Owning One’s Body Parts

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

In French, one often does not use a possessive article when talking about body parts. They either use reflexive verbs to indicate that the action is being done to oneself or IOP’s to indicate that the action is being done to someone else.

“Rex se grattait l’oreille avec la patte de derrière”
“Papa m’a caressé la tête”
“Rex lui a léché la main”
(from Petit Nicolas)
Je me lave les cheveux.
Elle lui a cassé le bras.

But there are times when one doesn’t have to use either IOP’s or reflexive pronouns when talking about body parts.

1. When there is no doubt about the owner, ownership is obvious. Often used with verbs such as ouvrir, fermer, lever, baisser, hausser, hôcher
*levez la main
*ouvre la bouche
*elle a fermé les yeux
*il a haussé les épaules
*il a dit “non” en hôchant la tête

2. If ownership is obvious AND if the body part is modified by an adjective (other than left or right), use a possessive article.
*elle a ouvert ses grands yeux
*tu as coupé tes beaux cheveux noirs
*”tu n’entends pas tes petits dents qui crient ‘pitié, non! pas de bonbons'” (Trotro Veut Un Bonbon)
*va laver tes mains sales
*elle a foulé sa cheville faible
*tu t’es coupé les cheveux
*elle s’est foulé la cheville droite
*j’ai mal à l’épaule gauche

3. When it’s the main action, use possessive articles
*j’ai mis mon chapeau sur ma tête
*il a mis ses mains dans ses poches
versus when it’s modifying another action, use “the”
*je suis entré le chapeau sur la tête
*il est parti, les mains dans les pôches

4. When working with avoir mal à the body part, the above rules apply.
*elle a mal aux pieds
*elle a mal au pied gauche
*elle a mal à ses pieds froids

5. faire mal – to hurt, only used with people and animals

a. one’s body part can faire mal à them
*ses pieds lui font mal
*mon dos me fait mal

b. se faire mal à the body part – to hurt oneself
*Je me suis fait mal au dos en travaillant dans le jardin.
*Il s’est fait mal au pouce avec un coup de marteau.

c. faire mal à someone -to hurt someone
*tu m’as fait mal
*ça fait mal
*ne frappe pas le chien – ça lui fera mal

Passive Voice

May 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

The passive voice is where the action is done to the subject. The passive voice in French is constructed just like the passive voice in English, where the conjugated verb is “être”, and the action done is put in past participle form and treated like an adjective.

*La ville est entourée par l’ennemi. The village is surrounded by the enemy.
*Le garcon est puni par son père. The boy is punished by his father.
*Le malade a été guéri par les antibiotiques. The sick person was healed by antibiotics.
*La ville est entourée de montagnes. The city is surrounded by mountains.
*La discrimination est interdite par la loi. Discrimination is forbidden by the law.
*La fenêtre a été cassée par la pierre. The window was broken by the rock.
*Le roman a été écrit par Corneille. The novel was written by Corneille.
*Une récompense est promise. A reward is promised.
*La cigarette est interdite. Cigarettes are forbidden.

There are other ways of forming the passive voice, but these are examples of the basics.

Déjeuner du Matin Spoof

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of my favorite things ever.

Le Petit déjeuner à Martin, TN” par TBob Perverti (1995, spoofing Jacques Prévert’s poem, “Le déjeuner du matin”)

Il a mis le bacon
dans la poêle
Il l’a frit
Dans la graisse du bacon
Il a mis des oeufs
Il a sorti les petits pains chauds
de leur poêle
Il a mis le bacon
sur l’assiette
Il a mis les oeufs
avec le bacon
Il a mis les petits pains chauds
sur l’assiette
avec le bacon et les oeufs
et il a mis la sauce “red-eye” là-dessus
sans me parler
sans m’en offrir à manger
Puis, il est parti
parti traire ses vaches
ses vaches si précieuses
Et moi j’ai pris
mon nez dans mon mouchoir
et je me suis mouchée.

Book Review of ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ and ‘The Sense of Style’

October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Book Review: ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ by N.M. Gwynne & ‘The Sense of Style’ by Steven Pinker

Good grammar is crucial to clear thinking, say the language grumps. Nonsense, say cognitive scientists. Nobody seems to know why intelligent people write inscrutable prose.

