Tag Archives: grammar

Spot the Grammatical Error! (Tattoo Edition)

posted by Simon Kemp

You know those kinds of language exercises where you have to spot the grammar, spelling or punctuation mistake and correct it? Well, here’s one.  What makes this one a little different is that every one of the errors below has been permanently inked on skin by French tattooists. The lucky clients can either wear the mistakes for ever as a sort of walking grammar test, or negotiate to find out how much it costs to add an extra circumflex to an existing design.

Your task below: spot and correct all the errors in the tattoos pictured. (We’ll tell you how many mistakes there are to find.) Answers at the end of the post.

1. One grammar mistake to find:

choix

2. One grammar/spelling mistake to find (not counting the colloquial shortening of “ne” to “n'”):

tattoo-758x398

3. Three mistakes to find in this one:

tatouage3

Answers:

1. ‘Si j’avais le choix entre toi et la vie, je te choisirais car tu est ma seule raison de vivre.’ Should be ‘tu es’, not ‘tu est’. The whole sentence means: ‘If I had to choose between you and life, I’d choose you as you’re my only reason to live.’

2. ‘La vie n’se respire qu’une seule fois, Et le bonheur ça se vie sans aucune loi.’ Should be ‘ça se vit’ (from ‘se vivre’, to be lived), not ‘ça se vie’. The sentence means: ‘Life is only breathed once. And happiness is lived without any laws.’

3. ‘Ma vie à commencée le jour ou tu es né.’ Should be: ‘Ma vie a commencé le jour où tu es né’ (‘a’ not ‘à’;  ‘commencé’ not ‘commencée’; and ‘où’ not ‘ou’). The whole sentence means: ‘My life began on the day you were born.’

 

How did you do?

5/5: Excellent! There may be a lucrative career for you as a French tattoo artist.

3/5 or more: Well done! You can perform a useful public service as a French tattoo corrector.

2/5 or less: Good try! Maybe take a dictionary along with you when getting any French tattoos of your own, though.

 

These and many more French grammar fails are to be found at Bescherelletamere.fr.

Crash Course: Disagreements

348a28e5822c6162b07d2ca083440621posted by Simon Kemp

It’s the Easter holidays, which means revision time for many of you. Adventures on the Bookshelf is always keen to help, so over the next three weeks, here are our posts on three particularly tricky aspects of French grammar. You can find our full archive on language by clicking the ‘French language’ category tab above the title.

First up, this sentence:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe.

It means, ‘She’s broken her leg’, or literally, ‘She’s broken the leg to herself.’ French grammar tests are always full of women breaking their legs, cutting their fingers, washing their faces, not due to a worrying obsession with female body parts, but to see whether you’ll translate it correctly as:

Elle s’est coupé le doigt.

Elle s’est lavé le visage. (etc.)

…or whether you’ll succumb to the temptation to add an extra ‘e’ to those past participles. So why is it cassé, coupé and lavé, not cassée, coupée and lavée? To answer that, we need a little excursion into the rules of French agreement.

As you probably know, past participles in French, like the ‘cassé’ of ‘elle s’est cassé la jambe’, agree with a preceding direct object. (There is the exception of the sixteen special verbs whose past participle agrees with the subject — Elle est allée, Ils sont tombés, etc — but they don’t concern us here.)

So:

‘Où est ta voiture?’

‘Je l’ai vendue.’

There’s an ‘e’ on the end of the participle, ‘vendue’, because the ‘l’ is the direct object of the verb vendre (I sold it), because it’s feminine (the ‘l’ is a ‘la’, referring to ‘la voiture’), and because it precedes the word vendue in the sentence.

On the other hand, there’s no agreement here:

J’ai vendu ma voiture.

because there’s a direct object, ‘ma voiture’, but it comes after the participle in the sentence.

And there’s no agreement here:

Je leur ai vendu ma voiture.

because the ‘leur’ preceding the participle is an indirect object (I sold my car to them.)

OK so far?

 

The problem comes when you have something in the sentence that’s clearly a preceding object of the verb, but you’re not sure whether it’s direct or indirect. Sometimes it’s easy to tell, because they’re obviously two different words. The French direct object pronouns, le, la and les (him/her/it, them) are clearly different from their indirect equivalents, lui and leur (to him/to her/to it, to them).

