Au revoir, … Adieu

Bilingual sign in CanadaThe last post I put up on this blog announced that I was going to spend a week away in Brighton.  I’m sorry I never got back to it after that little holiday – but where better to create the next post than in bilingual Canada (I am typing this in downtown Vancouver)?  The sign shown here doesn’t have any particular linguistic meaning, and I certainly wouldn’t want you to form any negative thoughts about Canada on the basis of this temporary warning notice – I just want to show how bilingual things are at an official level – though it must be said that when I went into a large bookshop and asked if they had any French books the answer was a puzzled “No”.

Yesterday I met a Corsican woman who is a friend of my daughter, and on taking leave we both used the expression “Au revoir”.  You almost certainly know it, and you can see also how it comes about.  “Voir” is to see, “revoir” is to see again, so this is expressing the idea of “till the next time we see one another again”; “Auf Wiedersehen”, as they say in German. It is, of course, much less slangy than “See ya!”.

This explanation may be superfluous for many readers, but it strikes me that the way the words are used in French rather disguises the forms if you don’t already know them.  The “re” element gets a bit swallowed up in the rest of it, so that it comes out a bit like “Au’voir” – listen out for it, and you’ll see what I mean.

That is a cheerio for what may be a short or long time, but there is at least the assumption of another meeting.  There is another word for a longer separation, and that is “Adieu”.  This time we can look at Spanish for the corresponding words “Adiós”, once again commending the person to God, though the same meaning and origin is seen in English “Goodbye”, which in its original form was “God be with you”, before all the little bits got chipped off and collapsed in a heap.

It would take a dramatic turn of events to correct someone as they bade you “Au revoir” by saying: “Non, c’est Adieu!”.  But here I am going to be as undramatic as possible and say that I think it’s time for me to say Goodbye on this blog.  I’ve enjoyed writing it – I really have – but especially after the summer break it seems to me that I’ve done all I can in illustrating my basic premise that French isn’t a difficult language.  I hope to have given some entertainment as well as instruction – there was a seventeenth-century ideal of theatre, if I recall, which aimed to “joindre l’utile à l’agréable” – but I don’t know that anyone would thank me now for pushing things further.  Thank you for reading, and if for some reason this is one of the first posts you have read I do hope that you’ll enjoy going back over the archives.  So, to finish, here’s a bilingual postbox!  Bye!

Post box in Vancouver

The Last Post!

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Mon silence expliqué

Je dois m’excuser – je sais bien que je n’ai rien écrit récemment. La raison principale, c’est que je pars bientôt en vacances (en fait, je vais passer huit jours à Brighton, dans le Sussex), et j’ai dû préparer bien des choses à la maison, sans parler des matches de boules…

Je recommencerai mes commentaires dès mon retour.

A bientôt.

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If you’re reading this blog as a result of school or college studies you’ll almost certainly be familiar with the word “les devoirs”.  It means homework, and as such isn’t a terribly popular word.  But today I want to explore the back story of the word, concentrating on the corresponding verb “devoir” and its various meanings.  You’ll use it a lot.

The plural noun which has come to mean (school) homework naturally has a singular form: “le devoir” means duty, in the abstract sense, and “un devoir” is a duty or even a chore that one has to carry out.  There’s nothing exceptional about the nouns, but the meanings should help you appreciate that the verb “devoir” first meant to owe something, and evolved into the idea of having to do something (that is, being obligated or in some sense duty-bound to do it).  I’ll come back to illustrate the meanings later on, but first let’s look at the forms of the verb.

And before we do that, let’s remember that this is not a specifically French thing.   Spanish has the very similar word “deber”, which acts either as a noun meaning duty or as a verb meaning to have to do something, with “los deberos” meaning homework.  But anyway…

The verb “devoir” has a couple of oddities, but as we have seen elsewhere, within the category of so-called irregular verbs there are a lot of useful guidelines and common factors.  So first of all we can see it’s not an “-er” verb; therefore it must be what I’ve called an “-s,-s,-t” verb. Once you’ve learned the first person singular (“je dois“) you can easily supply the next two forms (“tu dois, il/elle doit“).  Like so many verbs that change a vowel in the singular it reverts to the vowel of the infinitive in the plural, so that we get “nous devons, vous devez” before it finishes with a flourish by going back to the modified vowel: “ils doivent”.

As I’ve said before, once you know the present tense forms of such a verb the other tenses become really easy.  The imperfect, for example, is formed on the basis of the first person plural: “je devais”; the present subjunctive uses the third person plural: “que je doive”.  You do have to remember a special form for the future, but it’s really not far from the infinitive (“je devrai”) and I’m sure you remember that the conditional is only an “s” away: “je devrais”.

The most awkard bit to remember, I suppose, is the past participle.  This is “j’ai dû”.  Note the circumflex accent here, which is present only in the basic form of the participle but not if it agrees with other words to indicate the masculine plural (“dus”), or feminine forms (“due”, “dues”).  By the way, that last sentence of mine is borderline pedantry, and I realise that if you’re interested only in speaking the language it’s irrelevant.  However, if you do have to  read or write French then you should certainly remember “dû”.

