The 3 Sacred Rules of the Holy French Grammar!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Rule #1, rule #2, rule #3… Do you know them? Well… ask Seema then! She can recite them on the tip of her fingers! None of the previous rules we covered in class ever sank in so quickly and so deeply… and God knows that rules on the agreement of the past participle are pure non sense! Therefore it is not easy to teach them… all I know for sure is that we need to apply those rules, otherwise we will look (and even sometimes sound!) illiterate. For years I tried to come up with some rational explanations regarding their purpose and, unfortunately, I never found anything that could ease my students’ pain… Of course, I could choose to shadow those weird rules. Perhaps they are not taught in classes where French is viewed as a foreign language (Diane could enlighten me on that!), but here French is either people’s mother tongue or second language… it is not part of the foreign language curriculum: both English and French are the official languages of Canada. Consequently, we cannot avoid rules based upon their non sense and difficulty level… There are no differences in the way we teach either French or English as a native language and a second language. Francos and Anglos are equally in agonies when they learn French grammar… I tend to say it is only fairness!!! And somewhat it creates awareness among recalcitrant Anglos who think that French is a second class language (heureusement, c’est une espèce en voie d’extinction! à tout le moins dans l’Est du Canada…)… once they start learning it, they have more respect (if not admiration) for Francophones…

The three basic rules on the past participle agreement are no exceptions… Teaching them (as well as learning them) is like pulling teeth. Since there is no logic, I summarize and present them in a crude manner:

Rule #1: “Être”

The past participle ALWAYS agrees with the subject of the verb

e.g.: Elle (subject, f. s.) est allée (f. s.) au cinéma hier

Rule #2: “Avoir”

The past participle agrees with the direct object IF and ONLY IF this direct object is placed in front of the verb

e.g.: Elle a écrit (no change) sa lettre (direct object) / Elle l‘ (direct object, f. s.) a écrite (f. s.)

Rule #3: “Les verbes pronominaux”

a) verbes essentiellement pronominaux – Rule #1

e.g.: Elle (subject, f. s.) s’est soudainement souvenue (f. s.) de ce jour-là

b) verbes accidentellement pronominaux – Rule #2

e.g.: Elle s‘ (direct object, f. s.) est lavée (f. s.) / Elle s’est lavé (no change) les mains (direct object) / Elle se les (direct object, f. pl.) est lavées (f. pl.)

I am quite flexible when I give explanations, but when I do teach those three rules I keep everything simple and I do not dig any further: they are complex enough and pushing too far would only confuse my students. All they have to do is: memorize, memorize, memorize and then apply, apply, apply until it becomes a reflex…

Exceptionally last week Seema, James and Dave attended the same class… Since both James and Dave will have to write or re-write their grammar tests soon, I saw an opportunity for them to review those sacred three rules (which are widely used as traps in government exams!). Seema and I had ended our last class just before rule #3, therefore I moved on knowing that both James and Dave could help her understanding this last basic rule on the past participle agreement. She had already learned the two first rules and she was quite at ease applying them… and surprisingly she had not put her complicated analytical thinking at work… her grinder was off! I thought it would go rather smoothly with the last (but not the least!) rule…

I am usually very patient with my students… well… read me: usually!!! When I lose my temper, it is mostly due to my trainees’ tendency to peel every layer of every small rule… for some reasons, it pushes the right button! And… I’m passionate! One of my very French traits!

After a quick review of rule #1 and rule #2, I asked the guys “When do you apply rule #3?” Dave turned to Seema and said “you have two types of verbs and you…” I then stopped him and repeated my question… Same analytical answer from Dave. Then James jumped into his peer’s explanation and went on with another even longer one… Bingo! I had already raised my voice by two or three notes but at that point I just yelled at both of them “Are you listening to my question? When I ask you a simple direct question, just answer it and don’t start with the justification!” I just could not believe it! They both looked at me saying “Yes but we do have two types of verbs…” Okay guys, time off! “When I ask you when you do apply rule #3, the answer should be: when using pronominal verbs! End of the story!” Useless to say that Seema was looking at me with her big eyes… in total dismay! Of course, she knew about my occasional outbursts yet she had never been a witness on the front line! On the other hand, James and Dave did not make a big fuss of it… only because they are kind of used to my ways by now…  They know it is for their own good! 😉

Later that day, on our way back from our evening at the theater Seema said she had a real good understanding of rule #1, rule #2 and rule #3… actually she had never learned something so quickly in her entire life! I guess she will never forget those three golden rules in French!

The next morning she talked to Alice about the three rules on the past participle agreement… then she recited them… when she got to rule #3, Alice said she had no recollection of this specific rule (if she had ever learned it!)… Seema’s answer was “Well… now you know it!” Alice’s last comment was “Maybe I need to be yelled at more often, then I would remember all the rules!”

Yesterday, almost a week later, Seema came to class and we moved on with exercises on rule #3… for the very first time in my entire career, I did not have to refresh a student’s memory: those three very important rules are engraved in Seema’s brain forever… and I know she will not fall into traps when she will write her grammar test. Three little non sense rules that can make a huge difference between a B and a C

This blog moved here, if you are ever interested to get more information on those issues…

“Je ne veux pas aller à l’école, car on y apprend des choses que je ne sais pas.”

Marguerite Duras

 

Advertisements

4 Comments

  1. seema said,

    September 4, 2008 at 1:59 am

    Can’t agree more….this story will help the entire world! who is interested in learning French.

    Seema

  2. September 4, 2008 at 2:25 am

    Thanks for your “unconditional” support and vote of confidence Seema!

    I certainly do appreciate your good sense of humor about all this! And… above all, your maturity so that you know when I “yell” it is for my students’ own good!… 😉

  3. greeneyes said,

    September 5, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    You pinpointed very well some of the more frequent problems. Like your students I have problems with rule no.3.b. It just works for a while and then I make the same mistake.

    Sticking these rules on the fridge might help but occasional outbursts might help even better. 🙂

  4. September 5, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    Lisa… indeed there are some rules in French that cause recurrent problems among almost all students! And the ones on the past participle agreement are especially “difficult” to understand… this is why only repetition and “occasional outbursts” 😉 seem to help!

    Yet those 3 basic rules are only the tip of the iceberg… afterwards, we have a series of “règles d’exception” that make even less sense (those are reserved for advanced learners)although all of them have the 3 same rules as “point de départ”!…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: