The contradictions of a French château

The Château de Chenonceau.

When I arrived in Paris for the first time, my cousin drove me by the Place de la Concorde. That’s where we chopped the Royalists’ fucking heads off, he said. It’s a good example of the European tendency to have a very long memory, as compared to the typical American preference to look only towards the future. It’s also a good example of my family’s general lefty-ness—on both sides of the Atlantic, actually. In light of that lefty-ness, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the French fondness for the great Renaissance-era châteux. So, it was without great enthusiasm that I let myself be talked out of my general impulse to never, ever leave Paris and be talked into a tour of Chenonceau, one of the finer ones. As I looked out of the windows at the beauty of the sun setting over the Cher River, I found myself wondering, over and over again: just how many peasants did one have to starve in order to build such an edifice?

Mme. Menier assisting in surgery at the château during World War I. The influence of women at Chenanceau has always been strong, leading to its nickname, the Château des Dames. Picture source:

And yet: like so many things in France, it’s more complicated than it looked to me at first glance. Is Chenonceau a vestige of a brutal feudal system, built on the backs of starving farmers? Absolutely. It was also, under the ownership of Louise Dupin, essentially a country salon for many of the Lumières–the Enlightenment thinkers, philosophers, writers, and Encyclopédistes who laid the intellectual groundwork for the 1789 Revolution that would end the aristrocratic system (minus minor bumps in the road in the forms of the First and Second Empires and a Restoration that I don’t really understand) that had kept the French people in a state of servitude for so long. During World War I, the owner of the château, Gaston Menier, would turn it into a hospital at his own expense; over 2,000 soldiers would be nursed back to health there. During the Second World War, the line of demarcation between the Free Zone and the German-occupied zone was marked by the Cher River, and the bridge over that river that the château formed (see the picture above) became a method of transit for Resistance fighters and for Jews escaping from the slaughter that claimed the lives of 70,000.

French notes

le château fort: a “strong castle,” the original castles of the Middle Ages, built for defense from attacks.  If I understand correctly, the invention of artillery made them considerably less useful–building a castle in a way that would withstand artillery made them uncomfortable to live in.

le château Renaissance: a “Renaissance castle,” serving essentially as a country residence for royalty and aristrocracy, rather than as a defensive structure as was the case with the old châteuax forts.

la solive: joist.  French buildings of this era often had magnificent ceilings, and I was quite surprised at how many rooms in Chenonceau have solives apparentes–ceilings with exposed joists.





How we’re sounding stupid today: 1 fish per ticket

Sometimes you just gotta laugh. If it’s at yourself: all the better.

Picture source:

A study break yesterday evening found me in the basement of a Latin bar near the Bataclan.  There were tickets.  There was booze.  There was a guy who asked me a question.  (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.)

Guy: Does your ticket get you a fish?

Me: Excuse me?

Guy: One ticket, one fish?

Me: Ummm…

Guy: [Points at my beer] A fish.  Is your ticket for getting a fish?

Me: [Looking at my beer, lights go on] Yes, your ticket gets you a drink.  [Hiding my head in my hands, off to the bathroom to cry all alone]

French notes:

  • le poisson: fish.
  • la boisson: drink.

Urban weirdness, and where to buy the best macarons in Paris

Macarons and revolutionaries: just another day in the Big City.

img_7230Days of cramming French grammar have left me with a terrible need for fresh air, sunshine, and at least a bit of exercise, so I shut my laptop this afternoon and went out for a walk. Mission: track down an antique book dealer that I came across one day, and find the best macarons in Paris.

Big cities often offer us a bit of urban weirdness, and Paris did not disappoint me today. To wit: just down the avenue de Breteuil from Les Invalides, I encountered the following scene.



That little cluster of brown things that you see on the grass towards the right of the photo turns out to be this flock of sheep:

What are they doing there?  I can only guess. Cutting the grass, perhaps.

A bit further down, on the left side of the street as you walk south from Les Invalides, is the best place in Paris to buy macarons.  These cream-filled bits of meringue are a popular Parisian delicacy. The best ones in town turn out to come from a Japanese bakery called Mori Yoshida, 65 avenue de Breteuil.  The owners fell in love with French baking and moved to Paris to realize their dream of exploring the possibilities of melding the French arts of the boulanger and the pâtissier with a Japanese sensibility. They have truly mastered the macaron, and this is where I would take you to get your fix.

I never did find the dealer in old books, but I did stumble across this little beauty in a used bookstore in my neighborhood–an account of the trials of the leaders of the Paris Commune, my personal favorite of the various French Revolutions.  (Ask a French person a question about the Revolution, and the response may be which one?)


French notes: Sheep-related vocabulary!  All links are to WordReference.  Scroll down for a cute poster.

Picture source:

Where to eat breakfast in Paris

Le Campanella, corner of avenue Bosquet and rue Saint-Dominique. Picture source: me.

For my money, Bulgaria is one of the best breakfast countries in the world.  (For my money explained below in the English notes.)  Yoghurt, figs, amazing doughnuts, coffee–on and on, at least if you have the good luck to be offered it in a farmhouse in Koprivshtitsa, which I did.  Japan is another marvel in the breakfast department, at least if you’re being served it in a hotel–fish, rice, pickles, and some miso soup make for a great start to your day, actually.

