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Attendre quelqu'un vs s'attendre à quelque chose = to wait vs to expect

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.

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 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).

ATTENTION:
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 (dread) [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 negative ones.

You use the reflexive form s'attendre + à ce que + [person doing] + verb in Le Subjonctif

See also Conjugate regular verbs in Le Subjonctif Présent (subjunctive mood) 

 

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

Je m'attends toujours à ce qu'il annule.
I always expect him to cancel.


J'attends plus de mes parents.
I expect more of my parents.


Je m'attendais à ce que tu me demandes en mariage.
I was expecting you to propose to me.


Nous attendons un heureux événement.
We're expecting.[Lit. We're waiting for a happy event.]


Il ne s'attendait pas à ce que nous venions.
He didn't expect us to come.


On attendait mieux de vous.
We expected better of you.


On s'attend à tout de sa part.
We expect anything from him.


Nous ne nous attendions pas à te voir.
We didn't expect you.[We didn't expect to see you.]


Les marchés s'attendent à une hausse de l'inflation.
The markets expect a rise of inflation.


Je ne m'y attendais pas.
I didn't expect it.


Tu t'attends toujours au pire.
You always expect the worst.


J'attends mon frère tous les jours à la même heure.
I wait for my brother every day at the same time.


Nous avons attendu que ça s'arrête.
We waited for it to stop.


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.]


Tu l'attends encore ?
Are you still waiting for him/her ?


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.]


Il a attendu Yvette pendant trois heures.
He waited for Yvette for three hours.


Il attend que je fasse le dîner.
He's waiting for me to make dinner.


Elle n'attend pas grand-chose de lui.
She doesn't expect much of him.


Elle les attendra près de la fontaine.
She'll wait for them by the fountain.


Ma sœur attend un bébé.
My sister is expecting.[Lit. My sister is waiting for a baby.]


Micro kwiz: Attendre quelqu'un vs s'attendre à quelque chose = to wait vs to expect
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Q&A

Cathy

Kwiziq community member

15 March 2018

1 reply

Please actually use "dread" in the translations where applicable

Chris

Kwiziq community member

15 March 2018

15/03/18

Unfortunately I have no idea what you are referring to.


-- Chris.

William

Kwiziq community member

3 January 2018

1 reply

Subjunctive = Indicative (er verbs) Ist/ 2nd and 3rd person Singular

The question is translate "You are waiting for the bus to arrive" The answer given is "Vous attendez que le bus arrive", Maybe better to change the question to '"You are waiting for the bus to LEAVE" which gives "Vous attendez que le bus parte (subjunctive). Here the verb is different from the indicative (le bus part)

Cécile

Kwiziq language super star

28 February 2018

28/02/18

Hi William,


This is a good point , as indeed, in the case of regular verbs ending in ER , most forms will ressemble those of the Present indicative. I will pass on your comments.

Jennifer

Kwiziq community member

9 July 2017

1 reply

Simon m'attend à la gare." can mean expects me at the station?

I thought that only with the reflexive s'attendre à, would it be translated as expect. Is that an incorrect understanding on my part?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

14 July 2017

14/07/17

Bonjour Jennifer !

You use "s'attendre à" with something, an event, but to express "to expect [someone]", you can only use the verb "attendre [quelqu'un]".

I hope that's helpful!
À bientôt !

Arash

Kwiziq community member

29 April 2017

1 reply

Cases where both can be used?

Elle n'attend pas grand-chose de lui. Elle ne s'attend pas à grand-chose de lui. Are both above phrases correct? If yes, do they mean differently? She doesn't expect much of him.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

1 May 2017

1/05/17

Bonjour Arash !

That's an interesting case.
Both these sentences are correct, but their meanings are quite different, though tricky to explain :)
"Elle n'attend pas grand-chose de lui." would actually be the preferred way to say "She doesn't expect much from him." in French. That's the one we would use colloquially, as a statement.