Grammar is not everybody’s idea of a good time. Thanks to the remarkable inefficiencies of the Chicago public school system, I was able to steer happily clear of the subject until going off to college. Until then the entirety of my grammatical knowledge included beginning a sentence with a capital letter and ending it with a period and never using the word “ain’t.” Commas to me were so many gnats strewn upon sheets of printed paper, a colon was an internal organ, and a dash a synonym for just a touch of ketchup or mustard. As for the semicolon, my understanding of it was equal to my understanding of Mandarin Chinese, in which, for all I knew, it might have passed as a letter.

Part of the problem here is youth, which is often unprepared to receive knowledge that does not immediately excite. How, after all, could a male adolescent, hormones churning, care about a dangling participle when his own participle so seldom dangled? I could scarcely have told you what a split infinitive was because I had no notion of what an infinitive might be. If a sentence wished to run on, hey, that was fine by me. Ask me the meaning of the genitive, the ablative or the gerundive and I would probably reply that it is not nice to mix with Mr. Inbetween. Grammar, fair to say, was not my long suit.

Gwynne’s Grammar

By N.M. Gwynne
Knopf, 249 pages, $19.95

I first learned grammar through instruction in French by a modest man named Philip Kolb, who I subsequently learned was the editor, in French, of the letters of Marcel Proust. Only later, gradually, did I pick up the rudiments of English grammar. When I was a university teacher in a department of English, I corrected my students’ obvious lapses in grammar, but I should certainly never correct anyone else’s grammar, in public or private, nor do I deign to correct that of the contemporary authors whose books I occasionally review. The critic John Simon has made rather a speciality of this. I once met a man who told me that John corrected a toast he gave at a wedding.

I used the word “speciality” in the penultimate sentence of my last paragraph, and not the word “specialty,” and straightaway became a touch nervous. H.W. Fowler, whose magisterial “Modern English Usage” I keep near my desk, informs me that it is all right to do so. The two words, he reports, seem to call out for differentiation, though little progress has been made in achieving it, and “writers use either form for any of the senses according as they prefer its sound in general or find it suits the rhythm of a sentence.” The wrestle with language, like that with conscience, is unending.

The Sense of Style

By Steven Pinker
Viking, 359 pages, $27.95

Not the least notable thing about “Gwynne’s Grammar,” the work of Neville Martin Gwynne, an English businessman and earlier an Etonian who went on to Oxford, is that it spent some time on best-seller lists in Britain. What makes this all the more extraordinary is that the book is a textbook, one with no pictures—”pictures in textbooks,” Mr. Gwynne writes, “actually interfere with the learning process”—and with not the least wisp of dumbing-down in its composition.

Mr. Gwynne does not deny that grammar can be hellishly complicated. “Rather,” he writes, “the encouragement that I offer is that whatever work is involved is overwhelmingly worth it and also that this work gradually becomes progressively easier as the skills involved become more habitual and indeed as making the necessary effort becomes more habitual.”

If any criticism might be made of “Gwynne’s Grammar,” it might be about the extravagance of its author’s promises. Mr. Gwynne holds that grammar is crucial to clear thinking, which may well be right. He also claims that “the rules [of grammar] always have a logic underpinning them,” which, alas, isn’t always the case. In a five-step syllogism, he contends that “grammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which—as both common sense and experience show—happiness is impossible.” Improvement in grammar, he also argues, unfailingly affects “both mind and character.” All of which, as the English say, sounds like overegging the pudding.

On the underegging side, Mr. Gwynne writes that there is “virtually nothing original in [his book] except its manner of presentation.” This manner is simple enough. Mr. Gwynne defines the parts of speech, the elements of punctuation and the grammar of writing verse (once considered a standard practice of the cultivated). He then follows up in each instance with examples of these things both properly and improperly used. His definitions—terse, logical, precise—are among the best things in the book. He defines a definition—not an easy thing to do—as “a statement of the exact meaning of a word or phrase that sufficiently distinguishes it from any other word or phrase, preferably in the fewest possible words.” A sentence “is most comprehensively defined as a word or group of words expressing a complete statement, wish, command or question, whether as a thought or in speech or in writing.” He defines grammar as “being simply the correct use of words.”

