French grammar – and the difficulty of acquiring the rules of le bon usage or correct usage – is once again in the news. Two schoolteachers from Belgium have had the audacity to suggest that the rules for past participle agreement with the verb avoir ‘to have’ should be simplified. Why? Because learning these rules takes some 80 hours of teaching in school, and this time, the teachers argue, could be better spent on other things. Some readers will already be having nightmarish flashbacks to the time when they tried to acquire these rules at school. Why do we have to write j’ai reçu tes lettres (I have received your letters), where the participle reçu remains invariable, but les lettres que j’ai reçues (the letters that I received), where the participle adds a final e and s so that it agrees with the feminine plural gender of the word lettres? For many participles, this is merely a question of spelling, since they sound the same when pronounced whatever the agreement. If we can manage in speech, do we need agreement in writing?
(Image: French Academy)
Rules for making the past participle agree in French have a long history. In the sixteenth century, writers and language specialists began to consider that, if French were to be able to compete with other languages, it would need to have the status, the fixity and the rules of Latin and Greek. The ever-changing nature of French was viewed as problematic, and so began the project to codify or ‘police’ the French language, to use the term employed in 1555 by Jacques Peletier. Activity intensified in the seventeenth century with the foundation of the French Academy in 1635. It founding Statutes made clear its prescriptive and purist mission: ‘The main task of the Academy will be to work with as much care and diligence as possible to give fixed rules to our language and to make it pure, eloquent and capable of treating arts and sciences’. One of its founding members, Claude Favre de Vaugelas, embarked on the writing of Remarks on the French language (1647), which sets out many of the – often artificial – rules for past participle agreement. Since then, generations of pupils and teachers have complained about them. A nineteenth-century manual for teaching grammar to French children suggests that teachers should try and teach the rules without mentioning to their pupils that they are learning ‘past participle agreement’, since the very idea fills them with dread. It might be comforting to those learning French as a second or third language that what linguists call ‘linguistic insecurity’ does not just afflict them, but also native French speakers. As Tony Lodge wrote, ‘Many millions of French people in fact spend their lives believing that they speak their own language badly’.
Despite this, many French people have turned to social media to express their horror at these latest proposals. One wrote that, if we don’t like complicated rules, then perhaps we should also abolish the offside rule in football, and let footballers use their hands. Another commented that abolishing ‘the subtleties’ of French grammar is like tearing down all the little roads in an old town. If you have managed to master the rules, then abolishing them seems like a lowering of standards.
So, who is right? Are the rules for past participle agreement not worth retaining? Or is accuracy and correct usage to be cherished? In the UK too, the teaching of grammar has recently been the subject of considerable debate. Should we worry if our children use ‘more wiser’, or can’t use the apostrophe properly? Should usage follow the rules or, to quote the grammarian Vaugelas, should usage be ‘the master of living languages’? Join in the debate!
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Your article is very interesting as a French native speaker, your explanation reminds me my own linguistic insecurity. I learnt the French as intangible rules. Your analysis is like a distant mirror for me. I can compare with the English grammar. The grammar seems simplier but in fact there are many subtleties. It’s very difficult to speak fluently without making mistakes.