One other little digression here, again to show you that things like this aren’t dreamed up by a Committee for the Irritation of Foreign Students.  I always thought that the circumflex must have been there to distinguish the form from the partitive article seen in “J’ai mangé du pain”, but in fact it’s not so.  In Old French the form was “dëu” as it came from a Vulgar Latin form starting “debit…” (see the link with owing things?).  That “ë” gradually ceased to be pronounced, and was lost, so the circumflex was put in to indicate that loss, rather as we put in an apostrophe in English to show a missing letter: “can’t” is different from “cant”.  Anyway, it doesn’t (there’s another one!) matter how you remember it as long as you do: “j’ai dû”.

I’ve gone through that list of tenses because they allow such a huge range of meaning for this highly versatile verb.   Linked as it is to the idea of duty or obligation it clearly expresses the idea of having to do something, where English/German/Dutch often use the verb forms “must”/”müssen”/”moeten”.   So “je dois travailler ce matin” means that I have to work this morning.  There can be some academic debate about exactly how the use of “devoir” differs from the form “il faut…” that you may already know, but it’s not worth indulging in any debate here.  Just see it as an option and learn to recognise it, whether the context indicates strict obligation or else a softer tone meaning something closer  to “I’m supposed/scheduled to…” in a phrase like “je dois partir à neuf heures”.

What of the other tenses?  Well, the conditional appears very frequently.  Thinking in English we can transliterate this as “I would have to…”, but what we almost always say is “I ought to…”, and if you think of how often you use that particular expression you’ll see how handy it is to know the French tense.  I ought to make that clearer. Je devrais rendre tout ça plus clair.  

Then we can go back a bit into the past and consider the conditional perfect – what we should have (or ought to have) done.  We looked at this tense a couple of posts ago, and saw that it mirrors English in using the conditional of the auxiliary (“j’aurais”, from “avoir”) and the past participle.  So “they should have [or: ought to have] spoken” would be “ils auraient dû parler”.

This in turn brings us back nicely to the circumflexed past participle, and to the meanings of the standard perfect tense: “j’ai dû”.  It won’t surprise you to be told that this means “I had to” or even “I have had to”.  But there’s an alternative meaning which involves another combination of English words with much the same sense. If we read that “le jeune homme a dû tomber dans la rivière” it doesn’t mean that he was under an obligation to fall into the water.  It means, rather, that he must have fallen in – that is, we suppose so.  And curiously, this “suppose” is the same word that’s involved when we say we are supposed to do something, in the sense of having to do it – once again translated, of course, by the word “devoir”.

So we’ve come full circle, really.  And after looking at these linguistic Venn diagrams, I hope you can see how frequent and important this verb “devoir” will be.   Whether it’s simply a question of owing someone something (“Tu me dois vingt euros”), or whether it’s some kind of moral obligation (“Je devrais avouer mon erreur”), the word will repay you many times over for learning the different verb forms.  In fact, it’s a very good topic for today’s “devoirs”!

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The Future Perfect

When I first wrote about the conditional, something over a year ago, it was after introducing the future tense.  There was a clear logic in this, since the formation of the conditional simply involves adding the endings of the imperfect tense (“-ais”, etc) to the future stem of any verb.  Any verb.  In other words, the conditional can be seen as a sort of secondary tense to the future. Instead of saying what I shall do it expresses what I would do in a kind of pencilled-in future.

The reason I come back to this here is because my previous post was all about the conditional perfect tense – what I would have done.  And what I’d like to show you today is that the conditional perfect once again shadows a tense based on the future – not surprisingly, it’s called the future perfect (what I shall have done).  The way life pans out, I reckon we all talk a lot more of what we would have achieved or said rather than what we will have done or said, but the future perfect certainly has its uses.  Again, it’s one of those terms which can sound quite formal and off-putting, but which are in fact understandable at a very obvious and intuitive level.  Let’s look at it in English and in French.

Picture of Roger Federer

Will have been? Has been? Was?

In a book called The Meaning of Sport Simon Barnes, former chief sports writer of The Times, noted how a lot of people were by 2005 saying that Roger Federer was the greatest tennis player of all time. Barnes wasn’t quite so sure: “I am a bit more cautious about greatness. Or perhaps I mean about tenses: perhaps we are looking at a player who, in a few years, will have become the greatest player ever.” 

In thus being careful about tenses Simon Barnes gives us a nice example of the future perfect. In his discussion of Federer he is positing himself in the future, looking back at something which has not yet happened but which (perhaps) will have happened by that future date. At some point in the future the action will be seen in the perfect tense. The English tense is simply built up from the future of the auxiliary (will have) and the past participle (happened) – and we shall see that French follows exactly the same logic.

