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.


8 thoughts on “Build your own chrestomathy”

    1. A totally reasonable fear, and I thank you for your concern. 🙂 I finally collapsed last night and got a few hours’ sleep. Today is dedicated to points of grammar, tonight I’ll sleep, and tomorrow is the first day of the test–the written part. Not looking forward to flunking, but definitely looking forward to the experience of the exam!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. There’s something I don’t understand : past participles must agree also for verbs that use “avoir” as the auxiliary, not only “être” . If you understood the complete rules of agreement for the passé composé you must use them exactly for any compound tense : plus-que-parfait, passé antérieur, futur antérieur, and also for compound tenses of other moods, subjunctive and conditional .
    La pomme que j’avais mangée, les pays que j’avais vus, les villes que j’avais visitées .
    Past participles agreement obeys the same rules for all tenses, with avoir and être .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Due to a comment that you wrote on one of my earlier posts, I had found out about (and studied for a couple days) the agreement of the past participle in relative clauses (les pays que j’avais vus) and when a pronominal object precedes the verb (Juliette m’a fait un coup de fil, je l’ai vue aujourd’hui). What I had never thought of was the plus-que-parfait, etc. with être. Sigh…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s not that painful : once you master agreements (with avoir and être) for one tense, say the passé composé, you just have to exactly apply it for all compound tenses, indicative, subjunctive, conditional, they all work the same .
        Here are some more for your chrestxyz collection :
        passé du subjonctif : Je doute qu’elles soient parties, ce sont les seules que j’aie vues .
        conditionnel passé 1° forme : Ils seraient déjà partis si … Cette réparation ? Je l’aurais finie depuis longtemps si …
        Passé antérieur : Quand ils furent arrivés je partis . La tarte, quand ils l’eurent mangée, je me levai .
        Futur antérieur : Quand elles seront arrivées, je resterai là bien sûr . Cette tâche, quand ils l’auront terminée, je serai satisfait .

        Liked by 1 person

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