The ideal and the desired, French and American versions

Talking about the ideal and the desired in French and in English: ways to say “should,” with some comics.

Why Paul Ryan should vote for Hillary Clinton.  —headline, The Fiscal Times

Speaker Paul Ryan should disavow Donald Trump.  —headline, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Paul Ryan says Donald Trump should release tax returns —headline, Wall Street Journal

Should I have a cookie? Picture source:
It’s amazing (and more than a little depressing) to me that such enormous holes persist in my French, even after 2 3/4 years of studying really, really hard!  I just realized that I don’t know how to express the difference between must and should.  Obligation–must–that, I can express.  It’s the verb devoir in the present tense.  Ideal actions, desired actions–that’s a bit more complicated, both in French and in English.  (See the English notes at the bottom for the English issues.)

See here for more information about parallel corpora like OPUS 2.

To express the idea of should, we still use devoir, but we need its conditional tensesFor the English present tense, e.g. I should, we use the French present conditional of devoir.  You can read about how to do so here on the Lawless French web site; I’ll give you some examples from the Sketch Engine web site.  I used Sketch Engine to search the OPUS2 corpus, a collection of billions of words of text in 40 different languages, drawn from sources as diverse as movie subtitles and the proceedings of the European Parliament, and lined up with each other wherever possible.  We’re talking 1.1 billion words of English, 600,000 words of Afrikaans, 46 million words of Albanian, 300 million words of Arabic, etc.  French?  Almost 766 million.

Don’ t you think that before shooting a spy, we should make him talk?

Vous ne pensez pas qu’avant d’abattre un espion, on devrait le faire parler?

Now that we have finished the script, we should save it to disk.

Maintenant que nous avons fini le script, nous devrions l’enregistrer sur le disque.

Well, then, I think we should go out on a Sunday night.

On devrait sortir le dimanche soir alors.

What we should do is have dinner sometime.

On devrait dîner ensemble un soir.

Should I have a cookie? Picture source:
To talk about something that you should have done in the past, you need the past conditional of devoir.  Here‘s the Lawless French page with an example–there’s a more detailed lesson hidden somewhere on the Lawless French Kwiziq site, but I have no clue how to tell you how to find it.  Again, I’ll give you some examples from the OPUS 2 corpus, retrieved via the Sketch Engine web site:

I knew we should have stayed on this case.

Je savais qu’on aurait dû rester sur cette affaire.

Maybe we should have bought some rice in town.

On aurait peut-être dû acheter du riz en ville.

According to all you told us, and to all calculations … we should have located the mine two days ago.

D’après ce que vous nous avez dit et nos calculs, nous aurions dû trouver la mine il y a deux jours.

Wonder if we should have told the exec about that package … … Mike used to keep under his sack.

Je me demande si on aurait dû parler du paquet … – que Mike gardait sous sa couchette.

As a result, we have not been able to make as much progress as we should have.

En conséquence, nous n’avons pas pu réaliser tous les progrès que nous aurions dû accomplir.

It’s hard to believe that the 2020 Republican primaries won’t see Paul Ryan pitted against Tom Cruz.  Cruz will still be as scary then as he is now, I imagine–personally, I find him even more frightening than Trump, and I find Trump pretty damn frightening.  Paul Ryan will continue to bear the burden of his failure (so far) to denounce Trumpism, which probably won’t hurt him much in the Republican primaries, but I hope will keep him from winning the general election.

English notes

If you’re French: I probably don’t have to tell you that should in English is at least as bizarre as it is in French.  There’s a good web page on it here, from the Cambridge Dictionary.  Note that the page describes the British uses of the word, which are different from the American ones in some respects.  For example, the conditional form should you, as in should you want some coffee…, is not used in America–we would say if you want some coffee…  The UK also has a formal/neutral alternation between should and would that we don’t have in the US.  For example, the Brits have neutral I would love to come and formal I should love to come, but in the US, only I would love to come will work.  Finally, oughtn’t instead of shouldn’t is more formal in British English, but it’s dialectal and possibly stigmatized in the US.

13 thoughts on “The ideal and the desired, French and American versions”

  1. But all things considered, it’s easier in English. US English is often simpler for foreigners, just try to get them to sound natural saying “oughtn’t you take out the rubbish bin now?”!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Don fret …. You are WAY ahead of me in understanding the grammar of French. When I get back in November I will be entirely come une vache Espagnole, sans doute! Tom Cruz is the scariest of scaries. The two candidates fighting it out for President are a shameful reflection on their respective parties but the whole world seems to be failing in producing politicians and statesmen of real merit. Sad times we live in. Very, very sad.

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  3. Translating from one language to another is always within its limits, based on centuries of common culture (books, songs, events, familiar situations or reactions, impossible to re-create) . Each term has its own possible connotations -and these are a wonderful tool when used deliberately – but who can do that in a foreign language ? When abroad I try to “translate” the subtleties with my face, a smile, a sound, anything . But even this can be irrelevant, for inner attitudes are not shared by every people in every circumstances, especially out of Europe and sons . So well … I deeply admire the very few who’ve been able to write whole books in a foreign language, and not for quantitative reasons .
    Back to your topic, I guess you realize that our “should” or “devrait” mean different things by themselves . “Don’ t you think that before shooting a spy, we should make him talk?” In this case, “should” like its French “devrait” means “we’d better”, “on ferait mieux de” .
    “It should be sunny tomorrow”, like “Il devrait faire soleil” means “there’s a strong probability” .
    “Well, then, I think we should go out on a Sunday night. On devrait sortir le dimanche soir alors” means “I’d like to, wouldn’t you?” .And so on . I find already impressive that the “same” words can convey a good deal of those different meanings in our different cultures .
    PS : What about your mastering of the “conditionnel passé 2° forme” ? You know, instead of the first form “nous aurions dû”, say :”nous eussions dû” and you’ll get all you wish ! Oh, and what about your exam, is it OK ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > I find already impressive that the “same” words can convey a good deal of those different meanings in our different cultures .

      The more I learn about French, the more convinced I become that English is just poorly-pronounced French!

      I look forward to “nous eussions dû” in my future, but for now it baffles me. My test is next month–thanks for asking! Studying, studying, and following your advice that it’s too late for the conjugations that I’ve never heard of before, so focus on other stuff!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good luck pal .
    “English is just poorly-pronounced French” appears for the first time in an Alexandre Dumas’ book ‘Vingt ans après”, the book that tells what happened 20 years after “The three musketeers” . I write this because most people wrongly attribute this quote to other people .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I would guess that you can’t get educated in an English-speaking university without knowing that an enormous amount of English vocabulary comes straight out of French, thanks to Guillaume le Conquerant. However, it wasn’t until I started studying French seriously a couple years ago that I realized what an incredible amount of the weird quirks of both languages are the same. As you pointed out: the overlaps between the various possible meanings of devoir in French and of “should” in English. The ways that we relate conditionals to declaratives. On and on–there is far, far more French in English than I ever realized. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that we borrowed so much more than vocabulary, but truly, this isn’t something that I ever heard discussed in college, and I did study the history of the English language–quite a bit, actually.


  5. Well, after a long life I came to the conclusion that the characteristic of the English tribe is the deepest fundamental dishonesty I ever met in a national soul . Their defeaning silence about this point is an example among dozens . Unfortunately for our species the mental frame of the world first power was set by them . Glad I bought a piece of land on Pluto .

    Liked by 1 person

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