If someone asks you out for a coffee, but you want to finish your studying first, you might say “J’aurai fini avant trois heures – je viendrai te chercher”. I’ll come and fetch/call for you – it’s obviously in the future, and so is the end of the studying (“I’ll have finished by …”). So – at risk of being boring and repetitive – all you do is put the auxiliary verb (effectively it will always be “avoir”) into the future tense and add the perfect participle.

As usual, though, French logic is a little more rigorous than the British version, and we see this most notably when dealing with the word “quand”. In an earlier post I explained how, when French speakers use “quand” to express or envisage a future time, they use the future tense as well – when you put it like that, how could anyone do anything different? English, however, smudges the tense values and muddles along using the present wherever possible even though it makes little sense: “When I’m dead I hope people remember me.”  Huh?

It won’t surprise you that the same logic applies in French when “quand” is used with the future perfect. For example: “When you’ve finished that job you’ll get your money”. In other words, when one action has been finished another will follow. Now let’s try translating it into French, first literally and then in the correct manner (note: the first, italicised version is not a model to be used outside this illustration, since it is deliberately inappropriate):

Quand tu as fini cette tâche tu auras/recevras ton argent

This literal translation of the perfect tense in English makes no sense in French because “Quand tu as fini” looks backwards to the past and describes an event that has been completed. We head off in totally the wrong direction.

Quand tu auras fini cette tâche tu auras/recevras ton argent

One action in the future is dependent on another one’s having been done. So instead of using the perfect (which has the present tense of avoir/être plus past participle) we must use the future perfect (the future of avoir/être plus that same past participle.

I would accept that this is quite an advanced tense to use, since it requires not only an awareness of an irregular auxiliary (avoiraurai in future tense) but also a feat of mental gymnastics for which our native use of English has not prepared us. The logic is straightforward, though, and as long as you can form the standard perfect tense the future perfect is very easy to model because you are simply using the future of the auxiliary. Almost certainly you will hear or see it more often than you will use it in early stages, but the above explanation should help you to recognise it and show you how it comes about.

(The photo of Roger Federer is used with thanks to Creative Commons, and in particular to Esther Lim, who uploaded it to that site.)

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The Conditional Perfect

Just clip the bits together...

Just clip the bits together…

I hope the formal title of this new tense doesn’t put you off.  Once again it’s a pretty logical and straightforward construction, and indeed shouldn’t be seen as too much of a new thing as we’ve covered so many of its elements in previous posts.   In fact, it’s rather like putting together bits of Lego. (Photo courtesy of Wikicommons: thanks.)

Before starting on the French bits, though, let me just explain the conditional perfect as a tense in English.  We know about the conditional – what we would do.  Then we have the perfect tense – broadly, what we have done.  So if you clip the two together à la Lego you end up with what you would have done: the conditional perfect.

In fact, the form of this tense has become considerably less clear in English in recent years because of the modern habit of mis-spelling the word “have”.  You often see people writing “I would of done it” – presumably this comes from hearing the sound “I would’ve done it” and either not knowing about the word “have” or else saving space in text messages. Whatever, by using “of” in this way you risk losing a sense of how the tense is formed.

Of course, errors such as this in English have no bearing on the corresponding forms in French.  So if you are happy with the basic construction [conditional tense of “to have” + past participle of verb  (in my example above, “done”)] you won’t be too surprised to learn that French does exactly the same thing.  If we stick to the verb “faire”, we know that the perfect is “j’ai fait”, and all we now need to do is to use the conditional tense of that auxiliary verb “avoir”, which is “j’aurais”; “j’aurais fait…” (I would have done…)

You may already be spotting the one (perfectly logical) exception to this general easiness.  We’ve seen that there are about 13 French verbs which do not use “avoir” in creating the perfect tense, but rather use “être”.  No problem – it’s just that there are 13 Lego bricks of a different colour to all the others.  The formation is just the same, as we use the conditional tense of “être” (“je serais…”) – as in “Sans les retards je serais arrivé avant midi” (Without the delays I would have arrived before noon).

The actual construction is as simple as that.  But of course, just as in English or other languages, this tense usually appears with another clause and therefore another verb.  In other words, it will be seen as “I would have done something if I had known what was going to happen”.   The tense which follows the “if” here is the pluperfect – it goes one stage further back in time than the first-stage perfect “I have known”.  And – quite naturally – French therefore also uses the pluperfect:

J’aurais fait quelque chose si j’avais su ce qui allait arriver.

Ils auraient gagné s’ils avaient marqué un but de plus à l’extérieur.  (They would have won if they had scored one more away goal.)

