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Nouveau vs Neuf - The French words for "new"

What's the difference between the French adjectives nouveau and neuf?

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English speakers sometimes find it difficult to translate "new" into French, due to confusion over the French words nouveau and neuf. In fact, the French adjectives have distinctly different meanings; the problem is actually caused by the fact that the English "new" has more than one meaning. Fortunately, this is an easy problem to remedy. Read over this lesson, learn the difference between nouveau and neuf, and you won't have any more trouble saying new in French.

Nouveau

Nouveau means new in the sense of new to the owner - a change or improvement; that is, something that is new because it's different than what came before, regardless of whether it is brand new from the store. The opposite of nouveau is ancien (former).

As-tu vu ma nouvelle voiture ?
Have you seen my new car?
(The car is not necessarily new out of the factory; new here means new to the speaker.)

Il a mis une nouvelle chemise.
He put a new shirt on.
(He took off the shirt he was wearing and put a different one on in its place. The "new" shirt may or may not be new from the store; the important thing here is that it is different.)

C'est nouveau.
It's new.
(I just bought/found/made it.)

Nous avons un nouvel appartement.
We have a new apartment.
(We just moved.)

J'ai vu le nouveau pont.
I saw the new bridge.
(The replacement for the one that got washed out.)

Nouveau precedes the noun it modifies and changes to agree in gender and number with it (learn more):

   nouveau - nouvelle - nouveaux - nouvelles

Nouveau has a special form for masculine nouns that begin with a vowel: nouvel (learn more)

Note that une nouvelle is a piece of news and les nouvelles refer to the news in general.
 

Neuf

Neuf means new in the sense of brand new, fresh out of the factory, first of its kind. The opposite of neuf is vieux (old).

Je n'ai jamais acheté une voiture neuve.
I've never bought a new car.
(I always buy used cars.)

Il a acheté une chemise neuve.
He bought a new shirt.
(He went to the store and bought a brand-new shirt.)

Comme neuf.
As good as new.
(It's fixed, so now it's just like new.)

Nous avons un appartement neuf.
We have a new apartment.
(We live in a brand-new building.)

J'ai vu le Pont neuf.
I saw the Pont neuf (in Paris).
(Although this is the oldest bridge in Paris, at the time it was built and named, it was a brand-new bridge in a brand-new spot.)

Neuf follows the noun it modifies and changes to agree in gender and number with it:

   neuf - neuve - neufs - neuves

Remember that neuf is also the number nine:

   J'ai neuf cousins - I have nine cousins.
 

Nouveau vs Neuf

In summary, nouveau means something has changed, while neuf indicates that something is newly-made. With this new knowledge, you shouldn't have any more trouble deciding whether to use neuf or nouveau.
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