As for "Elle ne s'attend pas à grand-chose de lui.", it feels like she is in a *tense* state of expectancy, like his action is imminent... It's really hard to explain, but it feels off to my French ears, and we would just not use this structure at all.

I hope that's helpful!
À bientôt !

William

Kwiziq community member

10 April 2017

1 reply

Attendre v S'attendre a

I am really struggling with this topic. Are the other websites on this topic?

Ron

Kwiziq community member

10 April 2017

10/04/17

To me, this means that something positive or neutral is being awaited.
attendre ou
= to expect / to wait for or

While the other implies an anticipation, expectation or possible dread as in waiting for lab tests to come back when you are ill and you expect the worst.
s'attendre à
= to expect (to happen)

Note that s'attendre à is often (but not always!) used for negative expectations (i.e., I expect bad consequences).

ATTENTION:
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'):

Je peux comprendre certainement votre confusion.

Bonne chance !

Susan

Kwiziq community member

4 November 2016

2 replies

"On attendait mieux de vous" - why wouldn't

this be reflexive, as it expresses expectation?

Laura

Kwiziq language super star

6 January 2017

6/01/17

Bonjour Susan,

S'attendre can only be used with à plus a verb or noun. Mieux is an adverb and therefore does not fit that construction.

Susan

Kwiziq community member

7 January 2017

7/01/17

This makes sense, now that you've explained it.
Tnx, s.

Jules

Kwiziq community member

28 October 2016

1 reply

in the lesson for attendre the two examples are the same, the first should be about waiting.

Look at these two sentences: Ils attendent son arrivée d'une minute à l'autre. They're expecting him to arrive any minute now.[Lit. They're expecting his arrival.] they're simply stating they're expecting 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

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

28 October 2016

28/10/16

Yes, I agree, the English has been edited accordingly.

Jules

Kwiziq community member

28 October 2016

2 replies

in the lesson for attendre the two examples that should illustrate the differences are the same:

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

28 October 2016

28/10/16

Bonjour Jules !

Actually they are slightly different, one is "attendre", the other one "s'attendre à".
We used the same sentence to show the nuance between the two uses of "attendre" in French.

I hope that's helpful!

Jules

Kwiziq community member

28 October 2016

28/10/16

I do understand the difference. The English translations are the problem, they are both the same. The first should "They are waiting for him to arrive, They're waiting for his arrival." That would clarify the difference. The latter examples in the lesson do make this distinction.

Chris

Kwiziq community member

24 October 2016

2 replies

Would this be a correct parallel to German

Is there anyone speaking German here? Because I couldn't get my head around the explanation given in this lesson. It just seems very difficult to explain to a native English speaker. However, I get the impression that "attendre" would translate to "warten" in German whereas "s'attendre à" corresponds to "erwarten". The former simply is a statement while the latter is putting the focus more on what you're waiting for. -- Chris.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

24 October 2016

24/10/16

Bonjour Claus,

I looked into it, as my German is very rusty, and unfortunately, the nuance here is very different.
Indeed, in most cases, both "warten" and "erwarten" would be translated as "attendre" in French:
-> attendre AND attendre de

Chris

Kwiziq community member

24 October 2016

24/10/16

Oh darn! And I tought I'd got it. -- Chris.

Johnny

Kwiziq community member

14 September 2016

1 reply

s'attendre à

I feel like I will never get this. You wrote "Note that s'attendre à is usually used for negative expectations (i.e., I expect something bad)" but then "You're expecting some happy news" is "Tu t'attends à de bonnes nouvelles." Happy news is neither negative or bad.

Jim

Kwiziq community member

27 November 2016

27/11/16

It is very tricky.
Why not try to think of s'attendre à as "to forecast" or "to predict" or "to foresee"?
This may help you to understand "Tu t'attends à de bonnes nouvelles" in the sense of foreseeing some good news, which is not a negative feeling, but one of exciting expectation.
The lesson states that s'attendre à is "usually negative" therefore implying not always.
Clever stuff underway!