The question on the highlighted sentence from this excerpt from L'Étranger by Camus.

En mangeant, il a commencé à me raconter son histoire. Il hésitait d’abord un peu. « J’ai connu une dame… c’était pour autant dire ma maîtresse. » L’homme avec qui il s’était battu était le frère de cette femme. Il m’a dit qu’il l’avait entretenue. Je n’ai rien répondu et pourtant il a ajouté tout de suite qu’il savait ce qu’on disait dans le quartier, mais qu’il avait sa conscience pour lui et qu’il était magasinier.
     « Pour en venir à mon histoire, m’a-t-il dit, je me suis aperçu qu’il y avait de la tromperie. » Il lui donnait juste de quoi vivre. Il payait lui-même le loyer de sa chambre et il lui donnait vingt francs par jour pour la nourriture.

Question: How does lui donner juste de quoi vivre come to mean what it means?

There it is, but I am afraid you could not understand what it's really about without reading what follows. I am sorry I cannot condense this question.


When I first saw de quoi vivre, I thought it was my old friend vivre de from the previous question. If so, we have a nice, almost word-per-word correspondence between these sentences:

Il lui donnait juste de quoi vivre.
He gave her just what to live on.

The only difference is that a French infinitive does not need anything like to to set if off and that de (unlike English on) moved up. But consider:

As-tu de quoi écrire?

According to this dictionary entry, that means, "Have you got anything to write with?" But write with is écrire avec. So what happened? Something like this perhaps?

As-tu + de quoi + écrire avec > (As-tu + avec + de quoi + écrire) > As-tu + de quoi + écrire.

Namely, de quoi is a unit in its own right and a suppression of avec took place (with or without an intervening step of transposition).

Then maybe the same thing happened to our friend vivre de.

Il lui donnait juste + de quoi + vivre de > (Il lui donnait juste + de + de quoi + vivre) > Il lui donnait juste + de quoi + vivre.

Namely, the surviving de did not come from vivre de but from de quoi.

Another expression avoir de quoi faire, from this dictionary entry, seems to suggest further awesome powers of de quoi. To have to do something is ordinarily avoir à faire, but:

avoir à + de quoi + faire > avoir + de quoi + faire

Namely, de quoi caused a suppression of à. (Of course, I am not saying this is what happened, only that I am trying to find an explanation.)

To restate the question, I want to know whether Il lui donnait juste de quoi vivre comes to mean what it does through either of the two routes above (word-per-word correspondence vs. suppression of de in vivre de) or in some other way I have not been able to think of. Thanks.

2 Answers 2


In this case,de quoi is a relative substantive clause (relative substantive in French or relative sans antécédent). It complements the verb donner in the sentence

Il lui donnait juste de quoi vivre.

According to Grammaire méthodique du français by Martin Riegel, Jean-Christophe Pellat and René Rioul, relative substantive clauses are introduced by a pronoun, here quoi, which has to be preceded by a preposition, in this case de, since the relative pronoun is a non-animated object (money, a flat, food for example). Moreover, the tense verb of the relative clause vivre, is infinitif, since donner is a transitive verb. The tense has to be infinitif if the relative is preceded by il y a, such as in

Il y a de quoi manger. Il y a de quoi rire.

About the first example you mention,

As-tu de quoi écrire ? avec is omitted, because it is obvious the object denoted by the relative pronoun is to be used to write with (paper, ink, pen...).

Regarding your second comment (the disappearance of one de), it is known in French as la règle de cacophonie, namely, that repeating de/des would not be very pleasant to hear or utter, mentionned in la Grammaire générale et raisonnée de Port-Royal :

de des, et encore plus de de, eût trop choqué l'oreille, et elle eût peine à souffrir qu'on eût dit : il est accusé de des crimes horribles, ou, il est accusé de de grands crimes.

avoir à faire is indeed the correct way to say to have something to do. We would less laconically say avoir quelque chose à faire to mean the same thing.

Il y a de quoi faire, j'ai de quoi faire is rather a casual expression, with an underlying nuance of awe, admiration, annoyance... See for example http://www.languefrancaise.net/Bob/37467.

For example, we could say in front of a gargantuesque quantity of food during le réveillon de Noël:

eh beh, il y a de quoi faire !

implying, wow, such a great quantity of good-smelling food! Or when having to clean the mess after the dog wreaked havoc in the living room:

Purée, il y a de quoi faire !

or before undertaking a long, straining task,

Il y a de quoi faire !

Note that it differs from expressions such as:

J'ai de quoi faire parler cet homme

for example, meaning in this case I have means to make this man talk.

  • Nice answer +1. If you don’t mind, I have a, perhaps unrelated, follow-up question: In the OP’s example (“Il lui donnait juste de quoi vivre”), could “pour [vivre]” be correctly added here or would its addition create a different meaning/nuance (or even worse, would its addition simply be incorrect) (ie, “Il lui donnait juste de quoi pour vivre.”)? Thanks!
    – Papa Poule
    Nov 21, 2015 at 21:24
  • In this case, it seems redundant. pour is also a preposition, introducing what we call in French a complément circonstanciel de but, which is the verb vivre: it precices the circomstances by adding a sense of goal, of purpose to the sentence. For example, j'étudie pour réussir: I study to be successful. The preposition quoi in juste de quoi vivre rather underlines the means by which this person is sustained, even though not specifically mentionned (money, a rented room...). To put the emphasis on both, one could say il lui donnait juste de quoi vivre, juste assez pour vivre.
    – Tttt1228
    Nov 21, 2015 at 23:07
  • Thank you. I have follow-up questions too. (1) If avec in écrire avec is deleted as "obvious and unnecessary" then do we need a second principle (i.e. cacophonie) for deleting de in vivre de? In other words, I wonder if there wouldn't be a single principle that explains all the similar deletions.
    – Catomic
    Nov 22, 2015 at 4:08
  • (2) As a beginning French student, I would not have thought avec was obvious without actually being there. Once I recognize de quoi as a unit (relative pronoun) then As-tu de quoi écrire? looks to me like: "Do you have anything to write, perhaps a poem, a letter, a constitution?" Maybe I should ask how one would say in French, "Do you have anything to write?"
    – Catomic
    Nov 22, 2015 at 4:12
  • In this case, think that quoi denotes means to accomplish the action, not the goal or the purpose. The correct way to express "Do you have anything to write (about)?" would be As-tu quelque chose à écrire ?
    – Tttt1228
    Nov 22, 2015 at 15:48

Il lui donnait juste de quoi vivre.

Literally: He him gave just (1) of what to live.

(1) Understand "just enough".

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