In two journal articles, I came across a use of the infinitive in French that I'm not familiar with.

The first article is titled Enseigner la vertu?, and the second—which is a reply to the first—is titled Pouvoir enseigner la vertu?.

Both articles are about Plato's Meno, which concerns whether virtue is teachable. So I have a general idea that the first asks about teaching virtue and the reply asks about the ability to teach virtue.

However, I can't find any standard use of the infinitive in French that fits this context. Is it idiomatic? Or is there a standard use that I've missed in the grammars I've checked? (I would also be happy to hear what people think would be a good way to translate these titles, though I'm primarily concerned with understanding them rather than translation per se.)

  • 1
    It is not used very often. I guess the idea behind this is if a question is asked, you are not sure of your answer, so you will answer with the an interrogation mark, like "Depuis quand est-tu réveillé ?" , "Depuis... 1 heures environs ?". So here, the infinitive form may come from a question like "Comment régler les problèmes actuels de la société ?". Does it help ? :)
    – Random
    Jan 12, 2016 at 14:23
  • @Random It helps a little. If I understand, you mean that it's elliptical: by itself it doesn't make perfect sense, but the reader is supposed to supply something to fill out the thought. Is that right?
    – Telemachus
    Jan 12, 2016 at 15:27
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    FYI, I would happily upvote either or both of these as an answer. They may not be definitive, but they both make excellent, helpful points. Thanks @PapaPoule and Random.
    – Telemachus
    Jan 12, 2016 at 15:52

2 Answers 2


As you may know, in french, proposition can be devoid of a finite verb (it is named "elliptique", and it is often associated to an independant proposition [see below]). The first title corresponds to a proposition which is :

  • Infinitive, it expresses an order, a defense, an exclamation, an interrogation or an affirmation;
  • Independant, because it isn't related to another proposition.

The second can be decomposed in two proposition :

  • "Pouvoir" (main proposition) + "enseigner la vertu" (subordinate proposition).
  • Thanks. I knew about the use of the independent infinitive as a command, but I wasn't familiar with it as a question or an exclamation. The references were very helpful as well. (One thought: would it be better to say "devoid of a finite verb"? That is, there is an expressed verb—the infinitive, but not a finite one. But maybe the terminology is different in French.)
    – Telemachus
    Jan 12, 2016 at 16:17
  • You are right, I correct this mistake.
    – imrok
    Jan 12, 2016 at 16:23
  • This is not called a subordinate clause, it is simply… an infinitive clause. Jan 12, 2016 at 16:59
  • The second proposition is subordinate to the first, am I right ?
    – imrok
    Jan 13, 2016 at 14:42

Titles of books/articles/films (but especially news headlines) don’t always follow grammar “rules,” and the two titles you mention might be examples of this, with “[Peut-on] and/or [Comment]” ellipted:

“Peut-on/comment enseigner la vertu?”

“Comment pouvoir enseigner la vertu?”

In scholarly articles like these, however, ellipted notions are often supplied in a suitable “sub-title”

“[Pouvoir] Enseigner la vertu[?]: Est-ce vraiment possible?/[Comment le faire ?]”

or (in another context)

“Pousser les enfants[?]: Doit-on le faire?”),

so the lack of a “sub-title” in your two cases could signal that there’s another explanation.

They could instead possibly be examples of where someone hears a statement and is so amazed (usually in disagreement or disgust) by it that they repeat the essential part of the statement in a questioning tone (like when I told my horse-loving sister that she should try horse meat):

(Me): “Il faut manger du cheval, c’est vachement bon!”

(Sis): “Quoi? Manger du cheval?”

Regardless (especially with the "ellipted title" explanation), not having read the articles and based solely on their titles, I would hazard a guess that Dr. Barnes is asking
“How to teach virtue"
(which might imply that he does believe that it is possible),

whereas the second article’s author is asking
“How is it possible to teach virtue”
(which might imply that he doesn’t think that it’s possible at all).

  • One thing in favor of what you say initially is that Barnes quotes an earlier scholar (Jowett), who asked "Peut-on enseigner la vertu?" So this suggests the elliptical question as you say.
    – Telemachus
    Jan 12, 2016 at 16:38
  • Comment pouvoir is not idiomatic and sounds wrong. Jan 12, 2016 at 17:02
  • @StéphaneGimenez “Comment pouvoir + verb” definitely does have a redundant “feel” to it since “comment + verb” alone already kind of has the notion of “how can something be done” built in it, but would it sound/be equally wrong/unidiomatic if used to express and emphasize some predetermined negativity/desperation in certain contexts (“[Je ne vois pas] comment pouvoir enseigner la vertu}, where “pouvoir” would mean more like “arriver à/réussir à”? Thanks!
    – Papa Poule
    Jan 12, 2016 at 18:15
  • @StéphaneGimenez As a French native, I agree that "Comment pouvoir" (whatever follows it) sounds at least clumsy. It's not even matter of high level or not: more likely it reveals a lack of culture. Why I point it is because the OP says it comes from a journal, and I'm afraid to observe that many journals, in France, from about fifteen years, saw their literary quality deteriorate rapidly. Before, they always could be regarded as a good reference , while now I wouldn't recommend to consider them as an example for French language learners.
    – cFreed
    Jan 15, 2016 at 5:03
  • To be fair to the authors of the two articles mentioned by the OP, they did not use “comment pouvoir” in their titles (nor, as far as I know, in the text of their articles). I, a non-native, clumsily suggested it in my answer. With that (and this ngram) in mind, today’s sometimes maligned authors seem to misuse “comment pouvoir” far less in recent years than literary giants of past centuries misused it in their works. @cFreed
    – Papa Poule
    Jan 15, 2016 at 16:01

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