The verb sentir is an interesting verb as it is more general and vague than the verb to smell in English.
Meanings of "sentir" in French
Sentir is first of all used to express the sense of smell:
Est-ce que vous sentez ce parfum ?Do you smell that perfume?
Sentir can also be used in a larger sense to express to feel something:
Ça fait mal ?
- Non, je ne sens rien.Does it hurt?
- No, I don't feel anything.
Est-ce qu'elle sent ça ?Does she feel that?
And in some cases, sentir can even be used to express taste, in a very general context of 'sensing' the presence of an ingredient for example:
Est-ce que tu sens la tomate ?Do you taste the tomato?
You use the same structure - sentir [quelque chose] - to express both to smell/feel/taste [something] AND to smell like/of [something].
Note that in the case of smell like/of, you always use definite articles le, la, l', les as the simile is general.
Since the structure is the same, it is only the context that makes the meaning clear:
Tu sens la friture, c'est dégoûtant !You smell of fried food, it's disgusting!
Tu sens la friture dans cette rue ?Do you smell the fried food on that street ?
Look at the following fixed expressions in French:
Tu sens la rose aujourd'hui !You smell good today!
Ouh là là ! Ils ne sentent pas la rose !Wow! They smell nasty!
Attention ! Ça ne sent pas la rose là-dedans !Careful! It smells nasty in here!
- sentir la rose, which means to smell good, literally 'to smell of roses'
- ne pas sentir la rose, which means to smell bad/nasty, literally 'to not smell of roses'
See also the more advanced "Sentir bon" vs "Se sentir bien" - The different meanings of the verb "sentir" in French
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