rentrer/revenir/retourner

What’s the difference between rentrer, revenir and retourner?

The three verbs rentrer, revenir and retourner have similar meanings related to the idea of returning. However, they are used in different contexts. Read on to learn when to use which one, then put your knowledge to the test in the exercises.

Example

Monsieur et Madame Lagrange passent leurs vacances à Singapour. Ils adorent visiter différents pays du monde, et ils ont eu un vrai coup de cœur pour cet endroit. Mais malheureusement, les vacances se finissent bientôt et ils vont devoir rentrer à la maison. Ils espèrent pouvoir revenir bientôt.

Une fois arrivée en France, Madame Lagrange demande à son mari : « Alors, quand est-ce qu’on retourne à Singapour ? »

rentrer

Rentrer literally means to re-enter. It expresses the idea of returning to a point of departure. We use this verb especially to mean go/come/get home, with home being your place of residence (house, flat, etc.) or your country of origin. Rentrer can therefore be used alone; it’s not necessary to add à la maison because it is already implied.

Examples:
À quelle heure est-ce que tu rentres ce soir ?What time are you coming home?
Quelle longue journée de travail, je suis pressée de rentrer chez moi !What a long day of work, I can’t wait to get home!
Emma habite au Venezuela depuis cinq ans, elle rentre tous les ans en France à Noël pour voir sa famille et ses amis.Emma has been living in Venezuela for five years, every year at Christmas she goes back to France to see her friends and family.

We can also use rentrer with a direct object to mean bring in.

Example:
Il va pleuvoir, rentrons vite le linge qui est en train de sécher dehors.It’s going to rain, let’s get the washing in, it’s still drying on the line.

revenir

Revenir means come back. We return to the same place where we are at the time of speaking; the destination is therefore the same as the point of departure.

Scenario 1:
Julien arrives at the cafe where his friends are waiting for him, but he realises that he has forgotten his wallet at the bakery where he stopped on the way. He says to his friends:
« Je vais chercher mon porte-monnaie chez le boulanger, je reviens dans deux minutes. »“I’m going to look for my wallet at the bakery, I’ll be back in two minutes.”
Julien is going to make the trip to the bakery, then come back to the place he just left: the cafe. In this case, we use revenir, not retourner.
Scenario 2:
Mr and Mrs Lagrange are on holiday in Singapore. They really like it here, and, just before they leave, they say to each other:
« Nous aimerions y revenir. »We’d love to come back (here).
They are still in Singapore, so they use revenir. If they were in France, they would use retourner instead.

We also use revenir when we talk about visiting someone again.

Example:
Ma grand-mère m’a demandé quand est-ce que je pourrai revenir la voir.My grandma asked me when I can come back and see here.

retourner

Retourner means to go back to a place we have already visited but are no longer in. With retourner, the destination is different to where the speaker is currently located.

Scenario 1:
Hélène gets home and realises that she has forgotten her umbrella at the post office. She says:
« Je retourne chercher mon parapluie. »I’m going back to look for my umbrella.
Her husband is at home too. She tells him:
« Je retourne chercher mon parapluie et je reviens. »I’m going back to look for my umbrella, then I’ll come back.
She uses retourner to talk about going back a place where she no longer is (the post office), and revenir to say that she will come back to the place she is currently located (home).
Scenario 2:
Mr and Mrs Lagrange are on holiday in Singapore. They really like it there, and once they are home in France they say:
« Nous aimerions y retourner. »We’d love to go back (there).
If they were still in Singapore, they would use revenir.