Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Word Order in French

Ronald Batchelor

photograph of an old french house

Photo: Barney Moss via Creative Commons.

A student’s early study of French, or of any foreign language for that matter, leads him/her, understandably, to concentrate on pronunciation, spelling, gender, number, agreement, verbs, tenses, their compounds and so on. Early stages in the apprenticeship of the French language usually suggest that topics like the subjunctive prove to be the most daunting to deal with. An unjustified assumption.

It may be argued with the strongest of legitimacy that the most baffling of areas is word order which refers to the way in which words, and series of words, are placed in such a manner that their varying arrangement seems to defy rational explanation.

The following paragraphs illustrate that, although in some cases, French word order is pretty well fixed, almost cast in stone, i.e. subject+verb+noun=“Je vois la table”=I see the table, (as in English), subject+pronoun+verb i.e. “Je la vois”=I see it (not as in English), in numerous other cases, seemingly arbitrary and even varying choices appear to be the order of the day, and it is precisely in these arbitrary and varying areas where difficulties of appreciation occur most frequently.

The strategy to support this statement of duality rests on two logical focal points

  1. the features of the French language where agreement over word order are rarely contested, and
  2. where one has the impression that word order relies on subjective, discretionary or even random judgements.

The first category of relatively uncontested word order includes treatment of adjectives and adverbs, but here also, a caveat must be made: meaning of the adjective is of paramount importance.

If we take the position of adjectives, whereas in English, nearly all adjectives precede the noun (big table/intelligent girl/active children), a substantial number of adjectives follow the noun in French. This is an area pointing to a clear pattern where most English speakers feel most comfortable in their early incursions into French.

A good case in point are adjectives evoking colour: “livre noir”=black book; nationality: “voiture japonaise”=Japanese car; arts and sciences: “étude scientifique/littéraire”=scientific /literary study; religion: “pays musulman”=Moslem country. Included in this group are long adjectives: “paysage pittoresque”=picturesque countryside, “garçon intelligent”=intelligent boy.

In almost all circumstances, it would more than surprising if the adjectives in these examples preceded the noun. “Scientifique étude” is just not French, poetry excluded.

There exist many adjectives that precede or follow the noun, according to their meaning. Here again, the order is fixed, but it must be repeated, the meaning determines the order. Thus, “brave femme” implies you would probably like the woman for it means she is obliging and honest, whereas “ une femme brave” would defend you were you in difficulty, corresponding as it does to the English=brave woman. “Méchante affaire” =nasty business, signifies something disagreeable, while “chien méchant” would send the postman next door: i.e. dangerous dog. “Triste visage” connotes a dull, inauspicious face while “visage triste” invites compassion: i.e. sad face. Finally, “week-end chaud” points to rising temperatures with respect to weather whereas “chaud week-end” implies rising temperatures of a more intimate, sexual kind.

These instances are just four examples chosen from a very wide range of adjectives that change meaning according to their position before or after the noun, and pose no real problems of interpretation. In a general way, the adjective following the noun has a more literal resonance and solidity, receiving a greater stress and weight.

When two adjectives qualify a noun, how does one put the one adjective before the other? A helpful model here is as follows: the adjective immediately after the noun relates to it more closely than the second adjective: “littérature québécoise contemporaine”=contemporary Quebecois literature. However, if the adjectives are linked by “et”=and, a choice offers itself: les partis républicain et démocrate=the Republican and Democrat parties. “Démocrate” could equally well precede “républicain” since they are of the same value, objectively, non-politically, speaking.

If one adjective is longer than the other, the shorter one precedes the longer one. Respect for “cadence majeure” applies here. That is to say, there is a preference for French phrases to be constructed according to increasing length, and a reluctance to form phrases with a long adjective preceding a short one. Thus: “des murs gris et délabrés” =grey, dilapidated walls; “une étude longue et détaillée”=a long, detailed study.

Adverbs qualifying verbs cause little difficulty of understanding for their combination does follow a pattern. In a sentence of the model: subject+verb+object +adverb, the adverb normally precedes the object: “J’aime beaucoup le cidre”=I like cider a lot. “Cidre” before “beaucoup” here, as in English, would sound odd and un-French. The same comment applies to “Elle parle bien (le) français”=She speaks French well. “Bien” after “français” would sound equally odd. With compound tenses of verbs, the adverb precedes the past participle, again standard practice: “Elle a longuement regardé le tableau”=She looked at the painting for a time.

