French (and Italian) grammatical “absurdity”

Two Belgian ex-teachers in the French-speaking part of the country published an article (in French) seeking to achieve what is surely the impossible – to change a ‘rule’ of French grammar. They are doing so because, they claim, the rule is ‘absurd’.

The rule concerned is usually known in English as the “Preceding Direct Object” rule. It is a peculiar rule and one which will have caused some consternation among most who studied French to advanced level.

The rule concerns the agreement of the past participle in the perfect aspect (the usual way of indicating the past in spoken or all but the most formal written French). In a straightforward sentence when the main auxiliary verb is avoir ‘to have’, such as j’ai acheté les chaussures ‘I (have) bought the shoes’ the basic (actually masculine singular) form of the participle (acheté) is used.

However, if the verb requires être ‘to be’, used with certain verbs which are intransitive (cannot have a direct object), the participle ‘agrees’ with the subject: il est monté but elle est montée (and ils sont montéselles sont montées).

This also applies to reflexives: elle s’est lavée ‘she washed herself’. This means in effect that the participle is ‘agreeing’ with the direct object as well as the subject (in a reflexive clause they are the same).

However, the notion of the participle ‘agreeing’ with the direct object is then carried over in the modern language to include when the direct object is a pronoun (in which case it appears before the verb): thus j’ai acheté les chaussures but je les ai achetées (assuming we are still referring to chaussures). In fact, French has since the 17th century at least adopted an outright rule that the participle ‘agrees’ with any direct object preceding the verb in the sentence. Thus it is even: les chaussures que j’ai achetées.

The fundamental principle is sometimes said (by prescriptive grammarians) to be that a participle with avoir after the direct object is in effect an adverb (and thus unchangeable), whereas one after a direct object or the subject of être is an adjective (and thus ‘agrees’). Quite where this idea came from is unclear.

The Belgian teachers’ argument here is that for all this complication (and it took long enough to write the above), there is generally no difference in pronunciation whatsoever (with minor exceptions: the participle in j’ai pris les chaussures ‘I took the shoes’ is pronounced differently, at least in careful speech, from the participle in les chaussures que j’ai prises; but this is a rarity). Their argument, therefore, is that the whole thing is basically an unnecessary complication, an irrelevance, and in any case an aberration borrowed for no particular reason from Italian.

They unquestionably have a point. Spanish, for example, manages perfectly well constructing its perfect through the auxiliary verb haber and an invariable past participle: he comprado las zapatas; las he comprado; las zapatas que he comprado. No difference. Easy. (It was not ever so, however, and in fact we still see vestiges of the old system of ‘agreement’ in modern Spanish: it is still the case that if tener is used as the principal verb rather than haber to emphasise the change of state, the participle agrees with the participle: tengo compradas las zapatas ‘I’ve got the shoes bought’; however, this is regular because the participle agrees regardless of the position in the sentence of the direct object.)

What is interesting, however, is that if the rule was borrowed from Italian, it was probably borrowed in error. Modern Italian, with some minor exceptions, does not require (although it does permit) agreement of the participle with a preceding direct object as in French; and it is questionable whether it ever did.

Modern Italian does require ‘agreement’ with a third person direct object pronoun: ho comprato le scarpe; le ho comprate. The reason for this is understandable; in speech, the third person direct object pronoun sounds the same before any form of avere ‘to have’, and thus it is the participle which indicates the actual form: l’ho comprato is masculine singular; l’ho comprata feminine singular; li ho comprati masculine plural and le ho comprate feminine plural – in each case, in general speech, the only difference clearly heard between each of those is the final letter.

Otherwise, however, Italian does not require ‘agreement’; some speakers prefer ci hai visti (with agreement) and others ci hai visto ‘you have seen us’. Generally, in fact, Italian prefers non-agreement if the direct object is not a pronoun: le scarpe che ho comprato would be preferred by most speakers to le scarpe che ho comprate, although neither would be seen as an error.

Italian, therefore, has maintained the preceding direct object rule as an option, but absolutely requires it only where it specifically assists understanding by enabling a clear distinction in pronunciation. French, on the other hand, insists on maintaining the rule in all circumstances, despite the fact that in almost all cases it makes no difference to pronunciation whatsoever (and thus cannot be decisive to understanding).

The Belgian teachers clearly have a point, therefore. There appears no reason whatsoever, therefore, that French would not in fact adopt the Spanish rule over the Italian one, not least because the Italian one is not even a rule but rather an option! However, it is unlikely much will change – the fact is we as human beings become very accustomed to grammatical rules, even the plainly ‘absurd’ ones!

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2 thoughts on “French (and Italian) grammatical “absurdity”

  1. Éamonn Ó Catháin says:

    « Les chaussures que j’ai prises » and similar constructions are certainly NOT a rarity in the mouths of good speakers.

    There is no need to change this rule -once that has been in place for centuries and forms a part of modern French speech – no matter what Belgians argue or postulate. Sottises et billevesées !

    You would scupper good prose, beautiful poetry and irreplaceable literature ? Tish and pish. Away on er that!

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