As Mr. Gwynne moves into the subtler elements of grammar, he sets out the range and use of verbs and their tenses, the basic rules of syntax, the mechanics of punctuation. With his customary precision, he guides his readers through the arcana of the subjunctive and introduces the notion of modal verbs. He makes the clean distinction between a clause and phrase by noting that a clause is a phrase with a verb in it, a phrase a clause without a verb. He takes up the active and passive and those troublesome fraternal twins, transitive and intransitive.

Something quite new to me is Mr. Gwynne’s dictum on the placement of multiple adjectives, according to which adjectives of opinion come before those of size, which come before those of age, which come before those of shape, which come before those of color, which come before those of origin, which come before those of material purpose. His illustrative sentence on this point runs: “The book you are holding is therefore a nice little just-published oblong-shaped attractively colored much needed hardcover grammar textbook.”

Memorization is a strong element in the Gwynne pedagogical method. He insists on the importance of readers memorizing his definitions and rules. He believes the rote method of learning, currently much despised, essential to acquiring grammar. Returning to that ordering of adjectives, I had myself thought to memorize it but found I could not. But, then, my little gray cells, unlike those of Inspector Poirot, may not be in top condition.

The personality of its author is not the least attraction of “Gwynne’s Grammar.” Mr. Gwynne is unflinchingly, unapologetically rear-guard. Straight out of the gate he announces that “the word to indicate whether anyone is male or female is ‘sex,’ not ‘gender,’ which is purely a grammatical term,” an assertion that, if taken up, would wipe out every Gender Studies program in American universities. Excepting the need for new words for new things, he is against any changes in language that “are not in the direction of greater richness, clarity, and precision.” His position on splitting infinitives is to note that “Shakespeare never needed to split an infinitive,” with the implication that therefore neither should we. Case closed.

Mr. Gwynne’s literary opinions are no less firmly held. He attacks Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot for setting verse free. Late in the book he remarks, though by this point he need scarcely do so, “I am not an innovator. On the contrary, my position throughout this book is that of defender and promoter of what has been shown to work over long periods of time and what is real.”

N.M. Gwynne and Steven Pinker, the author of “The Sense of Style,” would not, fair to say, be ideal cabin mates on a lengthy cruise along the Mediterranean. For Mr. Pinker, Mr. Gwynne would qualify supremely for what in his book he calls a “language grump,” or “pedant,” or “anal retentive,” or “Miss Thistlebottom,” his term for the type of the old-fashioned school marm. For Mr. Gwynne, Mr. Pinker would be written off as a man with no literary standard, a mere psycholinguist and cognitive scientist, which at Harvard is what Mr. Pinker is. As teachers, Mr. Gwynne is a suit-and-tie man, Mr. Pinker, I should imagine, an open-collar guy. Mr. Gwynne makes no effort to charm; Mr. Pinker perhaps overestimates his own charm. Mr. Pinker is at ease using such words and phrases as “feedback,” “fun facts,” “case-selection circuitry”; he advises his readers to think of grammar as “the original sharing app.” Mr. Pinker is a man who goes with the flow, Mr. Gwynne a man who wishes to stop that flow, dead, in midstream.

A psycholinguist, I take it, is someone who investigates the psychological uses and implications of language; a cognitive scientist someone who studies all that has to do with the mechanics of thought, from within the brain and beyond. In “The Sense of Style” Mr. Pinker brings both these endeavors to bear on a book that sets out to improve writing style chiefly through considering the capacity and needs of readers. How much confusion can a reader accommodate is the central question in his book, and how best to eliminate that confusion is his goal. “The curse of knowledge,” he writes, in a chapter devoted to the needless complexity of much academic and scientific prose, “is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”

Unlike Mr. Gwynne, Mr. Pinker does not blame the Internet for the barbarization of the young and the encouragement of slovenly writing habits. He believes there are many occasions in which one not only may but is well advised to split infinitives. He holds, with Calvin Trillin, that the person who invented the word “whom” had little more in mind than to have those who use it sound like butlers. Mr. Pinker thinks, contra Mr. Gwynne, that it is not always true that “good prose always leads to good thinking.” In his book, he occasionally uses cartoons and tells old jokes to reinforce and underscore points. He does not feel that sloppy writing bodes the end of civilization and suggests, if he does not come right out and say it, that those who do may require psychotherapy.

