10 useful French expressions using the verb tenir

It appears in all sorts of situations - just like its English equivalent

Family sitting on a couch with inset image of the french verb tenir
The English equivalent of tenir, ‘to hold’, is a particularly difficult verb for people learning English.
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The word tenir, meaning ‘to hold’ is one of the most common verbs in the French language, and as such is often used in unusual ways in everyday expressions. We look at 10 of the most useful ways you can use it to improve your French.

The English equivalent of tenir, ‘to hold’, is a particularly difficult verb for people learning English.

It appears in all sorts of phrasal verbs and expressions, from ‘hold on’, ‘hold in’, ‘hold out for’, to ‘hold your horses’.

Similarly, the French verb appears in many different combinations and contexts.

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Tenir bon - to hold strong/keep going 

This phrasal verb is used when things get tough.

For example, you might use this phrase in a work setting to describe your team getting on with the job at hand despite setbacks. 

You can also use it to ask if someone is ok with a difficult situation: tu tiens bon? - ‘are you ok?’

For example:

On tient bon dans l'équipe même quand il y a des problèmes au niveau du management. - ‘Our team keeps going even when there are problems regarding management.’

Tenir le coup - to cope/weather the storm 

This phrasal verb is one to use in situations where people are facing sadness or difficulties in their lives. 

It can mean to cope or, more figuratively, to weather the storm, so if you ask someone Tu tiens le coup ? it means ‘are you coping or how are you holding up?’

Tenir tête à - to go against someone/stand up to someone

When talking about going up against someone or standing up to someone, you can employ tenir tête à quelqu’un

For example:

Le Front Populaire veut tenir tête à l’extrême droite dans les élections - ‘The Front Populaire wants to go up against the far right in the elections’

Se tenir à carreau - Watch your step, keep in line, do your duty 

This expression has its origins in military parlance form the Middle Ages, and refers to a carreau - or crossbow bolt.

“It is a very evocative image,” medievalist Kentigwern Jaouen told TF1.“Crossbows were very powerful and precise weapons and the slightest miscalculation could mean being shot. So, when ordered to se tenir à carreau people knew they had to keep still and do what they were told.”

Tenir la chandelle - to be the third wheel 

Maybe something you would rather not be described as doing - tenir la chandelle means to play gooseberry or to be a third wheel.

A chandelle is a long thin candle.

Historically, maids or servants would hold the candle but turn their back to their master and mistress, hence the expression tenir la chandelle. 

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Tenir à quelqu'un - to value someone

In older English we would say to ‘hold someone dear’, which tenir à quelqu'un means.

For example

Je tiens à toi - ‘I care about you’


C’est la bague de ma mère, j’y tiens beaucoup - ‘It’s my mother’s ring, it means a lot to me’

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Tiens, tiens - well, well

An expression that makes no sense literally, but is commonly used to evoke surprise.

Note that a single tiens! means 'hey!' rather than 'hold' as in English.

Se tenir devant - to stand before

This is a little grandiloquent and commonly heard in the mouth of politicians asking for people's vote.

Je me tiens devant vous en tant que Premier Ministre - ‘I stand before you as Prime Minister’

Se tenir au courant de quelque chose - ‘to keep up to date/in the loop about something’

This is a very useful phrase in everyday life, if you want someone to keep you updated on an ongoing situation, for example. 

Tiens-moi au au courant s’il te plaît - ‘Keep me posted please’

It can also be used with the idea of keeping yourself up to date with the news or the goings on. 

Je me tiens au courant des actualités - ‘I stay up to date with the news

Ne tenir qu’à un fil - to hang by a thread

This can refer to anything precarious

Similarly, the fil, or thread could also be a cheveu or hair.