France is a different story.  If you’re travelling in Paris and therefore not eating out of your own kitchen, the cafes will basically offer you two options:

  1. Something that they’ll call a “French” breakfast: coffee, juice, and a piece of baguette with butter and jam, or a croissant.
  2. Something that they’ll call an “English” breakfast: coffee, juice, some sort of sausage, an egg or two, and baked beans.

You can make it for a while on the “French” breakfast, especially if you add a piece of fruit–I do, every day–but, personally, I can’t make it all the way to lunch on that, and in a country where people don’t really snack, that’s a problem.  The “English” breakfast: baked beans and a nasty piece of sausage for breakfast?  Not on an empty stomach.

This morning, though: this morning I happened across a good breakfast for 10 euros.  The place: Le Campanella, 18 avenue Bosquet, right on the corner of avenue Bosquet and rue Saint-Dominique.  Drink not included, so it was maybe 12.50 with coffee.  Sounds like a lot, but I’ve seen more charged for those English breakfasts–a lot more.  10 euros got me four eggs sunny-side-up, my choice of meat, a salad, and of course some bread.  The best part?  I learned how to say “sunny side up” in French!  The only wrinkle: there’s a 15 euro minimum on credit cards, and I was out of cash, which is why you see that little “to go” box on the front-most table in the picture–I had to buy a piece of apple buy to have a large enough bill to justify using a credit card.  Poor me, I know…

Le Campanella, corner of avenue Bosquet and rue Saint-Dominique. Picture source: me.

The location is quite close to the Eiffel Tower, and it would make a lot of sense to start your day with breakfast at Le Campanella, and then head over to the Eiffel Tower, stopping on the way there at L’esprit du Sud-ouest for some very non-touristy sportswear, following up the Tower with lunch on the rue Cler.  Just sayin’.

French notes

  • les oeufs au plat: eggs sunny-side-up.

English notes

  • for my money: in my opinion.  How it was used in the post: For my money, Bulgaria is one of the best breakfast countries in the world. 
  • in the X department: when you’re talking about X; concerning X; related to X.  Tough to define!  Here are some examples, and my attempts to explain them.
    • Again, it should be of no surprise that Fox News takes first place in the lies department.  Meaning: you shouldn’t be surprised that with respect to lies, Fox News has the largest number.  Source: here.
    • Since I failed epically in the marriage department, I think dating is out.  Meaning: since where marriage is concerned, I failed very badly, I don’t think that dating is something that I should do.  Source: here (scroll down to the comments).
    • If the Leafs pick up Neil as well, the team is going to put Burke’s Ducks squad to shame in the dirtbag departmentMeaning: if the Leafs hire that guy, then they’re going to be even more richly endowed in dirtbags than the Ducks.  Source: here.
    • How it was used in the post: Japan is another marvel in the breakfast department.

Dead from hunger and full of… Adjectives with prepositional complements

Adjectives, prepositions, and interruptions at crucial moments

I found this image when Googling for DELF/DALF-related images and had to laugh, as we were most definitely not walking out of the room looking like this afterwards. Picture source:

I am so relieved that my first two days of DELF/DALF testing are over!  The recordings for the C1 oral comprehension test were laughably hard to understand, and by the end of the day’s testing I was drained from the exertion.  The C1 written production test was actually kinda fun for me, though, and it felt very satisfying to have tried, no matter what the outcome is.

I am so relieved that my first two days of DELF/DALF testing are over!  The recordings for the C1 oral comprehension test were laughably hard to understand, and by the end of the day’s testing I was drained from the exertion.  The C1 written production test was actually kinda fun for me, though, and it felt very satisfying to have tried, no matter what the outcome is.

Relieved that…  Hard to…. Drained from…. Fun for…  Satisfying toHmmmm…

One of the things that I’ve had the most trouble finding in terms of French-language resources is a guide to adjectives that take prepositional complements.  What that means: consider that in English, there are adjectives that have to be followed by a preposition, and you have to have the right one, or it’s not English:

  • I am happy to see you.
  • He is full of shit.
  • We are sad about your loss.
  • I was dead from hunger.

I’ve long wanted a list of French adjectives with their associated prepositions–when they have one.  I finally found one today.  Not surprisingly, it was on the Lawless French web site.  Go there for the full list–I’m just going to give you some examples.

The nice thing about the Lawless French web page is that it groups the adjectives semantically.  For example, adjectives related to feelings or states of mind typically take de as their preposition:

  • être content de: to be happy to.
  • être dêçu de: to be disappointed to.
  • être fier de: to be proud to.
  • être mécontent de: to be unhappy about.

In contrast, adjectives related to abilities tend to take à:

  • être apte à: to be capable of.
  • être habile à: to be good at.
  • être inapte à: to be incapable of.
  • être ingénieux à: to be clever at.

Notice that in the English translations, we have two prepositions for the state-of-mind adjectives (to and about), and two prepositions for the ability adjectives (of and at).  So, this isn’t just a French thing.  The problem with French is finding a place that will tell you this stuff–dictionaries generally don’t.

OPUS2: a parallel corpus, meaning that it contains the same texts in multiple languages.  The data come from many sources, including movie subtitles, European Parliament proceedings, Wikipedia, and UNIX operating system localization files.  The French section has a bit over 765 million words.  See for details.

