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I read it in a book today and I simply cannot grasp its meaning. The context is;

" "Que m'arrive-t-il?" demanda-t-il tout en terminant la lecture du bulletin d'une voix sans faille."

If I'm not mistaken, the rest of the sentence means "He wandered (asked himself) while finishing reading the news report with a flawless voice (or perhaps simply "flawlessly").

But I do not comprehend the sentence "que m'arrive-t-il". Breaking it down - "il" is the subject and "me" is the receiver of the action, but then what does "arriver" mean here? "What it approached/reached/happened me?" it doesn't make any sense to me.

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Indeed, that means "what is happening to me?". The protagonist feels that something unusual happens to him (for example he suddenly feels sad, guilty, or his physical condition suddenly changes, a powerful headache or anything...). "il" doesn't stand for anyone in this case. It's an impersonnal pronoun, e.g: "Il m'est arrivé quelque chose d'incroyable ce matin." means "Something incredible hapenned to me this morning" (Note that here you could say as well "Quelque chose d'incroyable m'est arrivé ce matin"), or "Il pleut" means "It rains", and those sentences doesn't involve any existing thing.

This turn of phrase is very common in French, for example if you arrive at work and you see one of your colleagues in a bad mood, you ask the other "Qu'est-ce qui lui arrive aujourd'hui"" or "Que lui arrive-t-il aujourd'hui?", i.e. what is the cause of his bad mood.

In other case, you can also say "Qu'est-ce qu'il lui/te/vous prend" (But you cannot say "Que lui prend-il?"). Pretty similar but here the action which you ask the cause is something sharper and more sudden. It's also a little bit more familiar.

  • It had crossed my mind that it could mean "what is happening to me" but I forgot that you still need to use "il". Thanks for clearing up this exact nuance for me so nicely! – noam b Jan 14 '16 at 14:15
  • I think the sentence "Qu'est-ce qui lui arrive aujourd'hui" should be "Qu'est-ce qu'il lui arrive aujourd'hui", but I may be wrong. – Random Jan 14 '16 at 14:24
  • You're welcome noam. @Random: I also hesitated but I'd rather say "Qu'est-ce qui se passe ?" and not "Qu'est-ce qu'il se passe ?", I think both are gramatically correct but the form with "il" is a little heavy, and actually sounds like hypercorrection. – Chewie Jan 14 '16 at 14:30
  • I feel like "qu'il" is becoming "qui" by the law of least effort when speaking... because you say "il se passe un truc", so "il" must be present in the interrogative form "Que se passe-t-il" => "Qu'est-ce qu'il se passe" – Random Jan 14 '16 at 14:40
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The meaning is:

What is happening to me?

Piece of knowledge before going further: the "-t-" is here only to make a liaison. You'll often find it written wrong, with missing dashes or an apostrophe, but this example is the correct writing.

So, we discard the -t- when breaking down the sentence. We have a question with the subject pushed back after the verb. This is a perfectly fine arrangement: "Que + verb (+ -t-) + subject + ?". However, I fear this is disappearing nowadays (except in literary writing) for the profit of the more common and maybe easier for you to understand: "Qu'est-ce que + subject + verb + ?"

If we write "Que m'arrive-t-il ?" with this arrangement, it therefore becomes "Qu'est-ce qu'il m'arrive ?" which immediately translates to "What is happening to me?"

  • Oh... Thank you very much. Not using "it" in the English version made me forget about having to use "il" here – noam b Jan 14 '16 at 14:06
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    Yes, and because "il" represents actually nothing here, it is also quite common to see it written "Qu'est-ce qui m'arrive ?", thus eliminating the need confusing pronoun. "Il" is called an impersonal pronoun here, because it does not stand for somebody or something you could point at (much like the it in "it's snowing"). English actually uses the "it" in affirmative form, but it is replaced with "what" in the question. :) – Chop Jan 15 '16 at 6:51
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It means : What is happening to me ?

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