You will also come across this tense in expressions such as “On aurait dit que..”, which literally mean “You would have said that…” but which equate to more colloquial forms such as “It was as if…”.  Obviously this is referring to events in the past, so if you came across the same phrase using simply the conditional tense (“On dirait que…”) you’d be able to work out that it refers to the present (“It’s as if…”)

I can hardly think of a better example of a simple idea that is made to sound forbidding by the grammatical title.  Since that was all so easy I would even add a little note about how simple and regular the negative forms are.  As usual you just wrap the two negative elements around the part of the verb that changes – the auxiliary:

Je naurais jamais réussi sans ses interventions. (I would never have succeeded without…)

J’aurais réussi si ma femme navait pas insisté que je reste à la maison. (I would have succeeded if my wife hadn’t insisted…)

I hope that visit to linguistic Legoland was worth the effort.

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What’s Nu?

Well, I did threaten you with another joke – and since the theme of this one is directly linked to the previous one, here it is as I received it.

As before, I am going to treat this as a revision exercise, but as we covered so many topics last time, this post won’t be as long or detailed.

Encore de la nudité:

Un petit garçon se perd dans les couloirs d’un centre de remise en forme et se retrouve dans le vestiaire des femmes.
> > > > Lorsqu’il est remarqué, toute la salle se met à crier, les femmes se dépêchant de se couvrir d’une serviette.
> > > > Le petit garçon regarde tout ça avec surprise puis demande :
> > > > «Qu’est-ce qui se passe ? Vous n’avez jamais vu un petit garçon avant ?»


To summarise (and no doubt kill) the joke, a little boy gets lost in the corridors of a spa or fitness centre, and finds himself in the ladies’ changing room. They all start screaming and covering up with towels, whereupon the little boy, rather surprised, asks: “What’s up? Haven’t you seen a little boy before?”  Boom boom.

Let’s pass swiftly to the language.  First, again, the verbs.  The stand-out verbs here are reflexives.  (In the previous post we came across “se lever”, to stand up or get up.)  Here it’s worth looking at the logic behind “se perdre”.  “Perdre” as a verb means to lose.  Like its English equivalent it can be used as a transitive verb (with an object) or intransitively (without an object).  Don’t be alarmed by these new terms; I’ll explain them easily in one paragraph.

A transitive verb has an object.  So “I’ve lost my keys” is a transitive use because “keys” is the object (the thing that is lost). But if (or rather, when) I come home  from a bowls match and say “We lost” the verb is intransitive because there is no object, or at least no expressed one.  (I could of course say “We lost the match”, but it’s not necessary.)  In French we can also use “perdre” in this intransitive way (“j’ai perdu”, or “j’ai joué”).

However, in the joke, the little boy gets lost.  If we said simply “Il perd” it just means he loses, and French speakers would ask what it is that he loses: “Il perd… quoi?”   The answer is that he loses himself (or gets lost, as we would say): “il se perd”.  Not only that, but when he then finds himself (the term exists in English this time) “il se retrouve…”

Here “retrouver” as a slight variant of the basic “trouver”, but it’s worth pointing out that the expression “se trouver” is used often in French to replace the very/too basic “être”.  So “la ville se trouve dans les montagnes” or “notre maison se trouve près de la rivière” simply indicate location.

You may notice that the second paragraph contains three more reflexive verbs. First, there is the expression “se mettre à” (to start…).  Notice that English uses the present participle (they all starting shouting and screaming) whereas French has to use the infinitive after “à”.  But later in the sentence the French present participle is entirely natural to express the way the ladies cover up, because this action is shown to be going on while another one is taking place.

We also see that the covering up is expressed by a reflexive (“se couvrir”), because the verb “couvrir” means to cover, but it needs an object to satisfy the question “what are they covering?”.  (The answer is obvious in the English reflexive “cover themselves”.) And finally there is the expression “se dépêcher de [faire]” (to hurry to [do]), or to do something hurriedly.

As the little boy surveys the scene there are two very basic “-er” verbs in the present tense which require no commentary from me, but note the use of “ça” for “cela”, as shown elsewhere.

And then, right at the end, there is yet another reflexive verb “se passer”.  The word “passer” certainly exists, either as “passer le sel/la balle” (a transitive use, with something being passed), or in “Un camion passe devant la maison” (intransitive, as the lorry is going past the house, but there is no object of the verb). But here the reflexive verb is an idiom with a slightly more general meaning – roughly, to happen, or to be going on.

Finally, we have the use of the perfect tense with a negative.  Notice how what I called the negative sandwich of  “ne…jamais” ((just like “ne…pas”, etc) wraps around the bit of the verb which moves or changes – in this case, the relevant form of “avoir” – before the past participle sits at the end.  If we were using the present tense, we would say, for instance, “il ne voit jamais les dangers qui se présentent” (he never sees the dangers which occur); again you can see how “ne.. jamais” encloses the variable form of the verb.  In the perfect tense you are doing the same thing, but this time enclosing the auxiliary.

Other than the verbs there isn’t too much to comment on.  However, notice that the wonderfully versatile word “tout” comes in here with “tout ça” (all this), but also as an adjective, agreeing with the feminine singular of “toute la salle” (the whole room). Notice too, that here the verb “se met” has to be singular too – even though the image in your head may include a number of women, the form “la salle” is the crucial element.

