Cependant VS Pourtant,
what's the difference?

Pourtant and cependant both mean mais. However each word is different and must be used carefully. For example, it is all right to say: “J’ai faim. Pourtant je viens de manger” but “J’ai faim. Cependant je viens de manger” sounds weird. 

To understand when to use pourtant or cependant, we should first take a look at the two types of opposition.

Cependant: attenuation and opposition on a consequence

The first type is the attenuation. So it is mostly based on a consequence, the other one on a cause. Let me give you an example:

– J’ai réussi l’examen. Donc, j’ai sorti le Champagne. → I passed the exam. So, I opened the Champagne.

As you can see, the second sentence is the consequence of the first one. We can make an opposition about that and say:

– J’ai réussi l’examen. Cependant, je n’ai pas fêté ça. → I passed the exam. However, I didn’t celebrate.

So now you can see how we use cependant to make an opposition on the consequence.

Pourtant: confrontation and opposition to a cause

What about pourtant? Well, I think you got it, pourtant is not for attenuation, but rather for direct confrontation between two opposite facts. That’s why we should understand pourtant as an opposition to the cause. Let’s see that with a similar example:

– J’ai réussi l’examen parce j’ai beaucoup étudié. → I passed the exam because I studied a lot.

The second clause of the sentence is a causal one. We can make an opposition about that.

– J’ai réussi l’examen. Pourtant je n’ai pas beaucoup étudié.→ I passed the exam. But I didn’t really study.

Okay, so that is where you should use pourtant. As a matter of fact, pourtant is often use to emphasize on something that is illogical, inexplicable or non reasonable. That can be explained by its strong opposition to the cause, origin or essence of something. I will give you more example to make it easier.

– Il fait froid pourtant c’est l’été. → It is cold. Yet we’re in summer.
– J’ai faim. Pourtant je viens de manger. 
→ I’m hungry. But I just ate.
– Je ne vois pas Titien. Pourtant, il était là il y a une minute. 
→ I can’t see Titien. But he was here just one minute ago.

Nuances

So broadly speaking, we have cependant for the opposition to the consequence, and pourtant for the opposition to the cause. Once you get this, we can speak about the nuances. Sometimes the consequence will be illogical, so we’ll use pourtant there, and sometimes, the cause will be an attenuation and we will use cependant.

For example, you could have the following sentence:

– J’ai réussi l’examen. Cependant je n’ai pas beaucoup étudié.→ I passed the exam. But I didn’t really study.

In fact, it looks like an answer to someone who thinks you studied a lot to pass the exam and you want to precise that actually you didn’t . That’s why we can understand it as a consequence following the model :

Oui j’ai réussi l’examen, donc oui j’ai beaucoup étudié. → Yes, I passed the exam. So yes, I did have studied a lot.

In this case, it doesn’t seem illogical to you. That’s why you chose cependant instead of pourtant.

To go further

Check lesson 19 about opposition and difference with dialogues, audio, translation, vocab and activities!

To go further, check our lessons for elementary on the frontpage and the ebook Learn French 2! You’ll find tons of activities to practice and get better!