Adverbial phrases, not pure adverbs, often end up at the end of a sentence, or part of sentence, since they are usually longer, and balance, to be referred to again later, constitutes a major factor. “Il a lu le livre avec intérêt et enthousiasme”=He read the book with interest and enthusiasm. English speakers would recognize a similarity with their own language here.

Moving to the second category where placing of words in a particular order points to the possibility of choice, we end up in a blurred area where register, or level of language depending on circumstances, assumes overriding importance, an aspect of French which is difficult to appreciate for foreign speakers. Broadly speaking, and there is a certain logic in this, the changing of the normal pattern of word order is frequently determined by a higher register. If, as seen above, the accepted standard prefers many adjectives to follow the noun, literary language would very easily place them before.

The unusual feature of this word arrangement invests it with an arresting character, stressing what is being said, or especially written, with an extra impact, value and persuasiveness. The more standard “produit dangereux”=dangerous product, like “accord possible”=possible agreement, rises in the register scale if we invert noun and adjective: “dangereux produit” and “possible accord”. Likewise, “le premier/dernier chapitre”=first/last chapter acquires a higher linguistic status if we read “le chapitre premier/dernier”.

The sense of higher register is increased if more than one adjective precedes the noun, witness: “une longue et très cohérente existence”=a long and most coherent existence. Even higher is the register if the number of preceding adjectives grows: La belle, la sombre, la mélancolique, la mystérieuse, l’inaccessible heroïne=The lovely, sombre, melancholy, mysterious, inaccessible heroine.

Variation in word order occurs commonly with exclamations. “How lovely she is!” could be said in a range of ways, from the colloquial, common, spoken form of expression to literary style. Thus, from the lower register “Qu’est-ce qu’elle est jolie!” we move up the scale to “Comme elle est jolie!”, and even higher “Est-elle jolie!”

In the context of word order, inversion of subject and object calls for considerable comment. Inversion, put simply, describes the reversal of word order where the subject comes after the verb. “Tu vas au cinéma”> “Vas-tu au cinéma?”=You go to the movies>Do you go to the movies? Indeed, inversion in this context could be anticipated.

What is different is when, all too often in the spoken form, inversion is avoided because the straightforward subject+object is simpler to handle. This is even true of the example immediately above when the affirmative “Tu vas au cinéma” retains the same word order when a question is asked, but with the proviso of rising intonation+question mark: “Tu vas au cinéma?” All to do with ease of delivery and the most frequent way of expressing oneself. French say more readily “Tu vas au cinéma?/Est-ce que tu vas au cinéma ?”  than “Vas-tu au cinéma ?”

The inversion arrangement is naturally accompanied by a slight rise in register. Most types of inversion follow from this change in register status. Thus, “(Est-ce que) ton frère est là”=Is your brother there? would be heard much more frequently than “Ton frère, est-il là?”

One further example, of a slightly more complicated structure, suffices to complete illustrations of inversion. Although “La femme que ton frère a vue” signifies exactly the same idea as “La femme qu’a vue ton frère”=The woman your brother saw, the second phrase strikes a higher register note than the first.

Inversion of noun and verb invests the expression with a more elegant, refined and balanced style, partly because it is less common, diverging from the model of the straightforward affirmative.

It goes without saying that the foregoing is merely an opening, basic offering, an entrée before the copious main course.

Numerous other features such as negative sentences with “ne…pas”=no, not, and its companions like “ne…jamais”=never, highlighting, set expressions within a sentence i.e J’ai mis les mots en ordre/J’ai mis en ordre les mots=I’ve put the words in order, adverbs in compound tenses, and many other topics, call for attention.

Word order in French, in keeping with many languages, as stated at the beginning of these remarks, raises a whole series of intertwining issues, with their concomitant intricacies and multitudinous exceptions, unresolved by the present simple, limited treatise.

They are resolved in great detail, however, in my Cambridge A Reference Grammar of French (See pp. 494-501, 658-672). Help is at hand for you to put your French house in verbal order.

About The Author

Ronald Batchelor

Dr Ronald Batchelor is the author of A Reference Grammar of French (2011). He taught French and Spanish for forty years in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of N...

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