One last point concerns the way of asking a question.  Because this is a very informal way of speaking, on the part of a small child moreover, the sentence simply follows the pattern of a straight statement, with only the question mark (on the page) or the pitch of the voice (when spoken) to indicate that it’s a question.  French really does go for the simple options whenever it can!

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What a Joke!

I was once told (and I believe it) that the most difficult thing to do in a foreign language is to swear properly.  And the second most difficult thing is to tell a joke.  Now I’m not going to devote a blog to telling you how to swear, but – having last night received an email with half a dozen jokes in French – I thought I might at least use one or two of them to illustrate the various points I’ve been making about language for the last couple of years.

The email I got was titled “L’Innocence des enfants”, and I surely don’t need to translate that.  So here goes with the first one:


Je conduisais avec mes trois jeunes enfants un soir d’été chaud lorsqu’une femme dans une décapotable devant nous se lève et nous salue de la main.
> > > > Elle était complètement nue ! J’étais encore sous le choc quand mon petit garçon de 5 ans assis sur le siège arrière dit : Maman! La dame ne porte pas sa ceinture de sécurité !”


I know that the best way to destroy a joke is to explain it.  What I don’t know is how much of this joke you understood.  Obviously there is the issue of vocabulary.  So if you didn’t know all the words, a “décapotable” is a convertible car, “saluer de la main” would be to give someone a wave, and “une ceinture” is a belt.  I guess everyone now understands the joke.  (I didn’t say it was hilarious, just amusing!)

So let’s look at it from a language learner’s point of view. First, the tenses.  How many verbs can you spot here?  I ask this because if you are new to a language it is so important to be able to spot the verbs in a sentence.  I can see seven.  To pick on the most important, “conduisais” is what tense?  You may say that the “-ais” ending is shared by the imperfect and the conditional.  But here the issue isn’t in doubt, and not only because this is a story about past events.  Why?  Well, as explained in the relevant post, the conditional adds the “-ais” ending to the “future stem”, which for most verbs is very close to the infinitive – for the verb “conduire” it would be “conduirait”.  By contrast, the imperfect is formed on the basis of the “nous” form of the present tense (“conduisons”), and the “s” of “conduisait” makes it absolutely clear that this is the imperfect.  This is the tense which indicates an unfinished action: the woman telling the story was driving along.  We don’t know when that started, or finished; it was simply an ongoing action.

Don’t worry, it’s not going to be as long on all the bits!  The other imperfects are forms of “être“: “était” (third person to describe the woman in the drop-head car) and “étais” (referring to the first-person teller of the story).  The woman in the drop-head was naked (not suddenly naked, she had been so for some time), and the driver was already feeling shocked when her son came out with his little observation.

Illustration of present tense in  jokesThe most unusual tense, in one way, is the present.  Odd simply because it is not what you expect when referring to the past.  But when we tell jokes in English we often use the present to describe something that is supposed to have happened (“So this guy buys a parrot, and…”).  The effect is to add immediacy (here, “[she] gets up and gives us a wave”). Of course, the present tense at the very end of the joke, as the child points out that the woman isn’t wearing her seat belt, is an entirely natural present tense – in the negative form, notice.

This leaves us with just one more verb (“dit”), and here there is an extra twist, in that this particular form can be either the present or the past historic of “dire” (to say).  In a sense, it really doesn’t matter, but anyway, one would imagine that in a chatty story like this, with no great literary pretensions, it would hardly be the past historic – and in the previous paragraph of the story there’s already another example of  an imperfect followed by the present, so we can imagine this translates as “my son says…” or “my son goes…”

Again, let me stress that you don’t have to be analysing tenses like this all the time you’re speaking or listening.  I’m just showing how you would work things out if you were unsure.

Elsewhere, notice how the adjective “jeune” not only agrees with the noun that it qualifies (it adds an “s” because “enfants” is plural), but it also precedes that noun – it’s one of the small group which regularly do this.  Contrast that with “chaud” which follows the word (in this case a phrase) to which it refers: a warm summer evening.  Meanwhile, still with adjectives, you’ll have seen that the lady (as the little boy calls her) is “nue”, with a final “e” for feminine agreement.  A man would have been “nu”.

There’s a nice adverb too.  Can you see it?   It illustrates the rule we looked at whereby you make an adverb by adding “-ment” to the feminine form of the corresponding adjective, So, because “complet” becomes “complète” in the feminine, the adverb is “complètement”.

There’s one other point to do with verbs, and it concerns the use of the word “assis”, to describe the boy sitting on the back seat.  Notice here that whereas English uses the present participle, French uses the past participle (it’s from the verb “s’asseoir””, to sit down – and you can see where we get the word Assizes).  The idea isn’t difficult to grasp.  If French were to use the present participle it would mean that the boy was gently or visibly in the act of sitting down.  Clearly that’s not we understand: he is seated (or as we sometimes say in English, “sat”) in the back.  The action has already taken place, and we are describing a state (of being seated), so the past participle of French is entirely logical, I hope you’ll agree.

