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.)


‘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.

Tenir Bon

Tenir bon

This is the front page of today’s edition ofthe Belgian Newspaper, Le Soir. Tenir bon means ‘stand firm’, ‘hold on’ (or, very nearly, ‘keep calm and carry on’).

If you’d like to read a Belgian view on the attacks, here is a link to Le Soir‘s front-page editorial column (which is probably too small to read in the image above), entitled ‘Brussels Attacks: This Is Not The End, It’s The Beginning’.


Bookshelf Film Club: Persepolis

posted by Simon Kemp


France has a thriving culture of comic books and graphic novels, but there’s much more to it than the Tintin and Asterix books that are the best-known exports.

La Bande dessinée (or BD) is taken seriously over there, and it’s definitely not just for kids. Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi is the author of Persepolis, a graphic-novel memoir of a childhood shuttling between Iran and Europe, and the quite literal perils of being a rebellious teenager under Iran’s Islamic Revolution.



Now a French citizen, in 2007 Satrapi teamed up with animator Vincent Paronnaud to produce a film version of the graphic novel, which won the jury prize in Cannes that year and was nominated for an Oscar.

It’s an extraordinary film, every frame hand-drawn, and often crisply beautiful or wittily surreal. (I like the sequence where Marjane catches her first European boyfriend cheating on her. The film quickly re-runs their relationship on-screen, only this time, the handsome, sophisticated young man we saw when Marjane was smitten has turned into a snaggle-toothed mummy’s-boy slob.)

Warning: some adult language in the clip below!

At the heart of this extraordinary film, though, is an entirely ordinary girl, who just wants the same as lots of people her age. She wants to listen to music, hang out with her friends, wear what she wants and study what she likes, meet boys, maybe fall in love. But whether she’s living under constant threat from the religious police in Iran, or as a lone foreigner in a cold, uncaring European city, living an ordinary life is a precarious activity, and you hold your breath as danger closes in on her.

The film’s available in the French original version with subtitles, or in a dubbed version featuring Sean Penn and other Hollywood voices. Naturally, get the original, if only to experience the full horror of Marjane’s enthusiastic off-key franglais rendition of the Rocky theme-song, Eye of the Tiger.

More translation fails

posted by Simon Kemp

As a teacher of translation studies, it’s always heartening to see evidence that it’s not time to hang up our dictionaries and hand the job over to Google Translate quite yet. Following on from this delightful example from a while back, here are a couple more cases where calling in someone with a few basic language skills might have come in handy…



(‘De rien’ can be translated as ‘you’re welcome’, but only in the specific sense of ‘that’s OK, it was no trouble’, responding to thanks.)





This one is an Irish menu. The person who took the photo has highlighted the comedy German translations, but doesn’t seem to have noticed what happened to ‘turkey and ham pie’ and ‘battered cod’ when they went into French.

Both images are from here, which has lots more translation fails into English and German.

But what’s it really like? History and Modern Languages

posted by Simon Kemp

Next in our occasional series of short films about Oxford’s various courses with modern languages comes one of our most popular combinations: History and Modern Languages. Click the video below to see students and tutors talk about the course.

You can find out all the details of the course and how to apply for it here, and details of all our courses here.