But more often than not, they’re spelled and pronounced the same. The direct object, ‘us’ in French is ‘nous’, and the indirect object, ‘to us’ in French is also ‘nous’. Even so, they’re still two different words every bit as much as the bark on the outside of a tree is different from the bark that next door’s dog does when you’re trying to get to sleep. Here are the direct object pronouns in French:

me —- me

te —- you

le —- him/it

la —- her/it

nous —- us

vous —- you

les —- them

And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to me

te —- to you

lui —- to him/to her/to it

nous —- to us

vous —- to you

leur —- to them

The same rules apply for pronouns with reflexive verbs, which are the ones where the object of the verb is the same as the subject (i.e. when you’re doing things to yourself). Here are the direct object pronouns for reflexive verbs:

me —- myself

te —- yourself

se —- himself/herself/itself

nous —- ourselves

vous —- yourself/yourselves

se —- themselves

And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to myself

te —- to yourself

se —- to himself/to herself/to itself

nous —- to ourselves

vous —- to yourself/to yourselves

se —- to themselves

With the reflexive pronouns, as you’ll have noticed,  every single one of them looks the same in direct and indirect forms. It’s a cunning ploy by the French to confuse language learners as much as possible.

 

So, finally, back to our original sentence. The key to understanding how it works is to remember that there are two different ‘se’s. There’s the direct object ‘se‘:

Elle s’est lavée. – She washed herself.

Here, ‘se’ (herself) is the direct object of the verb laver. (What did she wash? She washed herself.)

And there’s the indirect object ‘se‘:

Elle s’est lavé le visage. – She washed the face to herself

…which is just the French way of saying that she washed her face, I know, but the literal translation helps me keep the grammar straight in my head. Here, ‘se‘ (to herself) is the indirect object of the verb laver.

(By the way, it’s important not to get distracted by the fact that reflexive verbs take être rather than avoir in the perfect tense: ‘Elle s’est lavé le visage’. That doesn’t make them part of that list of sixteen verbs with past participles that agree with the subject — aller, tomber, etc. — which also  take être. Reflexive verbs follow the same rules of agreement as avoir verbs.)

 

And the same goes for:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe. – She broke the leg to herself.

The verb has a direct object, la jambe (What did she break? The leg), but it is not preceding the participle: it comes after.

And the verb has a preceding object pronoun, the reflexive pronoun ‘se’, but it is not a direct object: it’s an indirect object (to herself).

Therefore, there’s no preceding direct object.

Therefore, no agreement.

Therefore, cassé.

Thank you, and good night.

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

Picture

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.

Terry Pratchett, Death and Grammar

posted by Simon Kemp

As you probably know, Sir Terry Pratchett, beloved author of the Discworld novels, died on Thursday. In France — yes, he was beloved by the French as well — his death was reported by Libération as follows:

Peut-être la mort s’est-elle approchée et lui a dit «ENFIN, MONSIEUR TERRY, NOUS DEVONS CHEMINER ENSEMBLE». Car c’est ainsi, en lettres capitales, que parle la Mort, personnage récurrent de l’œuvre immense de Terry Pratchett, décédé aujourd’hui à l’âge de 66 ans.

Perhaps death approached and said to him, AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. That’s how Death speaks, in capital letters. Death is a recurring character in the immense series of novels written by Terry Pratchett, who died today at the age of sixty-six.

(The full article is here.)

In the comments below the online version of the article are the same expressions of sadness that have accompanied every mention of Pratchett’s death on this side of the Channel. But not all of them. The first comment is cross, as are one or two of the others. And they are cross about grammar.

Sérieusement Libé : peut-être également la mort s’est-IL approché de lui. Car pour Sir Pratchett la Mort est un mâle, un mal nécessaire.

And again:

Il fallait écrire : Peut-être la mort s’est-il approché et lui a dit «ENFIN, MONSIEUR TERRY, NOUS DEVONS CHEMINER ENSEMBLE»

What they are annoyed about is the use of the feminine pronoun, elle in the original article to refer to Death.

What’s going on? Well, la mort in French is a feminine noun, so the correct pronoun to refer to it should be elle, as in this line by the Romantic writer, Chateaubriand:

La mort est belle; elle est notre amie.

