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Sentir in French: Definition & Conjugation

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
The French verb ''sentir'' is a very useful one, and appears in a variety of idioms. It belongs to the third group of French verbs, and is conjugated regularly. It can mean either to feel, in the literal or emotional sense, or to smell.

Conjugation and Definition of Sentir

VERB: sentir (sahn-TEER) - to hear, feel

Subject Pronoun sentir Conjugation Pronunciation Translation
je je sens (sahn) I hear/feel/smell
tu tu sens (sahn) you hear/feel/smell
il/elle/on il/elle sent (sahn) he/she hears/feels/smells
nous nous sentons (sahn-TOHN) we hear/feel/smell
vous vous sentez (sahn-TAY) you (plural or formal) hear/feel/smell
ils/elles ils/elles sentent (sahnt) they hear/feel/smell

The French verb sentir belongs to the third group of verbs. Although this group of verbs is irregular, meaning that not all the verbs end like each other, sentir is comparatively easy. It is conjugated like other -ir verbs: the stem never changes, and you never have to add a vowel. The singular endings of the verb, as is customary in French, are silent: je sens (zhö sahn), tu sens (tü sahn), il sent (eel sahn). The most common definition of sentir is 'to smell.' Many travel advertisements invite people to smell the sea: Sentez vous la mer! Note that the third person singular often appears in impersonal constructions, such as Ça sent..., 'it smells of...'. An example of this is found in Jacques Brel's famous song, ''Ça sent la bière.''

Sentir can also mean to sense or feel something. The old-fashioned English phrase 'to be sensible of something' comes from this usage. If affected by a loss, for instance, you might say 'I feel this loss,' Je sens cette perte (zhö sahn set pairt.) The phrase je le sens bien (zhö lö sahn bee-yehn) can be used as a polite way of expressing your awareness of another person's generosity, or their desire.

The verb sentir can also be used with reflexive pronouns: je me sens, tu te sens, etc. Used in this way, it expresses the way someone is feeling: well, ill, or guilty, for example. If you were concerned about a friend who had been sick, for instance, you might ask them Tu te sens mieux? (tü tö sahn mee-yö), 'Are you feeling better?' Here are some other example sentences:

  • Il ne se sent pas bien / He's not feeling well
  • Vous vous sentez mal? / Are you feeling unwell?
  • Je me sens bien, merci / I'm feeling well, thank you

Idioms with Sentir

There are many expressions using the verb sentir. You might say, for example: 'When I exercise, I feel well'; Quand je fais du sport, je me sens en forme. You can use intensifiers in this expression as well, if you want to say you feel très en forme or even super en forme!

You can also speak of someone making their authority felt: Il fait sentir sa main (literally, 'He is making his hand felt.') If speaking of a hatred, you might speak of 'not being able to smell someone,' the implication being that their very presence is repulsive. You could say Elle ne peut pas me sentir (ell nö pö pah mö sahn-TEER) or Je ne peux pas le sentir, (zhö nö pö pah lö sahn-TEER.)

Ça sent...

As briefly mentioned above, a number of French idioms use the expression Ça sent, 'it smells like.' Here are some examples:

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