Lawless French to the rescue!  To help myself memorize these before my oral exams next week, here are some example sentences for you (and for me).  We’ll go a bit beyond Laura Lawless’s goal, which is to give you the prepositions for when the adjective is followed by an infinitive.  I’ll include some other kinds of complements.  To find them, I’ll use the Sketch Engine web site to search the OPUS2 corpus.

Être fier de is a nice one to start with, because in both English and in French, one can be proud of something (He is proud of his voice) or proud about some action or event (He is proud to be there). In this case, I searched with the string fier de.   I’ve separated out the nominal (noun) and verbal (infinitive, specifically) complements:


  • Vous avez toutes les raisons du monde d’ être fiers de ce que vous avez réalisé You have all the reasons in the world to be proud of your achievements.
  • Je voulais que tu sois fier de moi.  I only wanted you to be proud of me.
  • Est-ce que vous êtes fiers de vous?  Are you proud of yourselves?
  • Je suis si fière de toi! I’ m so proud of you!
  • Israël était fier de son dispositif en matière de droits sociaux.  Israel is proud of its social rights system.
  • Mon pays est fier de ce que l’on ait pu contribuer à mener le Timor-Leste à l’indépendance.  (Note the subjunctive.)  My country is proud that we were able to make a contribution along Timor-Leste’s way to independence.


  • Je suis dipsomaniaque et fière de l’étre.  I’ m a dipsomaniac and i’ m proud of it. (Note that this is a noun in English (it), but an infinitive verb in French (être).  Also  note that we got the feminine form fière in this example, which tells us that Sketch Engine is doing some analysis behind the scenes.)
  • Fier de braquer des coffres-forts et de tricher aux cartes?  Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards?  (Again, we have a clearly verbal form in the French, but a noun in the English.)
  • Je suis un peu fier de l’ avoir supporté et d’ y avoir contribué presque depuis le début.  (Notice also the repetition of de.I am a little bit proud to have supported and contributed to this from near the beginning.
  • M. Nkou (Cameroun) dit que le Cameroun est fier de prodiguer une éducation à la fois aux hommes et aux femmes.  Mr. Nkou (Cameroon) said that Cameroon was proud of the fact that it provided education to both men and women.
  • Le Canada est fier de jouer un rôle de soutien, de concert avec ses partenaires internationaux, dans le cadre de ce processus historique.  Canada is proud to be playing a supporting role, alongside our international partners, in this historic process.

Now let’s search with the string content de.  This one surprised me: it turns out that content de can take a verb, but also a noun, which I hadn’t expected.  I love it when language surprises me!  Again, I’ll split the examples into nominal and verbal.


Quand vous êtes content de votre modèle, cliquez sur Fichier dans la barre de menus et choisissez Gestionnaire de modèles.  (I don’t know why être is not in the future tense, seeing as how it follows quand.  I checked this one with a native speaker, who thought that it was OK.)

  • Les gens ne sont jamais contents de leur sort People are never happy with what they have.
  • Je suis content de mon nom.  I’ m satisfied with my name.
  • Vous êtes contente de la façon dont ils sont traités?  Are you happy with how they’ re cared for?
  • On est simplement … content de ce que l’on a.  You just … are glad for what you have.
  • Il est content de lui, avec sa grosse tête!  Self- righteous Rory, with his big thick head on him. 


  • Crois moi, je … je suis content de me tromper.  Believe me, I’ m–I’ m glad to be wrong.
  • J’ aurais été content de rester à la maison pour regarder le match.  I would’ve been happy to stay home and watch the game.
  • Content de voir que vous urinez régulièrement.  Good to see you are peeing regulary, mylady.
  • Je suis si contente de ne jamais avoir couché avec lui.  I’ m so glad I never slept with him.
  • C’ est dans ces moments-la que je suis content de ne rien ressentir.  This is the kind of thing that makes me glad I have no feelings.

OK, cool!  Let’s try the synonym heureux de… And everything quickly changes.  I went through pages of results, but only saw one example with heureux de followed by a noun.  I did find other prepositions with a noun–heureux pour toi, heureux avec moi.  The last example on the list is the only one that I found with heureux de plus a noun.  I did check it with a native speaker, and she thought that it was OK.

  • Ils sont heureux de jouer.  They are happy to act.
  • Ils sont heureux de le faire.  Oh, but they’ re glad to do it.
  • J’ suis heureux de ne pas être né paysan.  I’ m glad I wasn’ t born a farmer!
  • Il fut un temps où tu étais heureux de m’avoir épousée.  There was a time when you were glad to be married to me.
  • Aussi sommes- nous très heureux de partager votre joie.  Likewise are we so very happy to partake in your joy.
  • Pétunia, mes anges jouent une très belle musique parce qu’ ils sont heureux pour toi.  Petunia … … all my angels are playing beautiful music … … because they feel so happy for you.
  • Ils sont heureux avec moi.   They’ re happy with me.  (I’m told that this doesn’t mean the same as in English.)
  • Ils sont heureux de ce qui leur est arrivé.  They are happy of what arrived to them.  (This has to be a crappy translation–probably “they’re happy about what happened to them.”)

