How we’re sounding stupid today: “their”

The next morning I’ll show up at the lab and someone will say “good morning” to me in a way that I haven’t heard before, and I’ll stand there like a drooling idiot trying to figure out what the hell I just heard. 

It never fails.  One evening I’ll be sitting around with friends discussing how the American right wing versus the American left wing defines “the establishment,” or the contrasting French and American understandings of religious freedom, or the lack of correspondence between the French and American categories of liberal, conservative, leftist, rightist, or something equally complex.  I’ll think that I’m finally starting to be able to function in the French language.  Then the next morning I’ll show up at the lab and someone will say “good morning” to me in a way that I haven’t heard before, and I’ll just stand there like a drooling idiot trying to figure out what the hell I just heard.  (For lots of ways to say “hello” in English, see the English notes below.)

Picture source:

Case in point: it was recently pointed out to me that I essentially always get the word their wrong.  It has two forms, leur and leurs, neither of which I ever get right–instead, I say/write son/ses.  Those are the singular forms.  Crazy–any child could get this right…

OK: enough self-castigation.  Let’s practice.  We’ll use a technique that I learned from the book Português Contemporâneo, by Maria Abreu and Cléa Rameh.  Amazon describes it like this:

This is the first volume of a basic course organized around the concept that to learn another language is to internalize another set of linguistic rules.

How do you do that?  Abreu and Rameh do it with drills.  Not tests, really–drills.  When you have things that contrast with each other–say, the first-person singular form of a verb (I like you) and the first-person plural form of a verb (We like you)–you repeat each one several times in a very similar sort of sentence.  Only after that do you start mixing them together.  If memory serves, you do this in sets of half a dozen or so.  For example:

Ça c’est son livre.

  1. stylo : Ça c’est son __________ stylo.
  2. porte-monnaie : Ça c’est __________ porte-monnaie.
  3. sac à dos : Ça c’est __________ sac à dos.
  4. père : Ça c’est __________ père.
  5. chien : Ça c’est __________ chien.
  6. bateau : Ça c’est __________ bateau.

Now, remember: I belong very firmly to the “write about what you don’t know” school of…well, of writing.  So, I may wander into error very quickly here–I depend on you native speakers to keep me straight here.  This is about to get to be a problem, because…

There can be quite a bit of variation between languages in how nouns get inflected–or don’t–when you’re talking about a group of individuals, each of which has something.  For example, suppose you’re talking to a group of kids, and their faces are dirty, and you’re going to tell them.  Here is how that works in English, and in Spanish:

  • Wash your faces.
  • Lavense la cara.

Notice that in English, faces is plural, while in Spanish, la cara is singular.  It’s pointless to talk about logic or lack thereof here–this isn’t about logic.  It’s just a fact about the individual language.  How does it work in French?  I actually have no idea, but I bet I can screw it up pretty easily.  In order to try to avoid that, I’m going to hunt about for real-life examples.  But–I’ll bet that native speakers disagree about this kind of thing.  I’d love to hear your opinions on this in the Comments, if they differ.  In order to try to get the most Académie-ish usage, I’ve taken these examples from the EUROPARL corpus, a set of speeches in all of the languages of the European Union.  These texts come from either native-speaker politicians or professional EU translators, so they should, in theory, be close to the spoken standard.


  1. travail : Je le déplore car nous devons agir du fait que d’ autres n’ ont pas fait __________ travail.
  2. choix : Nous espérons que ceux qui envisagent de voter contre ces amendements pourront donner de bonnes raisons de __________ choix au Parlement et aux citoyens qui sont à la recherche d’ un emploi.
  3. but : Pourtant, __________ but originel est d’ indiquer la direction à suivre et de fixer des priorités.
  4. part : Les États membres ont aussi __________ part de responsabilité dans ce domaine et ils ne doivent pas l ‘ oublier.
  5. région : Les gens réagissent en ” votant avec leurs pieds “, en quittant __________ région dans l ‘ espoir de trouver de meilleurs revenus.
  6. taux :  Je pense que nous en avons tous le plus grand besoin si nous considérons les résultats des dernières élections européennes, si nous considérons __________ taux de participation.

Now: that probably looks super-simple, but it’s probably six times more than I’ve used leur in the entire past six months–apparently, I get this wrong all the time.  It’s about to get a lot harder for me to set up the drill, because I have to figure out a way to cue whether the possessors are singular or plural, while simultaneously keeping the structures as similar as possible–difficult (for me, at any rate) in a language in which the verb agrees with the number (i.e., singular or plural) of the subject.  Let’s see what we can do here…

Il culpabilise son prof.

Ils culpabilisent leur prof.  (Note that we have to make the assumption that “they” share the same (single) professor–this is different from the “wash your faces” case, where everyone has their own, individual face.)

  1. il, cousin : Il culpabilise __________ cousin.
  2. ils, père : Ils culpabilisent __________ père.
  3. ils, président : Ils culpabilisent __________ président. 
  4. il, président : Il culpabilise __________ président.
  5. il, chien : Il culpabilise __________ chien.
  6. ils, chef : Ils culpabilisent __________ chef. 

OK, that wasn’t so bad…  Let’s do another drill of six examples.  This time, though, I’m going to use feminine nouns, so the singular will be sa.