Finally, I recall pointing out the uses of the word “lorsque” to equate to “quand” (= when).  In this joke, as I received it, both words are used, and are basically interchangeable.  There is no particular rule about this, and it’s a stylistic choice.  (If that sounds a bit puzzling, or odd, just think of how speakers of English will vary between “because”, “since”, “for”,  or “as”.) It’s not difficult – it’s just the way living languages live.

By now we have perhaps extracted any last drop of humour from the joke, in the way that we have squeezed it dry linguistically.  But it’s still good to have looked at some idiomatic French, to show that the things we’ve covered in the blog really do crop in actual usage.  Oh, and there were a few more jokes in that email – prepare for a few more!

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Uses of the Present Participle

To some extent, it’s fair to say that if you can use the present participle in English you should have no trouble with the French version.  As we’ve seen, there’s a remarkable similarity between the regular formation of participles in “-ing” (English) and “-ant” (French).  Not only that, but the uses are much the same – in fact, French is perhaps the European language with the most parallels with English in this regard.

The basic uses are so simple that I don’t want to insult you by going through a long list of examples.  Sentences like “Seeing the dog run across the road, I braked sharply”, or “Making his excuses he left the party” show how we use the present participle to modify or add extra meaning to a main verb.

However, there is one usage in English which annoys careful users of the language, and which most style guides tell us to avoid.  This is what is called the hanging participle, or sometimes a dangling modifier, or even a mixture of the two terms.  Whether you want to be seen hanging or dangling is up to you, but whichever phrase you use, the effect is the same.  It’s what happens when people say, for instance: “Flying into London, Big Ben is clearly visible”.      Since the participle ought to modify the main verb this would technically mean that Big Ben is flying into London – a worrying prospect.  Of course, you have to have a surreal imagination to read the sentence that way, but I’m simply showing the effects that a hanging participle might have.

If the Big Ben example seems extreme, how about this one: “Walking across the room I saw a beautiful woman”?  Tell me what was happening in that event.  Who was doing the walking?  It’s not clear, is it?   Of course, if you said “I saw a beautiful woman walking across the room” it would be absolutely clear; or you could say “As I walked across the room…”  But by starting the sentence with “Walking” you’re letting the participle hang (or dangle) with the risk of confusion.  I won’t go into more detail here, but if you’re interested the University of Bristol has published a nice little student guide to the topic.

I raise this to remind you that we need to avoid any ambiguity or confusion in French as well, though for various technical reasons it’s less of a danger in French.  Just remember that if you’re going to start a sentence with a participle you need to make it very clear what it relates to.

Another, slightly different, use of the participle avoids any such risk of ambiguity while adding a great range of meaning.  This is the use of the present participle with “en”.  Here, “en” means by, in, on, while (etc) – a fantastically useful range of meaning.  (Technically it becomes something other than a participle, but I’m not interested in that right now and I’m sure you’re not either!)  Here are some examples:

En quittant la maison j’ai caché mes clefs.   (On leaving…)

En maniant le bois j’ai cassé la fenêtre.   (While handling…)

En gagnant le match on s’est assuré du championnat.  (By winning…)

Quite apart from the value of these flexible translations, the big thing about this construction is that it guarantees that the participle now refers to the subject of the sentence.  No dangling; no hanging!  It’s a very frequent form in French and well worth looking out for, to copy and adapt as you wish.

If we extend this one more notch, we can introduce the idea of “Tout en [+ present participle]…”  This gives the idea of “All the while”, either in the sense of two different things happening at the same time, or perhaps conceding an argument along the lines of “While I accept that…”.  So:

Tout en cuisinant, il regardait la télé.   (All the time he was cooking, he was …)

Tout en acceptant ce que vous dites… (While I accept what you say…)

You can now see that the present participle, in its various forms and adaptations, is a very valuable piece of kit in your linguistic toolbox.  It also provides the basis for other expressions that are used in such a general way that they’ve become just… expressions!  For example, “En attendant…”  (= Meanwhile), or “Chemin faisant, …”  (= On the way).   And then there’s the expression “soi-disant” (= so-called), which is used much as in English to express a rather disdainful or even disbelieving attitude.  The “soi” here is the third-person form of “moi” and “toi”, and purists might tell you that it should refer only to people, because things are in no position to call themselves anything.  That distinction is ignored in real French – indeed, the term is used even more generally if you want to cast doubt on a statement, as in “Il n’est pas venu, soi-disant parce que sa femme est malade” (He didn’t come, supposedly/allegedly because…”)

To finish, would you allow me a little riff on derivations, just to show how far these participles have infiltrated the language?  You can see that words like “pendant” or “durant” (= during) can be seen to derive from corresponding verbs meaning to hang or to last;  while the rather lovely word “nonobstant” (= notwithstanding) can be seen as a combination of “non” and a participle derived from a Latin verb obstare (= to obstruct) with its own participle obstans. Or take a word like nonchalant (either in French or in English).  This derives from an old French verb “chaloir” (to heat), which also gave us “chaud”.  The more you care about something the more you’re likely to get heated about it, so “nonchalant” means that you are not getting heated or excited.

