Difficult for we non-French, that is. While writing an email to a French friend recently I had to consult the dictionary several times to make sure I got a particular construction right. This is after more than 16 years in France, four years of intensive French courses and having twice got to the regional finals (but no further) of a French national grammar competition. I don’t say the latter to boast but simply to show how difficult this language remains.
The photo above shows the château de Najac from an unfamiliar angle on the last day we had any nice weather, 10 days ago. It has nothing to do with the subject of this post. I just put it in to cheer myself up.
Which French grammatical constructions do I have difficulty with? How long have you got? They are numerous but two in particular cause me problems and probably always will.
Hit or miss?
The first is manquer – to miss. In English, when we see a friend or relative after a long time we say, ‘I’ve missed you’. In French it’s completely the other way round. The French say, ‘Tu m’as manqué’, which looks like ‘You have missed me’ but translates literally as ‘You have been missing to me’. In this sentence the ‘me’ is the indirect not the direct pronoun.
I always have to stop to think hard before constructing this phrase. And I’m never quite sure that I have got it right. I daresay that on occasion I have declared, ‘Je t’ai manqué’ – i.e. you’ve missed me. That might account for a few old-fashioned looks.
My mind is clouded with a doubt
The above is a quotation from Tennyson. Nothing to do with French, I know, but it does sum up rather nicely my second difficulty: how and when to use the verb douter.
The entry in the Collins Robert dictionary is as long as your arm. This verb has several meanings depending on whether it’s reflexive and/or negative. Here we go:
Je doute de (‘I have doubts about’) or je doute que (‘I doubt if’). Reasonably clear.
The trouble starts when the verb is reflexive. Je me doute de means ‘I don’t doubt’, ‘I can well imagine’, ‘I suspect’ something; je m’en doute = ‘I thought so’. I always feel it should mean ‘I’m not sure’.
Je ne me doutais pas = ‘I had no idea’; ‘I couldn’t imagine’. But I always think it should mean ‘I had no doubt’.
This is why I get tied up in knots with this construction and probably say the exact opposite of what I mean. And I’m quite prepared to have got it wrong in this post. In which case, I hope you’ll point it out. Gently, of course…
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