  1. Les deux frères, mère : Les deux frères aiment __________ mère.
  2. Les deux maîtresses d’école, directrice : Les deux maîtresses d’école aiment__________ directrice.
  3. il, mère : Il aime __________ mère.
  4. ils, tante : Ils aiment __________ tante.
  5. il, voiture : Il aime __________ voiture.
  6. Le jeune homme et sa meuf, voiture : Le jeune homme et sa meuf aiment __________ voiture.

(OK, quick question for my fellow anglophones: or these more straightforward or less straightforward when I can find actual nouns (les deux frères) instead of pronouns (ils)?)

Notice that we haven’t even touched the form leurs, which is used when multiple things are owned–that gets us straight into the question of what you do in cases where everyone has their own of something (remember the example wash your faces in English versus lavense la cara in Spanish that we talked about above).  We’re up to 1200 words already, so let’s leave that for another day–if I can get this straight with the singular leur, maybe I’ll at least be making 50% fewer errors today, at any rate…

English notes

Here are a bunch of ways to say hello.  Some of them you would only use in the morning–I’ve listed them separately.  Good afternoon and good evening sound pretty formal–in America, we tend to use separate greetings for the morning only.  For the rest of the day, we mostly just use some form of hello. 

  1. Hello
  2. Hi
  3. Hey
  4. Hey there
  5. What’s up?
  6. ‘Sup?  (for young people only–I’ve probably never said this in my life.  It’s a form of what’s up?)
  7. What’s goin’ on?
  8. Howdy (don’t even think about using this one unless you want to make people smile/laugh, in which case: go for it)
  9. Howdy, pardner (see note above–and, yes, you have to pronounce it pardner, with a d, to get the full effect)

For the morning only:

  1. Good morning
  2. ‘mornin’
  3. mmmphglrg (or words to that effect–I’m (mostly) joking here)

18 thoughts on “How we’re sounding stupid today: “their””

  1. Nothing to say about the use of “leur” but… about “culpabiliser” : in your examples, it would feel more natural to say “Il fait culpabiliser son prof”. Sorry to add to your distress…

    Liked by 2 people

      1. “Culpabiliser quelqu’un” exactly means “making someone feel guilty” . It’s not a perfect synonym of ” blaming someone”though there’s a relation . But in modern French people mostly say “faire culpabilser quelqu’un” to express this very idea .
        “Culpabiliser” became reduced to its intransitive form and nowadays just means “feeling guilty” . “Je culpabilise, pardonnez-moi pour ce que j’ai fait” .


  2. That flick-switch that has a hair-trigger to ‘setting foolish’ is the bane of my life. Some days I am absolutely sparkling and then crash bang wallop there I am making childish errors. I have to admit that leur/leurs sa/son is one of my less stressful grammar points but remembering whether to use être or avoir in the passé composé is nightmarish and leaves me speaking like a stroke victim every time. And yet I know it which is SO frustrating.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I don’t know if this only applies in Cornwall or if it’s more generally British, but “awright?” (or something vaguely like that) works as a form of hello.

    I may be setting the bar too low here, but my going theory is that when you reach the point where you can hear how awkward you are in a language and what you screw up, you’re doing pretty well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello . You are regularly a source of puzzlement for me . What is so hard in the French use of possessive adjectives, once you etched the rule ? In Spanish it works the same . The number of possessive has two elements to consider : 1) singular/plural for the owner, 2) singular/plural for the owned . I leave the gender question that you seem to manage .
    L’institutrice aime SA directrice : 1 and 2 singular .
    L’institutrice aime ses élèves : 1 singulat 2 plural .
    Les institutrices aiment leur directrice : 1 plural 2 singular .
    Les institutrices aiment leurs élèves : 1 and 2 plural .
    What is it in there that overwhelms you ? You seem rather aware in life, unless you fooled us for long and used a ghostwriter ? Are you too lazy to focus ? Did your mother leave home with a possessive adjective ? I’m bemused .
    Now about the more tricky question “wash your faces or your face” there is not a strict rule, rather customs related to some form of something … I’d say in French we’ll more easily say “Apportez tous vos sacs de couchages, plural for sleeping bags even if people have only one each, and ” lavez tous soigneusement votre visage”, probably because we feel that a face is something utterly personal and individual, but really both ways are grammatically correct .

    Liked by 3 people

      1. S’s in spoken English, you mean like “We met at Francis’s” ? This one is unpleasant to a French ear, note that the XVIth century French language goldsmiths eliminated all forms of unaesthetic sounds like these two following identical consonants sounds . But about the plural s’s I’m afraid I don’t see what you are referring to . Probably because I’m not involved 😁 .

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I was actually referring to the tendency not to pronounce the ‘s’ on the end of simple plural words. “I’ve never seen so many car!” or “Have you tasted these bean?” Obviously although 80% of French speaker(s) do this, I did not mean you!


      3. Really ? They do this ? Obviously they never stayed for long in Anglophone dark territories because pronouncing final “s”s quickly tends to become automatic . Same for”He wantS” . Your 80% wrongly stick to the etymology-based French system with a mass of silent letters and did not catch that materialist peoples have a coarser relationship with language 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    1. > once you etched the rule ?

      That’s just it–the rule is not yet etched! It drives me CRAZY that I can get along at work, with my friends, in a doctor’s office, etc., but then mess up stupid, basic things like this!

      Liked by 1 person

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