I could go on, but I might get too excited…

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Wishin’ and Hopin’: The Gerund

“All men are humans; not all humans are men.”  This type of sentence is often made up to illustrate the difference between two categories: just because the first statement is true doesn’t mean that the second is too.  The same is true for the “-ing” words which I wrote about last time.  While it is true that all present participles in English end in “-ing” it’s not the case that all words ending in “-ing” are present participles.

In this post I need to show you one major example of this difference, because it will help enormously in understanding or expressing yourself in French.  I’m dealing with the gerund.  I was intending to refer you to some other online explanations, but when I looked them up they were (let’s be honest) rather rigorous and confusing, so I’m going to have a shot at explaining it my own way.

You remember that in the previous post I said that the present participle has the qualities both of a verb and an adjective?  Well, the distinctive feature of the gerund, which also derives from a verb, is that it acts as a noun (that is, a concept or a thing).  Look at these two examples:

  • Watching the match, I saw what a good player he is.
  • Watching too much TV is bad for you.

If you have read the previous post you will realise that the first “watching” is a straight present participle, because it qualifies (adds extra meaning to) an action or verb (“I saw”). However, the second example isn’t qualifying anything: it is itself the subject of the verb “…is bad for you”, and it represents an idea/thing/activity – in other words, it’s more like a noun.  You could say “Inactivity is bad for you”, and so on.  And when an original verb is modified in this way to have an “-ing” ending that can stand alone as a subject or object in a sentence it’s called a gerund.

Let’s take a break with a musical interlude?  Whether or not you were around in the 60s to hear this Dusty Springfield song, you may know it, and recognise that haunting intro.   And if you don’t know it -all the more reason to have a listen:

Wishin’, and hopin’, and thinkin’ and prayin’, Plannin’ and dreamin’ each night of his charms, That won’t get you into his arms…”

All these “-ing” forms describe a range of activities, all summed up by “That”.   It’s the same as saying “[That thing called] wishing is no use to you…” (though admittedly that probably wouldn’t have produced a hit single).  And it’s entirely different (in grammatical terms) from a sentence like: “Wishing and hoping for victory, the goalkeeper came up the pitch for the final corner.” Here the words describe the goalie and explain the action of moving up the pitch, and therefore are genuine present participles.  Dusty uses gerunds.  (That’s probably the first time that sentence has ever been written.)

It’s not absolutely essential to understand all this to learn French, of course.  But knowing the difference (do you see the gerund there?) will help you to understand certain expressions, and also to get some simple constructions fixed in your mind.  For example, you might see a sign “Défense de fumer” – No Smoking.    This isn’t a participle in English and it certainly isn’t in French.

Almost every (English) textbook I’ve ever read on French grammar gives the example “Voir, c’est croire”: seeing is believing.  So you may already have seen it.  But however hackneyed it is as an example, it’s a really good one for illustrating again what I’ve been saying here, that if you can mentally add the words “That activity/thing called…” to the “-ing” word, it’s a gerund, not a present participle.

Now, I said this would be brief, so I’ll leave it there.   I think we’re  safe to go on to look at some uses of the genuine present participle, without any longer worrying about the apparent ones.

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Understanding the Present Participle

They don’t have the ‘-ing’ word, do they?” The comment was made to me by a bowls opponent during a match in Worcester – it was a friendly, so the chat was quite relaxed. I’d mentioned that I’d been a French teacher, and it turned out that this guy (let’s call him Tony) had a property in France, which he’d been doing up for several years. Apparently, he didn’t speak very much to the locals, as the language was hard and… “they don’t have the ‘-ing’ word”.

What did Tony mean by “the ‘-ing’ word”? I don’t think he was referring to that rather amusing habit of taking English words and then slightly mis-applying them (“le smoking” for a dinner jacket; or “le footing” for jogging”, and so on.)  What I suspect he meant (and the bowls was serious enough to ensure we never explored this) was that whereas English has the alternative forms “I think” and “I am thinking”, French doesn’t have a precise form corresponding to the second one. As we saw in an earlier post, the French present tense covers both of those English forms, and to be able to use it you have to know the correct set of endings. I just like to think that Tony went on to read my blog.

Anyway, I want to focus here on yet another form in ‘-ing’ for which French definitely does have a very good and consistent parallel. This is known as the present participle (le participe présent).  The present participle of English verbs always ends in “-ing” (singing, talking, etc), and it’s absolutely predictable because that’s all you do – add ‘ing’ to the verb. This of course is a relief, because the past participle of English verbs will vary depending on how irregular the verb is; usually it ends in “-ed” (“I have walked”, “he has worried”) but there are lots of exceptions like “we have broken” or “they have thought”. Let’s not go there!

