Sentir, Se Sentir, Ressentir, and Se Ressentir: Feeling (and Smelling) in French

Photo by Bruce Mars

Expressing feelings and sensations in French can seem quite tricky to people learning the language. The verb sentir means feel, but it also means smell. There’s also the reflexive se sentir, another way to say feel, and ressentir, yet another! So what’s the difference, and how are these verbs used?

Sentir meaning smell

The verb sentir can mean smell, and just as in English the subject can be the one using his or her nose:

  • Je sens le café.  I smell coffee.
  • Il sent les fleurs. He’s smelling the flowers.

Or it can be the one giving off the odor:

  • Ça sent bon, ça sent la rose ! That smells good, it smells like roses!
  • Ça sent le brûlé. It smells burnt.
Sentir meaning feel

Sentir can also mean feel in the literal sense of perceiving physical contact with something, to sense through touching.

  • Je sens quelque chose de dur là. I feel something hard here.
  • Elle sent quelque chose sur son bras ! She feels something on her arm.
  • Il sent le tissu. He’s feeling the fabric.

It’s also got a more figurative meaning, just as in English, meaning something like feel, think, perceive, etc.. Here sentir expresses how a person perceives an external condition or situation, or even another person.

  • Je sens que je vais être malade. I think/feel (that) I’m going to get sick.
  • Ils sentent que ça va être difficile. They think/feel (that) it’s going to be difficult.
  • Je sens quelque chose de bizarre ici. I feel something weird here.
  • Je l’ai senti énervé. I felt he was irritated (lit. I felt him irritated)
Se sentir meaning feel

The reflexive verb se sentir also means feel, but it’s used to express how someone perceives his or her own physical or mental state.

  • Je ne me sens pas très bien. I don’t feel very good.
  • Elle s’est sentie contrariée. She felt upset.
  • Il se sent malade. He feels sick.
Sentir or se sentir?

These two examples show the difference.

  • Je sens que je vais être malade. I feel like I’m going to be sick.
  • Je me sens malade. I feel sick.

The first one describes my perception of an external condition or situation. “I think that I’m going to be sick.”  I’m not sick right now, but I feel like I’m going to be sick. The second one describes how I perceive my own condition at the moment: “I feel sick” (right now).

Ressentir et Se Ressentir

Finally, ressentir also means feel, but it’s used with intense feelings or emotions, either positive or negative, but also physical states or phenomena, as felt subjectively, from within. A good synonym is éprouver. Se ressentir de quelque chose is about feeling the consequences of something, either emotional or physical

  • Je ressens de l’amour pour toi. I feel love for you.
  • Nous ressentons une profonde tristesse. We feel a deep sadness.
  • Il ressent la soif. He’s experiencing thirst.
  • J’ai beaucoup marché et je m’en ressent. I walked a lot and I (can) feel it.
  • Elle est en deuil et elle s’en ressent encore. She is mourning and she’s still suffering from it.

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