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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 had gone to the clinic over and over again.
and the emergency services had left.
les secours étaient déjà repartis.
She testified at arbitration that she had left on vacation because she felt
At the first session, the women had grouped according to their cultures – the Indigenous women clustering on one side of the room.
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.