It is interesting to notice the difference of meaning and usage between the active verb attendre (to wait for / to expect) and the reflexive verb s'attendre à (to expect).
To understand their respective usage, it's important to consider the nuances of the English verb to expect: It can mean either simply to wait for [something/someone], but it can also carry a sense of longing, personal expectation towards what's going to happen.
When to use "Attendre quelqu'un" and "s'attendre à quelque chose" in French
Look at these two sentences:
Ils attendent son arrivée d'une minute à l'autre.They're waiting for him to arrive any minute now.
[Lit. They're waiting for his arrival.]
-> Here they're simply stating they're waiting for his arrival, if anything they're actually happy he's coming.
Ils s'attendent à son arrivée d'une minute à l'autre.They're expecting him to arrive any minute now.
[Lit. They're expecting his arrival.]
-> Here on the other hand, there's expectation for what his arrival might do, here it's actually apprehension, a slight sense of discomfort or fear at the idea of his arrival.
attendre [quelqu'un] ou [quelque chose]
= to expect / to wait for [someone] or [something]
J'attends mon frère tous les jours à la même heure.I wait for my brother every day at the same time.
Note that (in this context: to expect/wait for [someone/something]) the verb attendre is NOT followed by a preposition in French, and is used with direct object pronouns (le, la, les, nous, vous, me, te).
Attendre can also mean to expect [someone]/[something] in a neutral or positive sense.
Elle les attendra près de la fontaine.She'll wait for them by the fountain.
Tu l'attends encore ?Are you still waiting for him/her ?
ATTENTION: when talking about pregnancy, you use attendre:
Nous attendons un heureux événement.We're expecting.
[Lit. We're waiting for a happy event.]
Ma sœur attend un bébé.My sister is expecting.
[Lit. My sister is waiting for a baby.]
attendre [quelque chose] de [quelqu'un]
= to expect [something] of [someone]
J'attends plus de mes parents.I expect more of my parents.
On attendait mieux de vous.We expected better of you.
Elle n'attend pas grand-chose de lui.She doesn't expect much of him.
Note that the preposition de would be followed by stress pronouns (moi, toi ...) to express of me, you....
s'attendre à [quelque chose]
= to expect [something] (to happen)
On s'attend à tout de sa part.We expect anything from him.
Tu t'attends toujours au pire.You always expect the worst.
Les marchés s'attendent à une hausse de l'inflation.The markets expect a rise of inflation.
To say to expect something in the sense of putting expectations on what follows, you will use the reflexive verb s'attendre à + [something].
Note that s'attendre à is often (but not always!) used for negative expectations (i.e. I expect bad consequences).
You cannot use s'attendre + a person to say to expect someone.
You will instead use the simple attendre or a longer sentence (e.g., to expect to see someone):
Nous ne nous attendions pas à te voir.We didn't expect you.
[We didn't expect to see you.]
To avoid repetition, you can use the adverbial pronoun y (à + noun).
Je ne m'y attendais pas.I didn't expect it.
attendre que + Subjonctif clause
= to wait for [something to happen] / [someone] to do [something]
Il attend que je fasse le dîner.He's waiting for me to make dinner.
Nous avons attendu que ça s'arrête.We waited for it to stop.
This structure is used when you wait for [someone/something else] to do something. Here the waiting is neutral, carrying no connotation of dread or expectation.
You use the simple form attendre + que + person doing + verb in Le Subjonctif
s'attendre à ce que + Subjonctif clause
= to expect [something to happen] / [someone] doing [something]
Je m'attendais à ce que tu me demandes en mariage.I was expecting you to propose to me.
Il ne s'attendait pas à ce que nous venions.He didn't expect us to come.
Je m'attends toujours à ce qu'il annule.I always expect him to cancel.
This more complex structure is used when you expect someone/something else to do something.
Here the waiting is coloured by personal expectations, usually (but not always) negative ones.
You use the reflexive form s'attendre + à ce que + [person doing] + verb in Le Subjonctif
See also Conjugate regular verbs in the subjunctive present in French (Le Subjonctif Présent)
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