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Là or la?: How an accent makes all the difference in French

When it comes to understanding the sense of certain dual-meaning, identical-sounding French words or phrases, an accent can be key 

"çà et là" literally means "here and there" but commonly refers to people or things being scattered 'all over the place' Pic: Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock

When it comes to understanding the sense of certain dual-meaning, identical-sounding French words or phrases, accent is everything. 

However, we do not refer here to your elocution expertise or phonetic precision. We are talking about the accent marker on a vowel that distinguishes one word from its equal-sounding counterpart – so this is relevant largely to the written word.

All of this tricky ambiguity can be neatly summed up by looking at the elements within one French phrase: çà et là

It literally means "here and there" but commonly refers to people or things being scattered 'all over the place' with no evident sense of order – we might use the phrase 'willy nilly'.

Until the 16th century, çà was used as an adverb denoting place, synonymous with the now more familiar ici (one may have heard "venez çà!" instead of "venez ici!" – "come here!). However, it fell into disuse in the 19th century, despite having been elegantly employed in many a literary context, such as:

"Un piano était fixé dans ce salon, et sur ses murs de bois, tapissés en soie jaune, on voyait çà et là des tableaux d’une petite dimension, […]  – Honoré de Balzac's La Femme de trente ans, 1832. (A piano was fixed in this living room, and on its wooden walls, upholstered in yellow silk, one saw here and there paintings of a small dimension, [...])

As for other potential confusers in our phrase – note the grave accent on the first "a" (çà). This is not to be mixed up with "ça", which means "that" (it is a contraction of cela). As for là (there), forget to put the grave accent in writing and it reads as "la") – the feminine direct object pronoun. 

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