Have you ever put your foot in your mouth?
Have you ever said this in French? Ugh ! J’ai mis les pieds dans le plat. If not, I bet you’ve said the equivalent in English, ”I put my foot in my mouth,” or literally in French, “I put the feet in my dish!” Well, we’ve all done that. But maybe not yet in French!
Mettre is the key verb here. It’s one of those very flexible (like the baby above), common French verbs that are often very idiomatic and therefore can be quite difficult for an English speaker to remember. So today we will try to make it easier!
Mettre, like many very common verbs is irregular. It’s an –re verb that takes avoir in the passé composé.
je mets nous mettons Participe passé : mis (mise)
tu mets vous mettez
Il/elle/on met ils mettent
The commonest translation of mettre is to put, or to place, so let’s focus on that meaning first. The next few sentences illustrate this particular meaning, which is also the easiest to remember.
Présent de l’indicatif Passé composé
Elle met le livre sur la table. Elle a mis le livre sur la table.
She puts (places) the book on the table. She put (placed) the book on the table.
Tu mets du beurre sur le pain ? Tu as mis du beurre sur le pain ?
Do you put butter on your bread ? Did you put butter on your bread?
On met la question de côté. On a mis la question de côté.
We place the question aside. We placed the question aside.
J’essaye de mettre Hélène à l’aise. J’ai essayé de mettre Hélène à l’aise.
I try to put Elaine at ease. I tried to put Elaine at ease.
The commonest translation of mettre is to put or to place...
More idiomatic forms of mettre...
Next, here are some common, but more idiomatic, uses of mettre that have meanings that may be related to put or place, but would normally be translated into English using words like set, turn on, inform, make clear, or develop.
On peut t’aider à mettre la table. On t’a aidé à mettre la table.
We can help you to set the table. We helped you set the table.
Je vais vous mettre au courant. Je vous ai mis au courant.
I’m going to bring you up to date. I brought you up to date.
Elle met au point un nouveau système Elle a mis au point un nouveau système
pour mieux organiser son travail. pour mieux organiser son travail.
She is developing a new system to She has developed a new system to
better organize her work. better organize her work.
Il met la télé quand il arrive. Il a mis la télé quand il est arrivé.
He turns on the tv when he arrives. He turned on the tv when he arrived.
Il la met en colère. Il l’a mise en colère.
He makes her angry. He made (has made) her angry.
Se mettre is, of course, a reflexive French verb, meaning that the action of the verb is being performed by the subject on himself, herself, or itself. Unlike mettre, which takes avoir, se mettre takes être. Like mettre, se mettre is a very flexible verb used in a large variety of circumstances. Perhaps the most common meaning is to start, to begin, or to place oneself. You may be tempted to use the verb commencer instead of se mettre. But be aware that se mettre is much more commonly used and is more colloquial than commencer.
Nous nous mettons à travailler à huit heure.
We start to work at eight o’clock.
Je me suis mis à jouer du piano quand j’avais huit ans.
I started playing the piano when I was eight years old.
Je me mets en colère quand je fais une erreur.
I get angry when I make a mistake.
Quand on est arrivé, on s’est mis au bar.
When we arrived, we sat at the bar.
Je me suis mis dans une mauvaise situation.
I placed myself in a bad situation.
Se mettre is also used in the meaning of to dress or wear.
Ma copine se met toujours en jeans.
My girlfriend always dresses (places herself) in jeans.
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