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Les fantômes vivent rarement dans les bois, et encore moins dans les maisons, fussent-elles à l'abandon.

This is the first time I’ve seen the Subjonctif Imparfait form in actual use, and with inversion to boot. The phrase seems to want to say something about "abandoned houses", but what exactly does it mean?

Also, is this construction used commonly in daily conversation?

  • related Q&A, I would understand this as an afterthought, or a detail added by the narrator... but not sure here... I don't think you would hear it in a common conversation... – Random Aug 2 '16 at 13:49
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It is a written, formal way of expressing something like "even if". A similar construction exists in English, with subjunctive and inversion, and similar meaning, e.g.:

Les fantômes vivent rarement dans les bois, et encore moins dans les maisons, fussent-elles à l'abandon.

Ghosts live rarely in the woods, and even less in homes, be they abandoned.

Note the special form of subjunctive used in these context for first-person cases:

Aussi, fussé-je seul contre tous, je défendrai Voltaire jusqu'à mon dernier soupir.

Therefore, be I alone against all, I will defend Voltaire until my last breath.

Even though grammatically any verb could be used this way, in practice I don't think there are many other verbs besides être (fussé-je, fusses-tu, fût-il, fussions-nous, fussiez-vous, fussent-ils) that are actually used with this construction. I've heard avoir and devoir, e.g.:

Eussé-je dit mille fois qu'il fallait m'écouter, cela n'eût servi à rien.

Had I said a thousand times that I should be listened to, it wouldn't have been any help.

With devoir:

Dussé-je en périr, je te serai fidèle jusqu'au bout.

Even if I should perish from it, I will be faithful to you until the end.

| improve this answer | |
  • To @qoba: Do these phrases translate into "even though" or more like "even if"? As you know, there are some notable differences between the two. The "even though" clause describes abandoned houses as an actual fact, while the "even if" clause treats abandoned houses as a hypothetical situation. So how goes in French? Merci. – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Aug 3 '16 at 5:49
  • Even if. Will fix answer accordingly. – qoba Aug 3 '16 at 7:05
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This form is quite frequently used in formal language. It is a means of conveying an afterthought as said by a commenter. The form is a very elegant and short equivalent to :

bien qu'elles soient à l'abandon.

In this sentence though, it is not necessary as an equivalent could be :

même à l'abandon

The equivalent in casual form would be :

Les fantômes vivent rarement dans les bois, et encore moins dans les maisons, même abandonnées.

But the Subjonctif imparfait adds an old fashioned charm to this sentence.

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  • To @Géraud Benazet: I have two questions: Does the phrase "even if they were" fit the bill as an English equivalent? Can the phrase "bien que" mean both "even though" and "even if", depending on context? Merci. – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Aug 2 '16 at 16:18
  • I think so, but you should ask a native speaker – Géraud Benazet Oct 13 at 9:23

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