M instead of N in front of m, b and p. A1 lesson.

Lesson in English. Level A1.

Lesson reference number: SPEL-A1-CZQ4

I remember when I was a child at school and the schoolteacher taught us the spelling rule of the “m” that replaces “n” when followed by “m”, “b” or “p”.

We did not understand the reason why we had to do that, but we learnt the rule, and very quickly it became a game for us to spot the words that were concerned by this rule, and it also became so obvious to write this “m” instead of the “n” that we would have been shocked if we had seen those words written differently. With a little bit of practice, you will feel exactly the same way, and writing the correct spelling will become automatic.

This rule comes from the fact that the majority of French words come from Latin, like the word “bombus” which became “bombe” (bomb) in French. However, in the old days (really old days) you could also find some “nb” or “np” associations.


Basically, like for all grammatical rules, all words which are not exceptions to the rule do follow the rule.

“Oh thank you very much, Erica!” you are going to reply to me with a sarcastic tone of voice. And you will add: “When you see the number of exceptions there is in French for each grammatical rules, you are not being very helpful by saying that.”

Except that you are very lucky this time because there are only seven exceptions to this rule.

Just learn them by heart, and apply the rule to the rest of the words.

Actually, I think that learning the exceptions first is a better idea, when studying grammar, than learning the rule first plus a long list of words it applies to, and then, at the end of the lesson, when everybody is completely exhausted, give the students a short list of vocabulary containing the exceptions. Personally, I prefer to do the reverse.

These exceptions are:

-        Un bonbon. A sweet / candy. The reason an « n » is used instead of an « m » is that it means « good good ». Because sweets are really really good good, don’t you think so?


-        Une bonbonne. A demijohn.


-    Une bonbonnière. A candy box (although this word in French resembles very much the previous one, it refers to a completely different object).


-        Néanmoins. However.


-   Un embonpoint. De l’embonpoint. It doesn’t really mean “overweight” as you can find in automatic translators, in fact it refers to the fat itself that you stock in your body.


Cet homme a beaucoup d’embonpoint = this man has a lot of weight/body fat.

Il doit perdre de l’embonpoint = he must lose weight.

This word is really funny because first you have an “m” in front of the “b”, so you think the word is regular and will follow the rule up to the end of its spelling, and then suddenly it changes its mind (words can sometimes be very contradictory) and decides to become an exception with this “n” in front of the “p”.


-     La mainmise. It is used especially in the expression “avoir la mainmise sur…” which means “to have control over…”. You recognize the word “main” in it, which is a feminine word that means “hand”. The word literally means to seize something with your hand, in other words to become the owner of it. As you can not change the spelling of the word “main”, this is the reason why the “n” remains and is not changed to an “m”.


-        La mainmorte. This is an old Middle Age law term which meant that the Lord legally had the right over the possessions of his dead vassals. It meant that the vassal’s children had no right to inherit from their parent. Here you also recognize the word “main”, but also the adjective “mort” (as “main” is feminine, the adjective here is “morte”). Basically, it means “dead hand”.



Now let’s see the words that follow the rule.

Here are just a few examples:

       In front of an "m" 


-       Immortel. Immortal, this English word has French origins.

-       Emmener.

   In front of an "b" 

-       Chambre. A bedroom.

-       Septembre. September. (also works with novembre and décembre)

-       Une ambulance. Same spelling in English, French origins.

-       Embarquer. To embark.

-       Tomber. To fall.


 In front of an "p" 

-  Accompagner. To accompany. Both “accompagner” and “accompany” come from the old French “acompaignier”.

-        Impossible. Same word in English, French origins.

-        Composer. To compose. French origins.

-        Impérial. Imperial. French origins.

-        Simple. Same spelling in English, French origins.

-      Un example. Same spelling in English, probably French origins, although Wikipedia does not really mention it in its lists, at the “e” section

(I chose not to underline the letter “p” as it modified too much its aspect).


You will notice that, in English, words that have a French origin usually follow the rule as well.

However, what is really interesting is that a few words in English that have French origins replaced the original “n” in French by an “m” in English, although they had, apparently, no reason to do so.

One obvious example is the French word “confort” which became “comfort” in English. Same remark for “confortable” in French, which became “comfortable” in English.

Actually, to be precise and exact, (and to make it simple, and believe me this is not a joke) “confort” in French comes from the English “comfort” (so it is not the other way round), but “comfort” comes… from the old French word “confort”!


So what happened to our old French word “confort”? It was apparently changed to “comfort” while crossing (comfortably) the English channel, then we French people realized we had lost a word in our language, so we looked for it everywhere, but as we couldn’t find it we decided to borrow the British word “comfort”, and then we changed it to “confort”, as there was no reason, according to us, to put an “m” in front of an “f”. That’s my personal theory -and this is a big joke.

More seriously, I am also thinking of the English word “circumstance” which, according to the researches I have done, comes from the French “circonstance”. The French word came from the Latin word “circumstantia”, and it was, for whatever reason, modified, then the British word was apparently borrowed from the French, although it remained more faithful to the original Latin word. A bit strange, isn’t it?

Conclusion: words are like people, they love to travel. This is what makes etymology so fascinating as a subject.

If you are level A1 or A2, you can, if you wish, skip the rest of the lesson below and go directly to the exercises. If you are B1 and above, please carry on reading.

Words starting with, or containing, "imm" or "inm", 

but that are not concerned by the spelling rule of the m, b and p.

Starting with

1) Be careful with words starting by "imm". You do have an "m" in front of the second "m", but these words are pronounced [im] instead of [ɛ̃m], like for example the word "immobile". There are 505 words starting with "imm". The full list is here.

2) There is only five words starting with "inm". These words are: 




Apart from in-manus which is Latin and means "in your hands", this "in" expresses the contrary of the word which is stuck to it. Inmanipulable means the contrary of "manipulable", that is to say: "which can not be manipulated". 

Inmélangeable means "which can not be mixed together".

And apart from "in-manus", this "in" is pronounced [ɛ̃].

You would have thought that immangeable (= which can not be eaten -often because the taste is so horrible) would have been written inmangeable, with an "n"... I apologize in the name of those who invented the French language, because this one starts with "imm".


4) Some words do not start with "inm", but contain "inm". There is 34 of them. Apart from "mainmise" and "mainmorte" (and all words derived from them, for example "mainmortable") which we have already seen and are exceptions to the m, b, p spelling rule, these are all verbs conjugated at a special tense called in French passé simple (past perfect), at the 3rd person plural (that is to say "nous" = we). 

The full list is here.

5) There are 534 words containing "imm". The full list is here.

Now, would you like to do an exercise or two about “m” in front of “m”, “b” and “p”? I am sure you would.

Exercise 1

Exercise 2

Dictation. Write the 20 words.

Once you have started the test, please enter your name and if you wish to receive a (free) personalized correction and some recommendations and feedback, enter your email address (this is optional). Your email will not be used for any other purpose than sending you this correction. 

Click on the button "Submit" (or "Envoyer") to send your exercise.

By entering your personal information in the form below (level of language, name, and email address if you wish to receive a correction or a feedback) you give your explicit consent to the collection, the storage and the use of your data. Please contact me if you wish your data to be deleted. It will be done as soon as I have received your request.

Tomber, bonbon(s), ensemble, septembre, bonbonnière, novembre, décembre, impossible, ombre, lampe, embonpoint, imprimer, champignon, emmener, champion, compote, comprendre, important, chambre, simple.

Lesson reference number: SPEL-A1-CZQ4

Looking for something?