How do you say then in French?

The word then has various translations in French, depending on how it is used. We'll look at the main possibilities here, and how to choose between them. This section is split into two pages:

  • on this page, we look at then when it indicates the next in time or a sequence;
  • on the next page, we look at then when it means something closer to therefore, so, in that case;
  • the next page also looks at the slightly unusual case of phrases such as the then prime minister.

then meaning and next

With the meaning of and next the usual French translation is puis. Note that, just as English then, puis can be used to introduce something that is next in sequence even if there isn't really a literal notion of time involved (see the second of these two sentences):

j'ai fait mes devoirs puis j'ai regardé la télé
I did my homework then I watched TV
j'ai une soeur, Sonia, (et) puis il y a mon frère...
I have a sister, Sonia, (and) then there's my brother...
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Note that puis is generally only used to "join sentences together" in this way. So for example, you can't put puis at the end of a sentence. And it doesn't make sense to say qu'est qu'il a fait puis? for "what did he do then?".

then meaning after that, subsequently

The French word ensuite can often translate then. Unlike puis, ensuite can be placed inside or at the end of a sentence. In fact, if it's not in one of these positions, it tends to require the support of another word such as et (and) to "join" the two sentences together:

qu'est-ce qu'il a fait ensuite?
what did he do then? (="next")
j'ai fait mes devoirs et je suis sorti ensuite avec des amis or:
j'ai fait mes devoirs et je suis sorti avec des amis ensuite or:
j'ai fait mes devoirs et ensuite je suis sorti avec des amis
I did my homework then went out with some friends
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(A bit more technically, we could say that ensuite is an adverb, whereas puis is a conjunction.)

Unlike puis, French speakers don't tend to use ensuite where there isn't literally a notion of time involved. Searching the Internet, for example, we find far more examples of puis il y a (which would tend not to imply a "sequence in time") then ensuite il y a.

then meaning at that time

French doesn't have a single word to cover this meaning of then. Instead, a more specific expression is used in French such as à cette heure-là (=at that time of the day), à ce moment-là (=at that moment), à l'époque (=during that period, at that stage of our life etc):

J'arriverai à quatre heures. Tu peux venir me chercher à cette heure-là?
I'll be arriving at 4 o'clock. Can you pick me up then?
Aujourd'hui on préfère la campagne, mais à l'époque on vivait en ville.
Nowadays we prefer the countryside, but then we were living in town.

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In some cases, then covers both the meaning of "at that moment" and "next", "subsequently". In such cases, either type of translation (using puis/et ensuite or using et à ce moment-là) is generally possible:

On arrivera à Paris et puis/à ce moment-là on décidera ce qu'on va faire
We'll get to Paris and then we'll decide what we're going to do.
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Use of alors to mean "then in the past", "at that period of history"

In what we might call "history book style", alors is sometimes used to mean then when it denotes a time or period in the past. With this meaning, alors tends to be placed just after the verb:

nous avions alors beaucoup de contacts
then, we had many contacts
la ville était alors un petit village
the town was then a small village
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Next: then meaning so, therefore

On the next page, we look at how to how to translate then meaning so, therefore.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.