One of the disorienting things about being in a foreign country is that you often find that you’re incapable of doing the simplest things–things that you could do without really having to think about them in your country of origin. Getting and maintaining cell phone service? I have spent weeks of my life struggling with that in France. Where to buy a breadbox? No clue–one of the charms of France is that stores are pretty specialized here, but you have to find the right kind for whatever it is that you’re looking for. Fastoche for a French adult, but often baffling for me. Using a credit card? The stories I could tell…
Case in point: I struggle with grammatical points of listening to the news here. I am completely addicted to listening to and reading the news, and one of the nice things about having a bit of familiarity with French is that I can consume news from a whole nother perspective. (A whole nother explained in the English notes.) What throws me off is the use of the conditional mood in French news reporting. (The term mood, as opposed to tense, refers to something like a grammatical structure that communicates something about the reality of a situation, as opposed to the time of its occurrence–the latter is tense. The conditional and the subjunctive are usually described as moods, while the past and the present are tenses (usually–it gets complicated in Bulgarian and other languages in which verbs are inflected for evidentiality, or whether and how the speaker knows something to be true). The future? It varies from language to language. See irrealis if you’re interested.)
In French, one use of the conditional is to convey something like the as-yet-unverified status of something that you’re saying. Here’s an extract from the Tex’s French Grammar description of how this works:
The conditional is also used to give information whose accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Journalists often use it to report events which are not [yet verified].
‘Une tornade vient de s’abattre sur Hubbard, Texas. Il y aurait plusieurs victimes. Un tatou et un écureuil seraient gravement blessés. Restez avec nous, nous devrions avoir plus de détails d’ici quelques secondes …’
‘A tornado just struck in Hubbard, Texas. Allegedly, there are several casualties. An armadillo and a squirrel seem to be seriously wounded. Stay with us, we should have more details in a few seconds …’
Here’s an example of journalistic use of the imperfect, from a news story in Le monde about persecution of gays in Chechnya. (I picked Le monde because it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.) Look for auraient été arrêtées:
D’après le journal russe indépendant Novaïa Gazeta, relayé par des ONG dont Amnesty International ou Human Rights Watch, une centaine de personnes auraient été arrêtées en Tchétchénie pour homosexualité, puis torturées et détenues dans des prisons secrètes près de Grozny.
Here you see it in the title of a web page–note serait, in place of est:
La Tchétchénie serait-elle en train de se «débarrasser des homosexuels» en les torturant dans des camps ? La communauté internationale s’interroge
What’s the point of the torture? To get you to give up the names of other gays. In this news story, watch for aurait procédé and serait ensuite soumis:
Selon ces témoignages de rescapés, la police tchétchène aurait procédé à une vague d’enlèvement de membres de la communauté LGBT ou de personnes soupçonnées d’en faire partie. Les détenus seraient ensuite soumis à des tortures et des interrogatoires pour dénoncer d’autres personnes ayant les mêmes orientations sexuelles.
Just how thoroughly tortured can you be if you’re gay in Chechnya? To death–look for auraient été tuées in this sentence from the same article:
Trois personnes au moins auraient été tuées, selon des sources au sein de la police et du gouvernement.
You’ll notice a repeated pattern in these examples–it’s made explicit that what’s being reported is something that was initially said by someone else:
- D’après le journal russe indépendant Novaïa Gazeta, relayé par des ONG dont Amnesty International ou Human Rights Watch, une centaine de personnes auraient été arrêtées…
- Selon ces témoignages de rescapés, la police tchétchène aurait procédé à une vague d’enlèvement…
- Selon un témoin, il s’agirait de “voyageurs d’Europe de l’Est” qui se sont montrés “incroyablement agressifs”. (Not from a story about gays being tortured in Chechnya–see here)
I’ve heard the construction used in spoken language without that kind of reference to a third party who was the origin of the information, in situations like reporting on something that had just happened, e.g. when reporting on the number of deaths in a big traffic accident while it still wasn’t clear if the final number of deaths were known, so it’s clearly not necessary–but, it’s probably not an accident that we’re seeing this co-occurrence of source and conditional mood in written news stories.
Want to do something to help? Slacktivism is always an option–click “like” on a Facebook post, or retweet something, and go on about one’s business. Give 20 euros or 20 bucks, though, and you’ve already done more than most people ever will–and maybe help save a life in the process. For the cost of a pizza… 5 euros/bucks would still be more than most people do, and for the cost of a cup of coffee and a croissant. Here are some places where you can make donations:
a whole nother: this means something like an entirely different. It’s so uncommonly used in writing that native speakers typically aren’t even sure how to spell it–WordReference’s spell checker doesn’t recognize it. I was pleasantly surprised to find an entry for it on the Merriam-Webster web site.