A wonderful Le Monde interview (in French) introduced me to Alain Rey, the chief editor and lexicographer at Dictionnaires Le Robert (considered the populist alternative to the magisterial Larousse). The article says “il y a aussi, et surtout, le fait qu’il n’ait jamais joué au puriste, qu’il a toujours prêté aux mots une vie propre” [there is also, and above all, the fact that he has never played the purist, that he has always let words have their own lives]; clearly a man after my own heart. Thanks for the link, Paul!
(A minor and very tentative quibble: my French is rusty, but shouldn’t that be “le fait qu’il n’a jamais joué au puriste,” parallel to “qu’il a toujours prêté”? What’s the subjunctive doing there?)


  1. Two very unhelpful points only motivated by half-native French fluency: “le fait qu’il n’ait jamais joué au puriste” sounds perfectly alright to my ear, although the indicative would possibly work as well. Unfortunately, I can give a more grammatical take on it : just sounds OK to me. Subjunctive is one of the trickiest bit of the French language (and so full of exceptions and idiomatic expressions, that it’s imho, the hardest to learn to)… If I had to, I’d say that one being a negative, and therefore virtual, deserves a subjunctive, whereas the other is a hard cold verifiable fact, and therefore can go with nothing else than indicative.
    My own quibble, would be with the populist/magisterial labeling of the two Big Ones. There again, I have nothing but my own perception (but the labeling itself seems to be more than a bit subjective) to say that Le Robert always appeared slightly more “serious” than it’s counterpart, in the realm of French dictionary. I think this was in part due to the fact Le Larousse has always covered a large array of scientific knowledge in an encyclopedic fashion, when Le Robert put a large emphasis on more specifically linguistics aspects of the language. At any rate, I’d say few would agree on a consensus there.
    As for Alain Rey, he’s a man worth getting acquainted with indeed. His daily 10-minute show on France Inter was always a nice dose of word nerdiness…

  2. … And I can believe upon reviewing (a tad too late) my comment, how many ugly typos have slipped through (given the topic at hand). I swear I usually don’t misspell its for it’s (!)…

  3. The two might not necessarily need to be in parallel. Sometimes the subjunctive is used to indicate that something is vaguely hypothetical. So, in this case, if it IS, IN FACT, an intentional construction, it says that he “supposedly” (thought the nuance is much softer in French) never played the purist. The author seesm more comforatable asserting the second claim as fact.

  4. Yeah, I guess you guys are right about the negative/hypothetical character of the first verb. I told you my French was rusty.

  5. Siganus Sutor says:

    Alain Rey has been in the limelight recently because two organisations — a black one and a so-called antiracism one — have been protesting because the 2007 edition of Le Petit Robert has this definition for colonisation: mise en valeur, exploitation des pays devenus colonies — i.e. “development and exploitation of the countries which became colonies”. (I see right now that it is exactly the one printed in the 2006 edition.) The word valeur also means value and some people understood — or wanted to understand — that it was meant to imply that these territories were “worthless” before the colonists arrived there. There have been calls to boycott the dictionary (which has had this definition for thirty years) after it said that it would not destroy the copies already printed and would not modify the new edition.
    However Alain Rey hasn’t always clearly made his point, saying that a dictionary shouldn’t be a place for ideological debates and, in the same interview, that the ideological reputation of Le Petit Robert was well known. (More here
    — 9 sept. 06 07:47:39 — on’s corrector’s blog.)

  6. I have to disagree with the above commenters’ suggestion that the subjunctive indicates doubt/hypotheticalness here. The first “que” clause is using the subjunctive because the emphasis is as much on a characterization of the statement (that’s it’s especially important) as on the statement itself, whereas the second “que” clause is essentially modifying the first, explaining what it means for him never to have played the purist; you can read it as “en que.”
    I think you could just as easily use the indicative in the first “que” clause, and have no change in meaning. (Of course, such things are always subjective; one person’s free alternation is always someone else’s subtle change in meaning.)
    (Incidentally, in pointing out that the subjunctive does not always imply doubt, nor anything even resembling doubt, Bescherelle actually gives the example of “le fait que” plus the subjunctive. ISBN 2-218-71716-6, paragraph 158.)