Hmmmm… Maybe content and heureux are not quite so synonymous after all?  As you might recall from an earlier post (replete with graphs and funny stories about how much stupider I sound in languages other than my native one), if you define synonyms as words that can be replaced with each other in any context, there actually aren’t very many true synonyms.  I went to and dug through the definitions for each of them, and didn’t find much that was of help.  Towards the bottom of the page for heureux, I found an example of heureux de + noun: Il s’estime heureux de son travail.  All that I can really say at this point is that it is a hell of a lot easier to find examples of content de + noun than it is to find examples of heureux de + noun.   

…and, yes, I really am relieved as hell to have the first part of the exams behind me!  I’m a pretty high-energy guy, but the experience was nonetheless totally draining.  When I say that the C1 oral comprehension test was laughably difficult, I mean that quite literally–at some point, I just had to laugh and decide that I would do the best that I could, and whatever happens, happens.  Mind you, this is not the kind of test where at some point in the interview the speaker says that, say, Eugene is the capital of Oregon, and you’re asked What is the capital of Oregon?  Rather, it’s the kind of test where the speaker says that there’s a city in Oregon named Eugene, and the state legislature meets there for several weeks every year, and then you’re asked What is the capital of Oregon?  Keyword-spotting gets you nowhere–you need to be able to make inferences, and you need to be able to understand the statements from which you’re meant to infer things.  Having read my “how to prepare for the DELF/DALF” books, I was prepared for distorted sound systems, people speaking French with a foreign accent, and the like.  What I wasn’t prepared for was what I got: a guy speaking French with a foreign accent being interviewed on the radio and being interrupted by the interviewer at exactly the crucial moments in the interviewer when he was saying the things that we were supposed to be using to respond to the questions.  Looked at in the proper light, it’s funny.  Right?  I keep telling myself that.  I’m sure that my fellow test-takers wondered why I was laughing.

Tutelary gods and how to use “tout”

Statue of Michel de Montaigne on the rue des Ecoles. It makes me all warm and gooey inside to know that my grandfather probably visited this statue for the same reason that I did. Picture source: me.

I’m a big believer in tutelary gods.  These are the local deities that rule over or protect a place.  You could make a good case that part of the reason that Judiasm was able to survive its exile from its place of origin was that the original idea of its typically Fertile Crescent god–he lived on top of a particular hill, and in order to really worship him properly, you had to go there–changed to an idea of an immanent god who was everywhere, in all things.  (Yes, he is transcendent in Judaism, too, as far as I know–it’s complicated.)  And yet: the old tutelary gods live on.  It’s worth paying attention to the kami when you’re in Japan, and Pele in Hawaii.

Montaigne’s right foot, polished by generations of students touching it for luck with their tests. Picture source: me.

As far as I can tell, the only relevant deity in the Paris region is Montaigne.  Also known as Eyquem, Michel de Montaigne was a writer who is widely considered to be the father of the modern essay and the grandfather of all magazine writers.  There’s a statue of him on the rue des Ecoles.  I passed by it on my way home today expressly to engage in the rites of Montaigne-worship, which consist of rubbing the toe of his right foot for luck before a test.  The reason: I had just finished the first of four days of language-testing that I’ll be doing this week and next week, and I was not feeling happy about the valuable insight that I’d gotten into my weak points.

A lot of what I struggled with on today’s exams didn’t bother me that much–a super-fast speaker, mostly.  But, I was pretty down on myself when I still found myself struggling with the A2-level issue of tout/tous/toute/toutes.  In theory, these four words all mean all of, but it gets a bit more complicated than that, and there is also a pronunciation issue: tous is pronounced as tou most of the time, but tousse on occasion.  Throw in there the fact that I was never sure how to spell some of the stuff that I know how to say, like tout ce que je veux…, and you see how I might still be struggling with this–despite the fact that a class that I attended last winter spent an hour on it one day!

I’ll lay this out a bit differently than other explanations that I’ve seen: I’m going to put the idiomatic expressions first.  These get used a lot, and if you can remember that they’re (almost) all the same form, tout, that might make it easier to digest the complexity that follows.

Here are some idiomatic expressions with tout.   I took them from Eli Blume and Gail Stein’s French: Three years review text, just because that’s the one reference for English speakers that I happen to have lying around my apartment:

  • en tout cas: in any case, at any rate
  • pas du tout: not at all
  • tout à coup: all of a sudden, suddenly (see also tout d’un coup, below)
  • tout à fait: indeed
  • tout à l’heure: just now; in a little bit
  • tout de même: nevertheless
  • tout de suite: immediately
  • tout le monde: everybody, everyone
  • tout le temps: all the time

Some others that you’re likely to run into:

  • tout doucement: slowly
  • malgré tout: despite everything, in spite of everything
  • tout droit: straight ahead
  • tout d’un coup: all of a sudden, suddenly (see also tout à coup above)

…and now the only fixed expressions that I know of with a form other than tout:

  • toute la journée: all day
  • tous les jours: every day
  • toutes les nuits: every night
  • tous les quatre: all the time, often
  • tous les deux, toutes les deux: both

With that out of the way, let’s talk about what people usually talk about first: using tout to mean “all (of).”  Something important to remember here that might be difficult to remember if you’re an English-speaker: you do not follow this tout with de.  Don’t, don’t, don’t.