In Discworld, however, Death is most definitely male. He’s a guy with a skull face and a big scythe who rides around on a pale horse called Binky, ushering souls into the next life. Pratchett’s creation unintentionally trespasses on one of the most fraught areas of the French language: the question of what to do when the grammatical system of masculine and feminine nouns comes into conflict with the real-world existence of male and female people (as well as male and female animals, supernatural entities or symbolic personifications).

In all such cases, as Libé failed to realize, the pronoun is determined by the actual gender of the person, not by the grammatical gender of the noun.

So, for example, une star/une vedette (a movie star) and une sentinelle (a sentinel) are feminine nouns that can refer to men:

La sentinelle s’est assoupie. Il n’avait pas bien dormi la nuit précédente.

Gaspard Ulliel est une star francaise. Les anglais le connaissent surtout pour des publicités d’une marque d’après-rasage, dans lesquelles il dit: “I am nert going to be ze person I am expected to be any more.”

Feminine nouns that can apply to men are rare. (Apart from la personne, those are the only two I can think of right now.) Masculine nouns that can apply to women are far more common, and include many job titles and other roles in life, for instance:

un architecte – architect

un juge – judge

un médecin – doctor

un professeur – teacher

un témoin – witness

The same rule applies as above, so:

Mon professeur de français s’appelle Mme Vergnaud. Elle est très intelligente.

This rule, however, has turned into a feminist issue, with many women objecting to being referred to in the masculine, and with new feminine alternatives being coined, such as une avocate for a female lawyer, or une écrivaine for a woman writer. Sometimes it’s simply the article that’s at issue, as with the ongoing debate as to whether it’s acceptable to continue to refer to women government ministers as madame le ministre, or if madame la ministre is more appropriate. Here is a nice video of a male politician calling his female colleagues ‘madame le ministre’, and ‘madame le président‘ to their evident displeasure, and getting very much owned in response when they refer to him as ‘monsieur la députée’:

“Monsieur la députée”, “Madame le président” by LeHuffPost

Libération, at least, managed to sort itself out, when, a little later the same day, they published a proper article on Pratchett. Not only do they get Death’s gender right, they also add a little explanation as to who he is and what he does:

A la toute fin, la Mort, avec sa faux et son long manteau noir, vient tous nous chercher. Il (car, il a beau s’appeler «La Mort», c’est un homme, si vous ne le saviez pas) ne voulait pas forcément que tout cela soit terminé. Il n’y a pas d’intérêt particulier, c’est simplement son travail. Jeudi, Il est venu chercher, peut-être à regret, l’un de ses plus grands amis : Terry Pratchett.

At the very end, Death, with his scythe and his long black cloak, comes for us all. He (for, even if he’s called ‘La Mort’, he’s a man, in case you didn’t know), didn’t necessarily want it all to end. He doesn’t have any particular axe to grind, it’s just his job. On Thursday, he came, perhaps unwillingly, for one of his greatest friends: Terry Pratchett.

P.S. Before I saw the Pratchett grammar nerds, I was planning to use this post to urge you to go and see Suite française, a rare chance to see some French literature on the big screen (albeit an English-language Hollywood adaptation of some French literature, but we take what we can get). I was also going to tell you the story of how Suite française came to be published, which is if anything a more extraordinary story than Suite française itself. I’ll save it for the DVD, but in the meantime, here’s the trailer:

P.P.S. That first comment from the grammar nerd I quoted, the one that began, Sérieusement Libé, also contained an untranslatable pun, which the commenter no doubt thought was very clever. Did you spot it?

Fun with Grammar: Cooking with “de”

Today’s task is to make this cake:

 

To assist you, you will be provided with a state-of-the art kitchen, plus a glamorous French movie star to pass you the ingredients as you need them. You can choose between Gaspard Ulliel or Ludivine Sagnier:

gaspard
Gaspard
Ludivine

 

There are two slight issues with Gaspard and Ludivine. The first is that neither of them speaks a word of English, so all your instructions will have to be in French. (To be fair, Gaspard is able to tell people in English that he’s nert going to be ze person ′e is expected to be any more, but that’s frankly more of a hindrance than a help in a baker’s assistant. You should maybe have gone for Ludivine.) Secondly, like many film stars, they’re actually not that bright, and need to be told clearly and precisely what to do and when to do it.

