English has verbs that simply don’t exist in French. And a lot of them involve moving around the place.
What’s the French translation of to cycle for example? There isn’t one. You might say:
Je vais au boulot à vélo*.
If you want to insist on the physical aspect of cycling as an activity, you can also say:
Je fais du vélo tous les dimanches. C’est bien pour la santé.
But a verb to cycle? No.
It’s a similar situation with driving. There is a French verb to drive (conduire), but it is used to describe the activity of being behind the wheel, not to explain how we go somewhere. So if we are going to drive somewhere, we’ll say instead:
Je vais y aller en voiture.I am going to drive there.
English often uses a verb to describe the manner in which we go somewhere. Then it uses a preposition to add the direction. French tends to have verbs describing the direction of movement. The manner is then introduced using a preposition.
Je vais monter l’escalier à pied.I’ll walk upstairs.
In English the verb is the method: walk. The preposition is the direction: upstairs. In French the verb is the direction: monter. The preposition introduces the method: à pied.
Often we can slim the French down. Since the only normal way to go up stairs is by foot, we can just say we’re going up the staircase and let people assume it is by foot. Or we can just say we’re going up by foot and let people assume it is by the staircase:
Je vais prendre l’escalier.
Je vais monter à pied.
The same slimming down approach applies in other situations. In English we might say “I’m flying to New York next week”. But although French does have a verb to fly (voler), it’s used to describe a type of movement, not a method of transport. We could, as in English, say “I’m going to take a plane”.
Je prends l’avion pour New York la semaine prochaine.
But if we’re in Paris and it’s obvious that flying is the only option, we probably just wouldn’t mention the means of transport at all:
Je vais à New York la semaine prochaine.
If someone’s just rushed out of the room, we might say in English:
She’s just run out of the door.
But in French the idea of leaving the room is contained in the verb: sortir. Once this is established, there’s little point mentioning the door, since it’s obvious she didn’t leave by the window. So we’d just say:
Elle vient de sortir en courant.
We’ve seen that English is more rich in verbs describing the way we go places. French on the other hand is more rich in verbs that describe the direction of travel. Longer for example means to go alongside:
Nous allons longer le ruisseau jusqu’à la cascade.We’re going to walk alongside the stream as far as the waterfall.
Prendre à gauche et longer la plage jusqu’à l’école de voile.Turn left and drive down the beachfront until you reach the yachting school.
Similar switches happen when describing body movements. English has a whole range of verbs that describe body actions: to nod, to kick for example. French prefers verbs that describe the result and then uses de to introduce the body part involved:
Elle m’a fait un signe de tête.She nodded to me.
Il a donné un coup de pied à la porteHe kicked the door.
Professional translators call the need to switch things le chassé-croisé. It’s a very important tool in their armoury.
Now your awareness has been raised, listen out for these and other examples when you come into contact with French. You’ll find that, with time, le chassé-croisé will come naturally to you.
*You may also hear J’y vais en vélo. According to the Académie française, for vehicles we ride the preposition à should be used: à vélo, à moto, à cheval, while the preposition en should be used for vehicles we get into: en voiture, en train, en avion. In day-to-day to French though, en vélo, en moto are used. In this sense, it refers more to the choice of transport means, rather than the physical act of getting onto a bike or motorbike.