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A reader of OffQc asks for help understanding the difference between the French words for broom and vacuum cleaner as used in Québec, as well as the difference between the French verbs for to sweep and to vacuum.

Nice question! The word for broom in French is un balai. There are two ways vacuum cleaner is said in French: un aspirateur, une balayeuse.

When it refers to a vacuum cleaner, the term balayeuse — it sounds a lot like balai, doesn’t it? — is specific to the French used in Québec. Aspirateur is used everywhere, including Québec.

If you were to go shopping for a vacuum cleaner, you’d see the term aspirateur on the box. Balayeuse, on the other hand, feels more like a colloquial usage.

So those are the words for broom and vacuum cleaner.

  • un balai, broom
  • une balayeuse, vacuum cleaner
  • un aspirateur, vacuum cleaner

If you’re going shopping for a vacuum cleaner, you can talk about it with the verb magasiner. For example, magasiner un aspirateur means to shop around for a vacuum cleaner.

What about the verb forms? You can use passer with all three words:

  • passer le balai, to sweep (with a broom)
  • passer la balayeuse, to vacuum
  • passer l’aspirateur, to vacuum

If you want to say where the sweeping or vacuuming is done, you can use dans, for example: j’ai passé la balayeuse dans ma chambre.

But there’s also the verb balayer, which means to sweep:

  • balayer, to sweep (with a broom)

If you want to say to sweep the floor using this verb, you can say balayer le plancher. Balayer la cuisine is to sweep the kitchen.

Pronunciation tip

Balai sounds like balè. Are you pronouncing è correctly?

Say these two words in French: mes and messe.

Mes sounds like mé, but messe sounds like mèss. Do you hear the difference between the two vowel sounds? The è sound of messe is the same sound used in balai. Balai ends in the same sound as that informal English word of indifference: meh.

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