To start with, then, you’re going to have to show them each of the ingredients. Go through the list below with your chosen assistant. The French is in magical inviso-text that you can reveal by highlighting it. (I’ll include all the answers at the bottom of the post too, in case you’re on a touch screen and can’t highlight easily.)

Voici le sucre. (the sugar)

Voici la tablette de chocolat. (the chocolate bar)

Voici les pépites de chocolat. (the chocolate chips)

blue-polka-dot-mixing-bowl_3

 

 

 

 

 

 

Voici un bol. (a bowl)

Voici une cuillère en bois. (a wooden spoon)

Voici des oeufs. (some eggs)

Voici du beurre. (some butter)

Voici de la farine. (some flour)

That list, as you may have noticed, covers all the articles French uses. There are definite and indefinite articles for masculine and feminine, singular and plural, countable and uncountable nouns. If you’re not familiar with that last distinction (also known as ‘count’ and ‘mass’ nouns), it’s simply that in English and French, some things can be counted (one egg, two eggs/un oeuf, deux oeufs) and some things can’t ( you can have some flour/de la farine, but you can’t have two flours/deux farines).

As in English the definite article le/la gets used for both countable (the egg/l’oeuf) and uncountable (the flour/la farine) nouns.  The indefinite article un/une can ONLY be used for countable nouns (an egg/un oeuf), which is why we need to use the alternative du/de la, sometimes called the partitive article, for uncountables (some flour/de la farine).

Now it’s time to get baking! As you require each item, you need to tell your glamorous assistant that you need it, using the construction ‘j’ai besoin de’, I need, or literally translated, I have need of. That will mean combining the French de, meaning of, with each of the possible French articles. Inviso-text on!

 

J’ai besoin du sucre. (I need the sugar)

J’ai besoin de la tablette de chocolat. (I need the chocolate bar)

J’ai besoin des pépites de chocolat. (I need the chocolate chips)

blue-polka-dot-mixing-bowl_3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J’ai besoin d’un bol. (I need a bowl)

J’ai besoin d’une cuillère en bois. (I need a wooden spoon)

J’ai besoin d’oeufs. (I need some eggs)

J’ai besoin de beurre. (I need some butter)

J’ai besoin de farine. (I need some flour)

How did you do? As you can see, it’s basically a matter of grammar maths, of knowing what you get when you add de/of to each of the three definite articles, the three indefinite articles, and the two partitive articles (the reason there are only two partitive articles is because uncountable nouns don’t have plurals). Here’s the arithmetic laid out:

 

de+le = du

de+la=de la

de+les= des

de+un= d’un

de+une=d’une

de+des= de

de+du= de

de+de la= de

As usual, the French have confused things by having different words that look and sound identical scattered through the system. So du, de la and des can either mean ‘some’ or ‘of the’ depending on their function in the sentence. This doesn’t help the learner who’s trying to memorize how it all works. One thing that may help, though, is to notice that in the last three sums on the list, where you’re adding ‘de’ to ‘du/de la/des’, the ‘de’ simply takes precedence over the ‘du/de la/des’, which disappears.

If you have all that straight, there are two further advanced baking manoeuvres you may like to try in order to complete the lesson. Firstly, what happens when your feckless celebrity whines that they don’t have the ingredient you need (je n’ai pas…)? (Answer below.)

Definite articles work the same way in negative sentences (I don’t have the…) as they do normally : Je n’ai pas le sucre. Je n’ai pas la tablette de chocolat. Je n’ai pas les pépites de chocolat. However, ALL the indefinite and partitive articles (I don’t have a/any…) are replaced by de: Je n’ai pas de bol. Je n’ai pas de cuillère en bois. Je n’ai pas d’oeufs. Je n’ai pas de beurre. Je n’ai pas de farine.

And finally, what difference does it make if the hapless screen-idol hands you a substandard item, and you’re forced to tell them to give you another one/the other one (use ‘autre’) ?

Adding an adjective before the noun makes no difference to seven of the eight sentences: Donne-moi l’autre sucre; donne-moi l’autre tablette de chocolat, etc. The one exception is with ‘des’ meaning ‘some’, which changes to ‘de’ before an adjective. So you’d say ‘Donne-moi des oeufs’ for ‘give me some eggs’, but ‘donne-moi d’autres oeufs’ for ‘give me some other eggs’. (This rule isn’t always strictly obeyed by French speakers, by the way, but you need to use it if you’re speaking or writing formally.)