  7. Siganus Sutor says:

    > Dr Dave (Larousse/Robert): I agree with you regarding your perception of the two main French dictionaries. Le Robert is more language-orientated while Larousse is aimed more at the general public (it has images! while Le Robert hasn’t got a single one…).
    Regarding the last sentence in the article, it has been corrected afterwards.
    “Cet homme-là, au lieu de lui faire des mauvais procès, c’est à l’Académie qu’il faudrait le faire entrer. Jamais aucun grammairien, aucun linguiste n’y a siégé !”
    Some linguists have indeed been members of the Académie.,1-0@2-3382,36-815142,0.html
    > « ALAIN REY. Nous avons écrit par erreur dans une citation parue dans le portrait d’Alain Rey (Le Monde du 21 septembre) sous le titre “Les maux de Monsieur Mots”, que “jamais” un grammairien et linguiste n’avait siégé à l’Académie française. Il fallait dire “depuis longtemps”. En effet, d’autres y ont siégé : notamment Claude Favre, seigneur de Vaugelas (1585-1650), qui en dirigea les travaux et publia en 1647 Remarques sur la langue française. »
    And there might be this person as well:
    Regardinf the subjunctive, I’ll have a look at it tomorrow. It’s high time I go to bed and I cannot afford to have tricky things running in the back of my mind! Goodnight guys.

  8. Roger Depledge says:

    Maurice Grevisse (Le Bon Usage, 12th edition) deals with it in §1073 – Cas particuliers:
    “_Le fait que_… est suivi de l’indicatif ou du subjonctif, sans qu’il soit toujours possible de voir une nuance.”
    Citations are given from Mauriac, Ikor, Pagnol and Fourastié for the indicative, and Proust, Montherlant, Druon, Malraux and Troyat for the subjunctive.

  9. My French is mediocre, but my sense was something like”Above all there’s the fact that he would never play the purist, that he always gave…..”, with the modal translating the subjunctive which I think is acceptable.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    As a French speaker I think that both the subjunctive and the indicative sound OK in this sentence. I personally would tend to use the subjunctive automatically after “le fait que” but if I had written the above sentence I might hesitate about what mood to use the second half.
    I think that the reason for the indicative in the second half is that it does not directly follow “le fait que”, just “que” which by itself does not affect the mood of the verb. Since the indicative is the “unmarked” mood (the one used when there is no good reason to use another one), it comes more naturally unless the subjunctive takes precedence, as it does in the first part of the sentence, just after “le fait que”.
    Why the subjunctive is used even though a fact is being asserted as true is something else – perhaps because it is being singled out as the reason for the speaker’s opinion, and opinion is one of the triggers for the use of the subjunctive.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    About Le Robert and Le Larousse: these two dictionaries are not actually competitors since they use different approaches. The Larousse gives definitions and pictures, so it is more like a mini-encyclopedia. The Robert is strictly about the language and gives some information about the origin of words, their first attestation in texts and their register (ex. formal, familiar, technical, etc), as well as examples from their use in literature. i would choose one of the Larousse dictionaries to give to a beginning student, but the Robert for a student of French literature.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    I’m not a native speaker, and the French sometimes use the subjunctive in places that I simply don’t understand. But this case can be explained by literally translating it into German — I think the clause means “the fact that he says that he has never played the purist (I haven’t checked, I’m just reporting)”.
    In German the “present subjunctive” is completely extinct in all dialects I know of, but it is very common in journalism:
    Konjunktiv I = subjonctif = “present subjunctive”: “Der Politiker sagte, er sei kein Lügner und werde die Steuern senken.” This is mere reporting: “The politician said he was not a liar and would cut the taxes.”
    Konjunktiv II = conditionnel = “past subjunctive”: “Der Politiker sagte, er wäre kein Lügner und würde die Steuern senken.” Avoided in journalism because it means “he said it, but I don’t believe it”.
    Indicative: “Der Politiker sagte, er ist kein Lügner und wird die Steuern senken.” Doesn’t really sound like reported speech anymore, but additionally it’s avoided in journalism because it means “he said it, and I believe it”.
    The present subjunctive saves German journalists a lot of he-said-she-said. After mentioning the politician once, you can print his entire grandiose speech without quotation marks, and the readers will still know that it’s just what he said and may or may not be true. Very useful for paraphrasing.
    It only gets tricky for regular verbs — for them the present subjunctive and the indicative are identical most of the time, so the past subjunctive is used instead…

  13. Someone tell me my reading was wrong. I was just guessing, which is how I read French.

  14. David: I don’t think that’s right, judging from Roger and marie-lucie’s explanations: either it’s automatic after “le fait que” or alternates freely with indicative, but there doesn’t seem to be any difference in meaning.
    The New Yorker: OK, you’re wrong.