Let me stress again that the present participle is not the same as the continuous present tense. If I say “I am running” or “we are eating …” I’m using a verb, with a subject (“I” or “we”). But a participle isn’t a full verb – you can think of it as being part verb and part adjective – otherwise expressed, it can refer either to an action (verb) or a state (adjective). To use an English example, the word “charming” appears in the following two sentences first with a verbal function and secondly as a descriptive adjective:

  • Charming his audience, he told a series of wonderful stories.

  • As a neighbour he was quite charming.

In the first example you can see that the main verb is “he told”, with the participle “charming” adding a little detail about that action. But in the second example “charming” could easily be replaced by any other adjective, depending on your opinion of the neighbour (“suave”, “bad-tempered”, “horrible”, etc).

Have a look at these two examples also:

  • The opening movement of the symphony…

  • Opening my wallet I discovered I had no money.

In the first example “opening” is a simple adjective, for which you might have used the word “first”. The second example is clearly a verbal form – it could have started “I opened my wallet and discovered…”. There’s no mystery or clever grammar about the fact that it doesn’t do so – the present participle is just a stylistic choice.

I’ve explained this at some length because if you can understand this in relation to English, then the French forms will be no problem at all. (My apologies if your first language is not English, and if this has been hard to follow. I hope the next section on French will still be meaningful.)

In the same way that the “badge” of the present participle in English is ‘-ing’, so the corresponding ending in French is ‘-ant’. And given that the French for “to charm” is “charmer” we shouldn’t be surprised to see the participle “charmant” fulfilling exactly the same roles as its English counterpart. Translating the first two examples that I gave earlier on:

  • Charmant ses auditeurs il a raconté une série d’histoires merveilleuses

  • Comme voisin il était tout à fait charmant.

You can now see (I hope) that the forms and essential usages in the two languages really do have remarkable similarities. The only big difference to watch out for – and one which is entirely consistent with our earlier explanation of adjectives – is that whereas the participle used as a verb is invariable (that is, it does not change its form to match the word it refers to) the adjectival form will be modified to agree in number and gender with the person or thing that it describes – just like any other adjective:

  • Changeant sa route, elle a décidé d’aller visiter Paris

  • Elle réagit de façon différente selon ses émotions changeantes

The essential difference is that in the first sentence the present participle is describing an action, and is a form of the verb in question; therefore it does not change. In the second sentence it is an adjective describing the feminine plural noun “émotions”, and so it naturally agrees.

So we now know that the signature ending of the present participle is “-ant”. Always. And in order to make a standard present participle, all you have to do is replace the “-ent” of the “ils” form of the present tense of the verb with this “-ant” ending. If you think of it this way it will allow you to make the correct form of verbs like “finir”, (present tense “ils finissent” and a present participle “finissant”), or “partir” (“ils partent”, so present participle ”partant”).

Admittedly there is no rule-based way of learning the fairly small list of irregular forms. The first three are the regular mischief-makers:

  • Etre → Étant

  • Avoir → Ayant

  • Faire → Faisant

(Of course, none of these has an “-ent” ending in the “ils” form of the present anyway.) Then there are three others which we have come across as rather special irregular verbs: 

  • Pouvoir → Pouvant

  • Savoir → Sachant

  • Vouloir → Voulant

Out of interest, the first two of this trio remind us of a couple of related words which have evolved in slightly different ways. Thus, while the participle from “savoir” is “sachant”, there was an earlier and more regular form “savant”, which still survives as a noun meaning a scientist or learned person; while in days gone by the verb “pouvoir” had a present tense ending “ils puissent” which produced “puissant”- and that survives as an adjective meaning powerful, with a corresponding noun “la puissance” (power). Ah, c’est intéressant!

Apart from these standard irregular verbs there are various other exceptions or oddities. Some of them are just slight variations of spelling – for example, “ils croient” produces “croyant” rather than “croiant”, and other similar verbs follow suit: “voir” (“ils voient”) has “voyant”. Others are a little more distant (“boire”, to drink, has “ils boivent” but the present participle is “buvant”, which appears closer to “nous buvons”). I’m not going to say any more about these individual forms because these various exceptions might look daunting in a short article such as this, and there’s no point putting a disproportionate emphasis on them, as opposed to the silent majority of thousands of regular verbs.

What the relatively few exceptions do show us is the importance of learning certain key elements of verbs whenever you come across a new one. The present tense, as we’ve seen, is the gateway to many more tenses or forms; the past participle is another element to learn; and the present participle, if irregular, is clearly another one to file away. So now that we know how to form it, we can go on, in another post, to look at some typical uses. First, however, I need to make a brief mention of another type of “-ing” word: it’s called a gerund but don’t be put off by grammatical terminology – you’ll see that you use it every day.

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