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:
-> Here they're simply stating they're waiting for his arrival, if anything they're actually happy he's coming.
-> 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]
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.
ATTENTION: when talking about pregnancy, you use attendre:
attendre [quelque chose] de [quelqu'un]
= to expect [something] of [someone]
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)
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):
To avoid repetition, you can use the adverbial pronoun y (à + noun).
attendre que + Subjonctif clause
= to wait for [something to happen] / [someone] to do [something]
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]
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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Examples and resources
[Lit. They're expecting his arrival.]
[Lit. They're waiting for his arrival.]