Many of the long-standing rules about grammar and usage that Mr. Pinker’s language grumps get worked up about—ending a sentence with a preposition, using “decimate” to mean anything other than wiping out a 10th, and many others—he considers little more than bubbe mieses, Yiddish for grandmother’s tales. Where Mr. Gwynne stresses the importance of etymology, Mr. Pinker highlights the fallacy of etymology, pointing out that “deprecate used to mean ‘ward off by prayer,’ meticulous once meant ‘timid,” and silly went from ”blessed’ to ‘pious’ to ‘innocent’ to ‘pitiable’ to ‘feeble’ to today’s ‘foolish.’ ” Etymology in defense of restricted meanings, in other words, is for him no defense.

All this makes Messrs. Gwynne and Pinker sound like stalwart opponents in the old battle between the Prescriptivists and the Descriptivists, or between those who believe the rules of grammar and usage ought to be rigidly prescribed and enforced and those who believe that common use dictates regular changes in the rules and in the meanings of words. But Mr. Pinker argues that this battle is ultimately phony, a myth. Few rules in the realms of grammar and usage hold up as true rules; they are instead, in his view, “tacit conventions.” The last third of “The Sense of Style” is devoted to demolishing the most cherished of putative rules of grammar and usage; he does this by coming up with exceptional cases that do not prove but blow up the rules. Of the age-old distinction between the words “can” and “may,” he holds that “the distinction is usually moot, and the two words may (or can) be used more or less interchangeably.”

Such quotations are made all the more compelling because of Mr. Pinker’s linguistical learning, which is considerable. His knowledge of grammar is extensive and runs deep. He also takes a scarcely hidden delight in exploding tradition. He describes his own temperament as “both logical and rebellious.” Few things give him more pleasure than popping the buttons off what he takes to be stuffed shirts.

Mr. Pinker makes a useful distinction between formal and informal writing and speech and claims—who could dispute him?—that ours is an age of informality. He seeks to have academics write less woodenly, and especially less obscurely. Not inflexible in his rebellion, he often sensibly suggests staying with conventional usage lest one offend the easily enraged “gotcha” crowd by departing from it. He does not argue that anything goes but instead fills his readers in on the fact that they are already freer in their use of language than they might have thought. He wants them unfettered by hollow dicta. All this should be liberating.

Why, I wonder, isn’t it, at least not for me? I would find making use of Mr. Pinker’s loosening of the rules, as Robert Frost said of the writing of free verse, like playing tennis without a net. I feel a certain elegance in what I have been taught and still take to be correct English, and so, except when doing so results in a barbarous construction, I choose never to split an infinitive. I prefer not to end my sentences with prepositions because I have learned that the best-made sentences tend to close on strong words. “Disinterested” for me will always mean “impartial”; “literate” will mean “able to read and write,” not “reasonably well-read.” I plan to continue to observe the old distinction between the words “can” and “may,” to use “each other” when referring to two people and “one another” when referring to more than two, and I’m sticking with “directly” or “soon” as the only meanings of the word “presently.” As for the reader, that figure with whom Mr. Pinker is most concerned—I’ve never met the guy and therefore feel no obligation to make things all that much easier for him. All I owe him is clarity and such relief as I can provide him from boredom. In the end I write for myself and for anyone who cares to eavesdrop on my conversations in prose with myself.

Rather than align myself with the Gwynnians or the Pinkertons, I say a blessing on both their houses, and I would add: Let the language battles between them rage on—except that to do so would expose me to the charge of ending this review on a preposition, which I cannot allow.

—Mr. Epstein is the author of “Friendship,” “Snobbery” and the new collection “A Literary Education and Other Essays.”

Food Links

August 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Laura Lawless’ posts on French cheese

Part 1 http://www.lawlessfrench.com/reading/fromage-francais/
Part 2 http://www.lawlessfrench.com/reading/fromage-francais-2/

Marmiton – the French website for recipes http://www.marmiton.org

BBC article on new signage in French restaurants http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28313666
BBC article on fast food in France http://www.bbc.com/news/business-25111208

Une publicité pour le cassoulet http://youtu.be/71E3xE0a4ZI

McDonald’s webpage in France http://www.mcdonalds.fr/en
Quick’s webpage in France http://www.mcdonalds.fr/en

Various links to play with regarding food, consumerism, and the attitudes and politics of food in France.














