Fun With Grammar: Here’s to you, Mrs Vandertramp

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posted by Simon Kemp

Some verbs are special. Learning French, you soon get to know about the small list of verbs that don’t behave like the others when you put them in the passé composé. They conjugate with être instead of avoir, and their past participle agrees with the subject of the verb. So rather than ‘ils ont donné’ or ‘elle a fait’, you get ‘ils sont partis’ or ‘elle est tombée’. They are the Mrs Vandertramp verbs, and they are these:

Monter (elle est montée)

Retourner (elle est retournée)

Sortir (elle est sortie)

Venir (elle est venue)

Aller (elle est allée)

Naître (elle est née)

Descendre (elle est descendue)

Entrer (elle est entrée)

Rester (elle est restée)

Tomber (elle est tombée)

Rentrer (elle est rentrée)

Arriver (elle est arrivée)

Mourir (elle est morte)

Partir (elle est partie)

Good old Mrs Vandertramp, the helpful mnemonic-lady made up of the initial letters of all the special verbs. Except… something about her has always bothered me. Why is there only one ‘D’ in the name, when both descendre and devenir are on the special-verb list? Presumably it’s because devenir is just venir (which is in the name), plus a prefix. But in that case, why does the mnemonic include both entrer and rentrer? And if it includes rentrer, why not revenir, remonter, redescendre, redevenir, retomber, repartir, ressortir (note the extra ‘s’ in that one), and renaître? Adding in Mrs Vandertramp’s husband to make ‘Dr & Mrs’ (as in the image at the top of the post) is hardly going to solve that problem.

No, if you want a mnemonic that covers all the subject-agreeing être-conjugating verbs, you’re going to have to memorize this one:

Arrrrrrrrrrr, Stamp DVD Men !

…which, funnily enough, is also the official motto of the International Association for Video Piracy.

video pirate
A video pirate yesterday

 

There is another version of the Mrs Vandertramp mnemonic which I learned at school: the less memorably named Mrs Daventramp, who just includes a letter for each of the thirteen basic verbs, missing out any which are the same with an added prefix. It means you don’t have to include any of  the endless ‘re-‘ prefixes, but also means you still have to be careful not to forget about devenir and redevenir (to become again or turn back into), which are included in the V for venir. Alternatively, if you want to strip out all the ‘re-‘ prefixes and leave in all the rest, you could acquaint yourself with Mr D. M. Vaderpants, who has descendre and devenir in his name, but none of the superfluous ‘re-‘ derivatives.

 

Vaderpants (2)
Mr D. M. Vaderpants yesterday.

 

The problem with all of these mnemonics is that in some ways they actually make things more difficult than they really are. The special verbs naturally form into groups, either by being opposites in meaning or by adding prefixes, and the mnemonics split up these groups and shuffle everything around randomly. In fact, with a bit of fiddling about, we can reduce the Mrs Vandertramp verbs to a simple list of five, plus the related verbs to each of them. The verbs are Naître, Sortir, Partir, Aller and Monter. Behold, the N-Spam verbs!

Naître, plus its opposite, mourir, and with a prefix, renaître.

Sortir, plus its opposite, entrer, and their prefixed versions, ressortir and rentrer.

Partir. What’s the opposite of depart/leave/go? Obviously, it’s arrive/return/stay. The three verbs arriver, retourner and rester are all opposites of partir. Plus, there’s the prefix version, repartir (to set out again, not to be confused with répartir, to share out).

Aller, plus its opposite, venir, and the two prefixes, devenir and revenir.

Monter means to rise or ascend, and also has two opposites: fall (tomber) or descend (descendre), plus a prefixed version of all three: remonter, redescendre, retomber.

 

N-Spam. Like N-Dubz, but with spam.

Really though, unless you’re going to carry a piece of paper around with you and refer to it whenever you need to say something in the passé composé,  these lists are only useful to get you started. What you need to do is keep speaking, listening, and reading in French until ‘elle est tombée’ sounds right and natural to you, and ‘elle a tombé’ sounds weird and wrong. Once you get to that point, you’re thinking like a French person. Mrs Vandertramp has become a part of you, and will live somewhere inside your head for evermore.

 

ADVANCED VANDERTRAMPING

To finish with, a few extra notes and complications, as Mrs Vandertramp is never quite as straightforward as people might like her to be.

1. All the Vandertramp verbs are intransitive, meaning they don’t have an object: you can go, but you can’t go something, in the way that you can do something, eat something, see something. Some of the verbs on the list in fact have a transitive version. ‘Monter’ can be used intransitively as a Vandertramp verb, ‘elle est montée’ (she went up), but also transitively, meaning either to go up something, or to take something up. In that usage, it’s no longer a Vandertramp verb, but conjugates with avoir: elle a monté l’escalier;  elle a monté les valises dans la chambre. You can also use five other verbs from the list in the same way: (re)descendre quelque chose (go/bring down something), remonter quelque chose (go back up something/wind something up), rentrer quelque chose (bring something in), retourner quelque chose (turn something over), and (res)sortir quelque chose (take something out).

2. Retourner gets a proper place on the Vandertramp list, unlike rentrer, revenir, remonter, redescendre, redevenir, retomber, repartir, ressortir and renaître, which are optional extras. That’s because the others are all Vandertramp verbs even without the re- prefix, but not retourner. The verb tourner does exist in French, but it’s conjugated with avoir: elle a tourné la clef/la clef a tourné.

3. There’s one more Vandertramp verb we haven’t mentioned. Décéder, a more formal synonym for mourir, is not as commonly used as the other ones, so often gets overlooked, but it works in just the same way as the rest of them.

4. There are four other verbs in French, which, while not actually being part of the Vandertramp list, might perhaps be described as Vandertramp-ish. Accourir (to rush up) and apparaître (to appear) can take être or avoir, as you prefer, with no change in meaning. The same goes for passer (to pass), which is more often treated as a Vandertramp verb than not. (The exception is the phrase ‘passer pour’, to pass as or be taken for, which always takes avoir: ‘il a passé pour intelligent’ – ‘people believed he was clever’.) Lastly, demeurer is a Vandertramp verb when used in the sense of ‘remain’ (elle est demeurée fidèle), but not in the sense of ‘live (somewhere)’ (elle a demeuré à Marseille).

5.  Oh, and one other thing about monter: as well as taking avoir when used transitively, it can also take avoir when it means that the level of something has risen: le fleuve a monté; les prix ont monté. In this sense, it’s being the opposite of the non-Vandertramp verb, baisser, rather than of descendre.

6. Lastly, there are no other Vandertramp verbs. Reflexive verbs  take être in the passé composé too, but they don’t agree with the subject, as we talked about here. Also, you may occasionally think you’ve come across an extra Vandertramp verb in a sentence like ‘la ville est tout à fait changée’, but that’s because past participles can sometimes be used as  adjectives, just as you’d say ‘la ville est tout à fait différente’. In the passé composé, changer takes avoir and doesn’t agree with the subject: elle a beaucoup changé récemment. 

Mrs Vandertramp yesterday.

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