  15. My French is only high-school level, but the thing that struck me when reading the extract was “une vie propre”–I was taught that “sa propre main” means his/her/its own hand, whereas “sa main propre” means his/her/its clean hand, and therefore “une vie propre” would mean “a clean life”. The article was written by native and highly educated French speakers, so I must have missed something. But what? Have I merely got them round the wrong way? I checked in my French book…

  16. But then, in heraldry “proper”, used postpositively, means “in true-to-life colours”, and “propre” after the noun can mean not only “clean” but also “right”. So how does this sentence translate?

  17. Siganus Sutor says:

    Marie-Lucie : « if I had written the above sentence I might hesitate about what mood to use the second half. »
    I would agree too that both the subjunctive and the indicative could indifferently be used in this case. However I would tend to have some doubt about the two moods being used in the same sentence, one part of the sentence being related to the other. (I doubt my doubt though!)
    However, between “perfect” theory and normal “good” practise there is sometimes some play. After après que nobody is supposed to use the subjunctive. But very often you hear things like this: “Ce n’est qu’après qu’il ait écrit à sa mère que les choses ont pu rentrer dans l’ordre.” I presume the rules will officially have to be modified one day.
    « Why the subjunctive is used even though a fact is being asserted as true is something else »
    I cannot exactly explain why, but in some cases it seems it cannot be used. You couldn’t for instance say “il est certain qu’il ait voulu lui faire du mal.” Despite the que and unlike “le fait que”, you have to use the indicative. Mysterious language…
    But English isn’t bad too…
    Ego (further up): « It’s high time I “go” to bed ».
    Yes, it was late, I was tired, and it was time I went(?) to bed. But this morning the clock is ticking and it is high time I went to work — il est plus que temps que j’aille au travail. So the English past tense is there for the French subjunctive it seems…
    However, I don’t understand the logic in “it’s time I went to bed”. It’s time now, say 11:09 PM, to go to bed, and I realise I have to do it. I shall go in a short while, say at 11:20. So why this past tense?

  18. Siganus Sutor says:

    “English isn’t bad either…”
    Am I still tired? Or shall I stick to French only instead? (sigh…)

  19. Andrew: amour propre–clean love?

  20. As a native French speaker, I support the opinion of marie-lucie :
    Why the subjunctive is used even though a fact is being asserted as true is something else – perhaps because it is being singled out as the reason for the speaker’s opinion, and opinion is one of the triggers for the use of the subjunctive.
    Used in the context of an argumentation, the subjonctive mood seems to me to express a subjective point of view. It is here a very attenuated hypothesis, just below the constatation of a plain fact.
    Contrary to what says Maurice Grévisse, I think that “il est toujours possible de voir une nuance” when we alternate between the two modes.

  21. I had a look at, and there it said
    Propre (1) adj. et subst.
    [L’adj. est gén. postposé]
    Qui appartient exclusivement ou en particulier à (une personne ou une chose).

    Propre (2) adj.
    [L’adj. est toujours post-posé]
    A. Qui est bien lavé, bien tenu.

    Amour-propre is hyphenated… Interestingly, there seems to be a choice as far as post-posé is concerned.
    I guess it just means that French is more extensive than my understanding of it. But I knew that already!

  22. Siganus Sutor says:

    > Andrew
    il a toujours prêté aux mots une vie propre”: “he has always thought words had a life of their own”, or “he has always confered a life of their own to words”.
    In this case, Alain Rey wouldn’t be a clean (or natural) candidate for the very academic Académie française…

  23. Siganus Sutor:
    >You couldn’t for instance say “il est certain qu’il ait voulu lui faire du mal.”
    True, but you could say “qu’il ait voulu lui faire du mal est certain.”
    (Well, you could write it, at least. In speech it would be a bit strange regardless of your choice of mood.)

  24. Siganus Sutor says:

    Very true, Ran, very true. It looks mind-boggling, doesn’t it?
    But I presume you could say that “qu’il ait voulu lui faire du mal est certain” is short for* “le fait qu’il ait voulu lui faire du mal est certain”. So we would be back to the previous case.
    (Incidentally, I wouldn’t find it strange to hear such a construction, though I definitely don’t speak like a book!)
    * is this figure of speech called an “ellipse” in English?