I hope that was useful. At least Gaspard seems to have enjoyed it.

gaspard ulliel

Inviso-free answers:

Voici le sucre. Voici la tablette de chocolat. Voici les pépites de chocolat. Voici un bol. Voici une cuillère en bois. Voici des oeufs. Voici du beurre. Voici de la farine.

J’ai besoin du sucre. J’ai besoin de la tablette de chocolat. J’ai besoin des pépites de chocolat. J’ai besoin d’un bol. J’ai besoin d’une cuillère en bois. J’ai besoin d’oeufs. J’ai besoin de beurre. J’ai besoin de farine.

Definite articles work the same way in negative sentences (I don’t have the…) as they do normally : Je n’ai pas le sucre. Je n’ai pas la tablette de chocolat. Je n’ai pas les pépites de chocolat. However, ALL the indefinite and partitive articles (I don’t have a/any…) are replaced by de: Je n’ai pas de bol. Je n’ai pas de cuillère en bois. Je n’ai pas d’oeufs. Je n’ai pas de beurre. Je n’ai pas de farine.

Adding an adjective before the noun makes no difference to seven of the eight sentences: Donne-moi l’autre sucre; donne-moi l’autre tablette de chocolat, etc. The one exception is with ‘des’ meaning ‘some’, which changes to ‘de’ before an adjective. So you’d say ‘Donne-moi des oeufs’ for ‘give me some eggs’, but ‘donne-moi d’autres oeufs’ for ‘give me some other eggs’. (This rule isn’t always strictly obeyed by French speakers, by the way, but you need to use it if you’re speaking or writing formally.)

 

Fun with Grammar: ‘She has broken the leg to herself!’

posted by Simon Kemp

I’d like this blog to be useful for all aspects of studying French, including grammar, but I don’t want reading it to feel too much like work. So here’s a new thread of occasional posts, offering a highly unsystematic dabble here and there in the French language to come up with a few choice nuggets of tricky grammar.  I’m going to pick out the things I wish someone had put straight for me when I was learning… the things examiners slip into the grammar questions in our first-year exams to trip up the unwary… the things my undergraduates are STILL getting wrong after having it pointed out half-a-dozen times….

Let’s start with this sentence:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe.

It means, ‘She’s broken her leg’, or literally, ‘She’s broken the leg to herself.’ French grammar tests are always full of women breaking their legs, cutting their fingers, washing their faces, not due to a worrying obsession with female body parts, but to see whether you’ll translate it correctly as:

Elle s’est coupé le doigt.

Elle s’est lavé le visage. (etc.)

…or whether you’ll succumb to the temptation to add an extra ‘e’ to those past participles. So why is it cassé, coupé and lavé, not cassée, coupée and lavée? To answer that, we need a little excursion into the rules of French agreement.

As you probably know, past participles in French, like the ‘cassé’ of ‘elle s’est cassé la jambe’, agree with a preceding direct object. (There is the exception of the sixteen special verbs whose past participle agrees with the subject — Elle est allée, Ils sont tombés, etc — but they don’t concern us here.)

So:

‘Où est ta voiture?’

‘Je l’ai vendue.’

There’s an ‘e’ on the end of the participle, ‘vendue’, because the ‘l’ is the direct object of the verb vendre (I sold it), because it’s feminine (the ‘l’ is a ‘la’, referring to ‘la voiture’), and because it precedes the word vendue in the sentence.

On the other hand, there’s no agreement here:

J’ai vendu ma voiture.

because there’s a direct object, ‘ma voiture’, but it comes after the participle in the sentence.

And there’s no agreement here:

Je leur ai vendu ma voiture.

because the ‘leur’ preceding the participle is an indirect object (I sold my car to them.)

OK so far?

 

The problem comes when you have something in the sentence that’s clearly a preceding object of the verb, but you’re not sure whether it’s direct or indirect. Sometimes it’s easy to tell, because they’re obviously two different words. The French direct object pronouns, le, la and les (him/her/it, them) are clearly different from their indirect equivalents, lui and leur (to him/to her/to it, to them).

