (here)!
Meaning: “to return home” — no matter whether “home” is your country or your abode.
Example #1: Cette fête est géniale mais je suis fatiguée. Je rentre à la maison.
This party is great but I’m tired. I’m going (returning) home.
Example #2: François habite en Espagne depuis 7 ans mais il rentrera en France en septembre.
François lived in Spain for seven years but in September he’s going to return to France.
Do you need additional help distinguishing between retourner, revenir and retourner? Leave your questions below and we’ll get back to you!