When used in this way, tout agrees in number and gender with the noun that it’s modifying, the forms being:

  • tout: masculine singular (tout le gateau all of the cake, the whole cake)
  • tous: masculine plural (tous ces amis all (of) his friends)
  • toute: feminine singular (toute la durée de vie all of the life cycle)
  • toutes: feminine plural (toutes les peintures all (of) the paintings

You probably noticed that all of those examples were followed by a definite article (i.e., some form of the word the).  You can also use it before a noun without an article to mean every or any.  In this case, it agrees with the gender of the noun, but the number is always singular:

  • Tout tatou est poète !  Every armadillo is a poet!  (Tex’s French Grammar web site)
  • Je contredirai ceux et celles qui croient que toute femme prend la décision de mettre fin à sa grossesse le cœur léger…  I would contradict those people who believe that any woman takes the decision to terminate a pregnancy lightly… ( web site)

You could think of the preceding examples as quantifiers–they specify how many or how much of something specified.  All of his friends, all of the cake.  Every armadillo, any woman.  Tout can also function as a pronoun, not quantifying something, but replacing something.  In this case, you’re either going to have tout to mean something like “everything,” or you’re going to have one of the two plural forms–tous, or toutes, depending on the gender of what’s being replaced.  Here is the one case (that I know of) where you pronounce tous as tousse (I don’t know whether or not you have liaison to touze):

  • Tout s’est bien goupillé.  Everything came together well (said by a friend of some slides that she put together for a PowerPoint presentation).
  • Ils partageront tout.  They will share everything.  (Blume and Stein)
  • Tout ce qu’il dit est la vérité.  Everything he says is the truth.  (Blume and Stein)
  • Mes amis sont venus et tous étaient contents.  My friends came and they all were happy.  (Kwiziq French web site) (Liaison?  I don’t know.  Native speakers?)
  • Les filles sont allées aux toilettes toutes ensemble.  The girls all went to the bathroom together.  (Transparent Language French blog)
  • Ils sont tous invités They’re all invited (my tutor)
  • Tous sont malades Everybody’s sick (my tutor)

Now: tout as an adverb.  We’ll call it an adverb when it modifies an adjective.  In this case, it means something like completely or entirely.

  • Il me parle tout bas He talks all Barry White to me (Edith Piaf, La vie en rose–technically it’s modifying another adverb here, but we’ll let that go)
  • Il est tout pâle He’s totally pale (my tutor)
  • Tout simplement simply put, simply, just (–again we’re modifying another adverb)
  • Tout comme just like; il est grand, tout comme ses parents He’s big, just like his parents (
  • C’est tout comme “same difference,” “it’s close enough” Il ne m’a pas insulté mais c’est tout comme !  He didn’t insult me, but he might as well have!  (

…and now it gets tough.  You’ll notice that in all cases, we had tout in the same form.  But, there’s an exception.  If the adjective:

  1. …is feminine, and…
  2. …starts with a consonant or with h aspiré…

then it becomes toute or toutes.  For example:

  •  Diane a mangé la pizza tout entière.  Diane ate the whole pizza.  (Transparent Language French web site)  The adjective entière is feminine, since pizza is feminine–but, it starts with a vowel, so we have tout, not toute.
  • C’est une fille toute petite, mais elle peut tout faire! She’s a small girl, but she can do it all!  (Transparent Language French web site)  The adjective petite is feminine AND it starts with a consonant, so we have toute.
  • En outre, vu ses propriétés en matière de construction, elle est tout indiquée pour les hauts murs non porteurs…     In addition, because of its constructional properties, it is particularly suitable for high, non-load-bearing walls… (  The adjective indiqée is feminine, but it doesn’t start with a vowel or h aspiré, so we have tout.
  • Elles sont tout autant africaines qu’européennes.  They are African just as much as they are European.  (Linguee.frAfricaines and européennes are feminine and plural, but they (or maybe the relevant thing here is autant) don’t start with a consonant or h aspiré, so we have tout.
  • (Sorry, I haven’t been able to find good examples of a consonant-initial feminine plural adjective to show you (and myself) the contrast.  Native speakers??)
Tout ce que vous voulez: Everything you want. Picture source: me, on my way home this evening.

Feel like trying this out?  You’re now ready for this quiz on the Français Facile web site.  You can find a bunch more of them here.  Want another take on all of this?  See the Tex’s French Grammar site, which also has a nice little exercise at the end:  As the cartoons of my childhood would have put it: Th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks!  Off to bed now, ’cause testing starts again first thing in the morning…

An apple sock, please

A chausson aux pommes–a sort of apple turnover. Picture source: me, waiting for the RER B at the Denfert-Rochereau train station.

One of the things that most amazes my American friends is that I don’t gain weight in France.  The opposite–I lose it.  This despite the fact that I feel free to eat delicious French stuff–being in France means that you don’t stuff yourself with it, and all of the walking that you do in Paris helps work it off.  Case in point: I  was up until 4 AM this morning studying the plus-que-parfait and the futur antérieur, so I’m running a bit late. That means that breakfast was a pastry grabbed at the kiosk in the train station.  Happily, they had one of my favorites left–a sort of apple turnover.

Good morning–a chaussette aux pommes, please. 

A chausson aux pommes?  Sure. 

Oh–it’s not an apple sock??