  25. I am hereby officially giving up on any dreams I may have had of acheiving fluency in French. Oh, it looks easy enough when they start you off with “C’est un livre… le livre est rouge…”—but then it gets scary.

  26. Siganus Sutor says:

    “C’est un livre… le livre est rouge…” (C’est un Petit livre rouge ?)
    Then maybe they should start with another example. This one for instance. (Though, in this case, in would be to teach Belgian rather then French.)
    Bah, don’t worry too much: even native speakers get lost…

  27. marie-lucie says:

    “Qu’il ait voulu … est certain” but “Il est certain qu’il a voulu …”
    The first sentence brings up something for consideration – whether true or not – before expressing an opinion of its truth value. The second sentence states a certainty before presenting what the certainty is about. This is similar to “le fait qu’il ait voulu …” (and the sentence goes on) versus “Le fait est qu’il a voulu …” (end of sentence). If certainty is denied, then the subjunctive follows: “Il n’est pas certain qu’il ait voulu …”.
    I am not sure whether the first sentence above implies “le fait” before the “que” – this would indeed be an ellipse – but historically it might be the opposite (since the subjunctive was more widely used in past centuries).
    As for the improbability of “Qu’il ait voulu … est certain” in speech (as opposed to formal writing), this is because in spoken French one would rather say “… , c’est certain”. I think that the increasing lack of “ce” is caused by analogy with English syntax (through the enormous number of hasty translations from English) rather than increased literarization of the spoken language.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    (difficulties with “propre”)
    With the two meanings of “propre” (and the figurative implications of the concrete meaning ‘clean’) there are cases where one just has to memorize collocations (specific groups of words) and idioms. For instance, “mains propres” would mean “clean hands” in asking a child “Tu as les mains propres?” (Are your hands clean?) but “own hands” in “Remettez cette lettre à Mme X en mains propres” (Deliver this letter to M(r)s. X in person – without needing to her if her hands are actually clean). This is the kind of thing that puzzles French children too as they acquire vocabulary.
    This sort of thing does occur with other languages, including English, but as adults we don’t often notice them in our own language unless a child or foreigner brings them to our attention. For instance, I was once asked how to say in French “red herring” – I thought it must mean ‘hareng saur’ (dried smoked herring)!

  29. David Marjanović says:

    You are not using the past tense when you say it’s high time you went to bed. You are using what some call the “past subjunctive”, called “past” for largely Latin reasons (it’s formed from the past indicative, rather than having any meaning of tense). You are talking about a kind of possibility, about what ought to happen (“ought” again being a “past subjunctive”).
    Likewise, there is no way to tell if “go” “it’s time I go to bed” is indicative or subjunctive (“present subjunctive” this time). Only the occasional lack of a 3rd-person -s or somewhat archaic constructions like “oh, how I wish that he be…” sometimes betrays it.
    Of course, the actual past tense and the “past subjunctive” have become identical in all English verbs, except for “I/he/she/it were” which is dying out by analogy. German retains an Umlaut difference in “strong” verbs, and ambiguities are usually avoided by using the analytic alternative — in English “if I went” and “if I would go” don’t quite mean the same thing; in German “falls ich ginge” and “falls ich gehen würde” are exactly synonymous — or, in the southern dialects (such as mine), by extinction of the “past tense” (which is already synonymous with the “present perfect tense” in all kinds of German).

  30. Siganus Sutor says:

    Thanks David!
    “Past subjunctive”? The days some optimistic people tried to teach me some sort of English grammar are long gone now, but I have really no memory of any English subjunctive whatsoever. Before this week I have simply been thinking that it didn’t exist as, for me, English speakers were straightforward people who didn’t feel the need for all that subjunctive fuss…
    By the way, “it’s time I go to bed” would still be correct? (L. Hat?)

  31. The subjunctive is vestigial in modern English, but it exists in phrases like “if I were you” and “so be it.” I personally would say “it’s time I went to bed,” but your form may be acceptable to some speakers. We’ll see if anyone has an opinion.

  32. Siganus Sutor says:

    My opinion, for the time being, is it’s time I went to bed!
    Thanks, and good night…

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