French PSA’s at the end of all food and restaurant advertisements.

“Pour votre santé, évitez la nourriture sucrée ou salée.”
“Pour votre santé, évitez de grignoter.”
“Pour votre santé, bougez plus.”


August 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

This is to give examples and explanations of all the uses of tout. Tout means all, but it can be used in different ways and in different idioms.

tout changes to match the noun that it modifies in gender and number

masc sing masc plural fem sing fem plural
tout tous toute toutes


*tout + article + noun = all ……….. noun

* when tout is singular it implies the entire noun

*when tout is plural it implies all the nouns

– tous ces livres

– toutes mes filles

– tout le gâteau

– tous les gâteaux


*  tout / toute without an article = each

– Tout enfant joue dans le sable.

– Tout home a besoin de dormir


*tous as a pronoun means all / everyone

*it doesn’t change form

* pronounce the “s”

– Ils sont tous allés à la plage.

– Tous m’ont dit ça.

*tout as an adverb = very

*doesn’t change except when modifying a feminine adjective starting with a consonant, then it changes to toute

– Georges parle tout naivement.

– C’est un tout petit chiot.

– Il est venu tout seul.

–  Elle est toute contente.

–  Elle est venue toute seule.


*when used in compound sentences, tout goes between the auxiliary verb and the past participle.

– Il a tout mangé.

– Je les ai tous vus

*when used with a present participle (tout en verbant), it shows a contradiction between the two actions.
-Tout en sachant qu’il déteste le café, elle lui en a donné une grande tasse.
– Tout en disant qu’elle voulait maigrir, elle mangeait du gâteau.
– Tout en sachant la vérité, elle n’a rien dit à personne.

* tout idioms
tout à fait – completely
tout de suite – immediately, right away
tout à coup – suddenly
en tout cas – in any case
toute à l’heure – in a moment OR a moment ago
tout compte fait – all in all, taken all into account, all said and done
de toute manière – in any case, anyway
à tout moment – at any time
de toute sorte – of any kind, of any sort
en toute chose – in all things, in everything
à tout propos – about anything, all about, in any subject, in all subjects, constantly
en tout pour tout – all in all
tous (or toutes) les deux – both
tout à la fois – at the same time
toute espèce de – all kinds of, all sorts of, all species of
en tout sens – in any direction
à tout hasard – just in case, in the off chance
à tout prix – at any cost
toutefois – however, nonetheless



August 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Devoir means “to have to”, ” to gotta”, “to must”, and “to owe”. Its meaning does change a bit depending on usage and tense.

devoir in present tense

to have to, to must, to gotta, to owe, to be supposed to
* to owe – Puisque tu m’as acheté un café, je te dois $5.
– Je paie toujours mes dettes. Je ne veux rien devoir à personne.
* to gotta, to must, to have to – Je dois étudier.
– Je dois faire mes devoirs.
*to be supposed to – Nous devons partir vers 9 heures.
*Devoir in negative doesn’t mean “doesn’t have to”, but rather “must not”
– On ne doit pas marcher sur l’herbe.
– Tu ne dois pas manger tant de gâteau.

devoir in passé composé

had to, must have
*must have – Sophie n’était pas en classe hier. Elle a dû être malade.
– Quelqu’un a dû oublier de fermer la porte à clé.
*had to – J’ai dû faire mes devoirs.
– Nous avons dû partir tôt de la soirée.

devoir in imparfait

*was supposed to – Je devais arriver plus tôt, mais il y avait un embouteillage.
– Nous devions aller à la plage aujourd’hui.
*had to – Puisque nous nous étions réveillés tard, nous devions nous dépêcher.

devoir in conditional

Devoir in conditional means “should”
*should – Je devrais me coucher plus tôt.
– Tu devrais conduire plus prudemment.

devoir in past conditional

Devoir in past conditional means “should have verbed” – to form it, conjugate avoir in conditional, then add the past participle of devoir.
*should have verbed – J’aurais dû faire mes devoirs.
– Ils auraient dû arriver plus tôt.
– Tu aurais dû ranger ta chambre.
– Je n’aurais pas dû me coucher si tard.
– Nous n’aurions pas dû acheter une Porsche.

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