He laughed. I was happy to have made his day.  By the end of the day, I had walked up innumerable steps in metro stations and hiked from the lab to the train.  No problem with a little apple sock.

English notes

To make someone’s day: to have done something that will make them so happy that the whole day will feel good for them. When Clint Eastwood, pistol in hand, says go ahead–make my day, he means that shooting the bad guy would make him happy.

Build your own chrestomathy

It’s two days until your French test and you just discovered that there’s an entire agreement phenomenon that you’ve never heard of before.  Chrestomathies to the rescue!  Trigger warning: grammar and colloquial English obscenities.

I’ve always wanted to write a chrestomathy.  Chrestomathies are certainly useful, but mainly, I just want an excuse to use the word.  Mind you, I wasn’t even sure that I knew how to pronounce it until I looked it up just now: stress on the second syllable.

A chrestomathy is a book of examples, typically used to assist with learning a language.  I love the idea, but never expected that when the time came to write one, it’d be after midnight and I’d be panicking about an upcoming French proficiency exam.  I just read that the French tense (actually, it’s an aspect, but I try to keep technical vocabulary out of here) called the plus-que-parfait (the past perfect) requires agreement of the past participle when it’s conjugated with the verb être.  (If you’re thinking WTF?, see this post for an introduction to the plus-que-parfait, and then this post for an example of how to use it in all six persons/numbers.  WTF? is explained below, in the English notes.)  Some urgent searching found me a page on the Tex’s French Grammar web site with a review of the plus-que-parfait and some great exercises.  That got me started, but I wanted lots, lots more practice.  What to do?  For starters, I wanted a chrestomathy, and I especially wanted examples of agreement of the past participle with the subject.  (If you’re still thinking WTF: you really should either go read the posts that I pointed you to above, or stop torturing yourself.  This post won’t be that interesting if you’re not into either lexicography, or French morphosyntax.)

Happily, today we can build our own chrestomathies.  Web sites that offer multilingual example sentences can help us find them.  The problem, of course, is that we need to know how to search for the sentences that we want.  In this case, the process that I went through went something like this.

  1. I started at the Linguee web site.  This site allows you to search in one language, and then get results in that language, as well as an additional language of your choice.  Where do they get them?  I have no idea.  The results do tell you what web site they came from, and I run across the proceedings of the European Parliament fairly often.  But, the rest could come from pretty much anywhere, as far as I can tell.  Are any of the translations manually checked for accuracy?  I have no idea.  Caveat emptor, but the site is generally pretty good.
  2. I made use of two facts: (a) most search interfaces will let you surround multiple words with quotes to find those words in exactly that sequence, versus just happening to occur in the same document.  (b) French verbs that use être in the plus-que-parfait belong to a pretty finite group, and some of them are quite common (“high-frequency,” in technical terms), so I should be able to find examples of the plus-que-parfait with être by searching for those specific verbs.
  3. Now I started looking for specific verbs that I knew should show up with être.  The plus-que-parfait usually corresponds to had somethinged (where something is an arbitrary verb) in English, so I did searches like “had arrived”, “had gone”, and such.  Did this work perfectly?  Certainly not–although the verbs for which I searched are often or usually translated into French with the equivalent verbs in that language–arriver “to arrive,” aller “to go,” etc.–that’s not always the case.  For example, my search for “had gone” got me these results: The man had gone into a coma after drinking a bottle of vodka and he had been taken to hospital in an ambulance.  L’homme a sombré dans un coma après la consommation d’une bouteille de vodka et a été transporté d’urgence en ambulance.  But, more often than not, I did get a verb with être.  I just had to read through a lot of examples to pick them out.  Remember: the double quotes are essential to this search, as they’re what ensures that the words are next to each other.
  4. After doing this for a while, I had plenty of examples of masculine singular and plural subjects and feminine singular subjects, but no examples with feminine plural subjects, and that’s important, since the agreement markers for feminine plural subjects are unique to them.  So, I had to make my search a bit more specific.  “the women had” only got me one verb with être, but one is ooooh so much more than zero…

You can practice the plus-que-parfait at this page on the Tex’s French grammar web site, where you’ll find twelve test sentences.  Have at it!  If you have examples to add or corrections to make, I’d love to hear about them.  Scroll down past the examples if you just want the discussion of English points.

Masculine singular:

That was when I had left and now I saw that my vision had been the truth.

C’était lorsque j’étais parti et je voyais maintenant que ce que j’avais vu était vérité.

He said he had consulted many Canadians and had arrived at a balanced budget.
Il a dit qu’il avait consulté un grand nombre de Canadiens et qu’il en était arrivé à un budget équilibré.

He had gone to the clinic over and over again.

Il était allé au centre de soins maintes et maintes fois.

Masculine plural:

Many only realised just how bad things were once the fire brigade, the army

and the emergency services had left.

Beaucoup ne se sont effondrés que lorsque les pompiers, les soldats de l’armée fédérale et

les secours étaient déjà repartis.

The local chief said that since 1989 many people had left for Kadugli.
Le chef local a dit que depuis 1989, beaucoup étaient partis pour Kadubli.

Feminine singular:

I thought I had gone to school for nothing.
Je me disais alors que j’étais allée à l’école pour rien.  (I tried to go to the original source’s web site to verify that the writer was female–broken link.)