But more often than not, they’re spelled and pronounced the same. The direct object, ‘us’ in French is ‘nous’, and the indirect object, ‘to us’ in French is also ‘nous’. Even so, they’re still two different words every bit as much as the bark on the outside of a tree is different from the bark that next door’s dog does when you’re trying to get to sleep. Here are the direct object pronouns in French:

me —- me

te —- you

le —- him/it

la —- her/it

nous —- us

vous —- you

les —- them

And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to me

te —- to you

lui —- to him/to her/to it

nous —- to us

vous —- to you

leur —- to them

 The same rules apply for pronouns with reflexive verbs, which are the ones where the object of the verb is the same as the subject (i.e. when you’re doing things to yourself). Here are the direct object pronouns for reflexive verbs:

me —- myself

te —- yourself

se —- himself/herself/itself

nous —- ourselves

vous —- yourself/yourselves

se —- themselves

  And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to myself

te —- to yourself

se —- to himself/to herself/to itself

nous —- to ourselves

vous —- to yourself/to yourselves

se —- to themselves

With the reflexive pronouns, as you’ll have noticed,  every single one of them looks the same in direct and indirect forms. It’s a cunning ploy by the French to confuse language learners as much as possible.

 

So, finally, back to our original sentence. The key to understanding how it works is to remember that there are two different ‘se’s. There’s the direct object ‘se:

Elle s’est lavée. – She washed herself.

Here, ‘se’ (herself) is the direct object of the verb laver. (What did she wash? She washed herself.)

And there’s the indirect object ‘se:

Elle s’est lavé le visage. – She washed the face to herself

…which is just the French way of saying that she washed her face, I know, but the literal translation helps me keep the grammar straight in my head. Here, ‘se‘ (to herself) is the indirect object of the verb laver.

(By the way, it’s important not to get distracted by the fact that reflexive verbs take être rather than avoir in the perfect tense: ‘Elle s’est lavé le visage’. That doesn’t make them part of that list of sixteen verbs with past participles that agree with the subject — aller, tomber, etc. — which also  take être. Reflexive verbs follow the same rules of agreement as avoir verbs.)

 

And the same goes for:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe. – She broke the leg to herself.

The verb has a direct object, la jambe (What did she break? The leg), but it is not preceding the participle: it comes after.

And the verb has a preceding object pronoun, the reflexive pronoun ‘se’, but it is not a direct object: it’s an indirect object (to herself).

Therefore, there’s no preceding direct object.

Therefore, no agreement.

Therefore, cassé.

Thank you, and good night.

Is French a Sexist Language?

la rousse

posted by Simon Kemp

 The French newspaper Le Monde has been taking a look at the question, in an interesting article (in French) that you can read online here. There are the issues we know about, of course, such as the rule that ‘le masculine l’emporte sur le féminin’ in sentences where both genders govern an adjective, pronoun or participle ending:

Les femmes sont rentrées chez elles.

but

 Les femmes et le garçon sont rentrés chez eux.

 

We know too about the vexed question of masculine job titles for professional women :

Madame le maire

Madame le ministre

Madame le professeur

Both of these grammar points cause controversy, and there have been calls for reform, which we’ll revisit another time. Le Monde, though, takes a different tack, and examines pairs of words, which grammatically stand as simply the masculine and feminine forms of the same word. In all the cases Le Monde picks out, though, the masculine form has a positive or neutral connotation, while the feminine form has a derogatory, and often sexual meaning:

– Un gars peut être  bon ou brave, c’est-à-dire un mec sympa. Une garce même belle, restera une garce.

(‘Un gars’ translates more or less as a ‘lad’, but ‘une garce’ means a bitch.)

– Un courtisan est un proche du roi, une courtisane est trop proche du roi

(‘Un courtisan [a courtier] is close to the king; une courtisane [a courtesan] is too close to the king.’)

– Un professionnel est un homme compétent, une professionnelle est une prostituée.

(‘A professional [applied to a man] is a skilled man; a professional [applied to a woman] is a prostitute.’)

Le Monde has several more examples, and a lively debate among readers below the line, about whether the language itself is teaching its speakers from an early age to disrespect and sexualize women. See what you think, and if you think the writer is onto something about French, are you confident that English is free of the same problems?