She testified at arbitration that she had left on vacation because she felt

much better than she had a few weeks earlier.
Elle a témoigné à l’arbitrage qu’elle était partie en vacances parce qu’elle se sentait beaucoup mieux que quelques semaines auparavant.
Yes the myopic vision had gone and for once a unified horizon stretched out before them to the ends of the earth.
Oui, la vision myope était dépassée et, du coup, les chrétiens voyaient se déployer devant eux un horizon unifié, s’étendant jusqu’aux extrémités de la terre.
Only 8.9% of its population had arrived between 1996 and 2001.
Seulement 8,9 p. 100 de sa population était arrivée entre 1996 et 2001.  NB: I don’t know why this one has feminine agreement.  Pour cent is masculine, according to

Feminine plural

At the first session, the women had grouped according to their cultures – the Indigenous women clustering on one side of the room.

Lors de la première séance, les femmes s’étaient groupées selon leur culture – les femmes autochtones s’étant regroupées d’un côté de la classe.
Want to try a little test of the plus-que-parfait?  Check out this page on the Français Facile web site.  English notes below.

English notes

GIF source:

WTF: an abbreviation for “what the fuck.”  It’s usually used to express puzzlement or surprise.  For far more hilarious/freaky/weird/creepy examples than I could ever possibly put in this post, go to Google Images and search for WTF.  I’m going to leave you with just this one GIF, which illustrates nicely the evolution that this expression has gone through: in spoken English, it’s possible to just say the fuck??  …that is, you can leave out the word what.  I don’t know why–sometimes in language, shit just happens.  DO NOT use this expression in any sort of formal situation–not at school, not at work, not in writing, not when meeting your new in-laws for the first time, etc.  How it appeared in the post: If you’re thinking WTF?, see this post for an introduction to the plus-que-parfait, and then this post for an example of how to use it in all six persons/numbers.

Eat, choke, and leave: how to pronounce toponyms

How to pronounce “Nevada.” Picture source:

Part of running for president in the United States is that you have to travel around the country and visit places.  While you’re there, you’re expected to do two things:

  1. Eat whatever food is associated with the region or the immigrants who settled the region (with the exception of Native Americans, we’re all immigrants in this country) and appear to enjoy it.
  2. Pronounce the name of the place that you’re in correctly.

This being the bizarre election cycle that it is, Trump chose instead, on a recent visit to Nevada, to get it backwards.  Most Americans pronounce it Ne-VAH-da, but Nevadans pronounce it Ne-VA-da.  That is: most Americans pronounce the middle vowel of Nevada with the vowel of hot, but the locals pronounce the middle vowel with the vowel of hat.  Trump got it backwards—and made a big deal about it.  My guess is that he did this in an attempt to draw the news coverage away from the fact that he had no clue what people were talking about when they asked him about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, the hottest issue in Nevada politics.  (Yes, Hillary knew what they meant.)

How to pronounce “Nevada.” Picture source:

Place names are weird in America, and in France, too.  It’s definitely not always possible to know how they’re pronounced by anyone, let alone by the locals, just by seeing the spelling.  My home town’s Couch St.?  It’s pronounced kooch.  Mind you, we call a couch a couch, just like anyone else (unless it’s a sofa)–but, Couch St. is pronounced Kooch St.  Macadam St.?  No, it’s not Ma-CA-dam—it’s MA-cadam.  In France?  Forget it.  Rennes is  [ʁɛn], which you could guess from the spelling, but Reims is [ʀɛ̃s] (Prononciation du titre dans sa version originale Écouter) , which I don’t think you can.  Lille is [lil] Prononciation du titre dans sa version originale Écouter), which you could guess, but if you’re like me, you’ve wondered a thousand times if it’s supposed to be pronounced like fille.  Of course, any French person would laugh their ass off at the pronunciation of the name of the city of Beaufort in South Carolina, which is totally different from the pronunciation of the name of the town of Beaufort in North Carolina.  Do you pronounce the x at the end of deux, or aux, or peux?  No.  Do you pronounce the x at the end of Aix and Dupleix?  Why, yes–you do.

How to pronounce “Nevada.” Picture source:

Indeed, there has been plenty of press coverage about Trump insisting that Nevadans pronounce the name of their state his way, and it has drowned out the little bit of press coverage about what Nevadans actually seem to care about, which is Trump showing up in their state without having taken the time to find out what the issues of concern there.  But, this being the bizarre election that it’s been, it’s hard to believe that any of this will affect anything.  Are you an American?  Get out there and vote, or you can’t really complain if you end up with a reality TV star for a president…

English notes:

to laugh one’s ass off: to laugh very hard.  DO NOT use this in circumstances where you would not use bad language.  Hey Steve, you want to hear a joke so funny you’ll laugh your ass off?  Steve, tu veux entendre une blague super drôle tu seras péter de rire(Source: And you’re gonna laugh your ass off, ’cause it’s really freakin’ funny.  Et vous allez vous péter de rire, parce c’est vraiment trop drôle.  (Source:  How it was used in the post: Of course, any French person would laugh their ass off at the pronunciation of the name of the city of Beaufort in South Carolina, which is totally different from the pronunciation of the name of the town of Beaufort in North Carolina.  

French notes:

Apropos of nothing but my desire to make blogger Bea dM smile, here is a list of Italian place names, in French. 

Cataphora, pro-VP, and why my office is so messy

In which the messiness of my office leads to a discussion of cataphora and the pro-verb-phrase.

I know it’s not cool to do so, but I still read on paper.  I like to take a few articles and sit on the couch outside my office with a cup of coffee and a highlighter.  When I finish an article, I usually write up some notes about it, and then I stick the paper and my notes in a binder.  I like paper in my hands even more when it comes to books.  I appreciate the fact that my Kindle lets me get on the plane to France without having to carry a suitcase full of books, but my books are my connection to the entire experience of my life; I hate to part with them, and I love the way that they make my home feel like…a home.

My advisor in grad school told us that we had to make a decision early in our careers, and stick with it.  Would we:

  • …file papers that we’d read by author’s last name, or…
  • …file papers that we’d read by topic?

Filing papers by topic didn’t work for me.  The problem was that the same paper could be relevant to (a) acoustics, (b) Quantal Theory (the explanation of QT on Wikipedia sucks, but here it is if you want it), and (c) articulator velocity in stress contrasts.  So, 15 years ago or so, I switched to by-author’s-last-name.  The pictures below show the result: I have so many binders full of articles that it interferes with my ability to store my books.

img_6967Maybe it’s time to try by-topic again?  A scary thought, but I can tell you this: the only reason that I haven’t thrown these boxes out despite the fact that I haven’t opened a single one of them in the five or so years since I moved into this office is that I know for a fact that one of them holds a stack of every paper I’ve ever read about metamorphic testing.  I know that I would not want to have to remember who wrote every single paper I’ve ever read about metamorphic testing–it’s reassuring to know that when I need those papers again, I’ll find them, neatly stacked, in one of those boxes.

I hate ending blog posts with a question, but: how about you?  What’s your strategy for hanging on to the stuff that you’ve read?  Or, do you not even bother with paper anymore?  Please tell me that it’s not the case that you no longer bother reading…  English notes below–too many to leave room for French notes.  Typical Anglo-Saxon…

English notes

Do so: you know what a pronoun is: it’s a word that takes the place of a noun.  We use them in very particular circumstances–typically, when the noun has been mentioned before, and there is some assumption that both the speaker and the hearer know which thing is being talked about.

Do so and its relatives, which include do it, do that, and just plain do, can be thought of as pro-verb-phrases.  That means that they’re taking the place of a verb and its related words (I’ll show you what I mean in a minute) that has typically been mentioned before, such that both the speaker and the hearer know which verb phrase is being talked about.


  • He asked me to leave, and I did.  (did replaces leave, sorta.)
  • He asked me to leave the money, and I did.  (did replaces leave the money, sorta.  Like how I switched intransitive leave (me to leave) and transitive leave (leave the money)?
  • He asked me to leave the money for the rent that we had forgotten to pay the month before because we were out of town on the table, and I did.  (did replaces leave the money for the rent that we had forgotten to pay the month before because we were out of town on the table, sorta.)

Now, there’s another way that you could say all three of those sentences, and it would mean pretty close to the same thing, although the register is somewhat different, perhaps.  In this form, the do becomes do so:

  • He asked me to leave, and I did so.
  • He asked me to leave the money, and I did so.
  • He asked me to leave the money for the rent that we had forgotten to pay the month before because we were out of town on the table, and I did so.

It’s worth pointing out that although I’ve given you examples only in the past tense, you can use either of these–that is, did or did so as a pro-verb-phrase–in any tense, as far as I know

  • Whenever I tell him not to be an asshole, he asks me to leave.  I always do so, I always have done so, and I will always continue to do so.

If you want to read more about this construction as it is used after a verb phrase, there’s a nice page about that here, on the English Grammar web site.  I’m going to talk about how it was used in this post: before the verb phrase.  I know it’s not cool to do so, but I still read on paper. 

We think about pronouns as I described them above: referring to something that has been referred to more specifically previously.  But, we can use them before the thing that we’re going to refer to, as well.  Here are some examples:

  • I know you don’t know him, but my brother will be here tomorrow, and he’d really like to meet you.
  • I hate them, those fucking bastards.

The phenomenon is called cataphora.    From the point of view of how we usually think of discourse as working, it’s a bit bizarre, but you probably run across it most days of your life on which you do any reading, at least in English.

Pro-verb-phrases can be cataphoric, as well, and that’s how I used do so in this post:

  • I know it’s not cool to do so, but I still read on paper.

You can think of do so as a “preplacement,” versus a “replacement,” of read on paper.  I hope that helps, and if you have thoughts to share with me on the subject of how to file papers that you’d like to give me, please do so. 







Curative Power of Medical Data

JCDL 2020 Workshop on Biomedical Natural Language Processing


Criminal Curiosities


Biomedical natural language processing

Mostly Mammoths

but other things that fascinate me, too


Adventures in natural history collections

Our French Oasis


ACL 2017

PC Chairs Blog

Abby Mullen

A site about history and life

EFL Notes

Random commentary on teaching English as a foreign language

Natural Language Processing

Université Paris-Centrale, Spring 2017

Speak Out in Spanish!

living and loving language




Exploring and venting about quantitative issues