This question is on pût as highlighted in this passage from chapter 7 of La porte étroite by André Gide.

     Je lui répondis longuement. Je me souviens du seul passage à peu près clairvoyant de ma lettre.
      « Il me paraît souvent, lui disais-je, que mon amour est ce que je garde en moi de meilleur ; que toutes mes vertus s’y suspendent ; qu’il m’élève au-dessus de moi, et que sans toi je retomberais à cette médiocre hauteur d’un naturel très ordinaire. C’est par l’espoir de te rejoindre que le sentier le plus ardu m’apparaîtra toujours le meilleur. »
      Qu’ajoutai-je qui pût la pousser à me répondre ceci :

      Mais, mon ami, la sainteté n’est pas un choix : c’est une obligation (le mot était souligné trois fois dans sa lettre). Si tu es celui que j’ai cru, toi non plus tu ne pourras pas t’y soustraire.


  1. Is it an instance of elevated speech?

  2. If there is no alternative to pût, we could hardly call it 'elevated.' Therefore I ask: Is there any alternative to pût? For example, can we say pourrait in its place and without changing the meaning (though perhaps changing the register or nuance)?

  3. Suppose I visited some place twice, yesterday and the day before. Today I wonder, 'Who did I see yesterday that I had seen the day before?' believing that the answer may be none.

    Would that be (A) or (B) or either?

    (A) Qui ai-je vu hier que j'eusse vu avant-hier?
    (B) Qui ai-je vu hier que j'aurais vu avant-hier?

  4. This question arises only if the answer to 2 is that pût can be replaced with pourrait. In that case, is pût, as used by Gide, an instance of what one may call conditionnel présent 2e forme, as referred to in the following paragraph from this Web page?

    Remarque : on trouve éga­le­ment une forme non composée du conditionnel 2e forme, identique à l’imparfait du subjonctif et qu’on pourrait appeler conditionnel présent 2e forme, dans les expressions dussè-je, ne fût-ce, voir p. 761.

Please feel free to answer only some of the questions. Thank you.

  • It's as elevated as can be, but that is completely unrelated to there being alternatives. Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 16:13
  • It is written French, not spoken French. In spoken French: /Qu’ajoutai-je qui pût la pousser à me répondre ceci/ is /Qu'est-ce que j'ajoutais qui a pu la pousser à me répondre ceci/. What was I adding that did push her to answer me this: etc. In literary writing, the passé simple is still used a lot in the narrative part of writing. (Not in dialogues or speech).
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 16:34

1 Answer 1


Please note that it's a tricky question because I never use such an elevated language. The following are mostly based on feelings. I may delete this answer.

  1. Very elevated. It's never mandatory to use the subjonctif imparfait in any case.

  2. It's hard to think about this because ajoutai (indicatif passé simple) sounds like ajoutais (indicatif imparfait), pût (subjonctif imparfait) like put (indicatif passé simple), and the sentence itself sounds very elevated.

So I changed it to make it simpler and less ambiguous when orally said (third person subject for ajouter and plural subject for pouvoir), but keeping the tenses:

Quels mots ajouta-t-il qui pussent la pousser...

And I would better say:

Quels mots ajouta-t-il qui purent la pousser...

So I would use passé simple de l'indicatif instead of imparfait du subjonctif:

Qu’ajoutai-je qui put la pousser...

I would definitely not say pourrait (conditionnel présent) because of agreement of tenses, except if you change the sentence a bit to make the subordinate sound like it's in the past:

Qu’ajoutai-je qui pourrait l'avoir poussée à me répondre ceci...

But you could use conditionnel passé:

Qu’ajoutai-je qui aurait pu la pousser à me répondre ceci...

You could use plus-que-parfait too:

Qu’ajoutai-je qui avait pu la pousser à me répondre ceci...

Or even futur antérieur:

Qu’ajoutai-je qui aura pu la pousser à me répondre ceci...

And why not passé antérieur:

Qu’ajoutai-je qui eut pu la pousser à me répondre ceci...

  1. I'm not sure to understand the English sentence perfectly. What I know is that (B) is correct and means you are not sure you really saw them the day before yesterday.

(A) would sound better with vis-je than ai-je vu and I don't feel like it carries the idea of a doubt. It still may be correct with ai-je vu.

  1. Pourrait is conditionnel présent when your link is about conditionnel passé.

First form of conditionnel passé is:

(il) aurait pu

I already mentioned it in point 2.

Second form is:

(il) eût pu

I would say it's correct to use it too.

  • Thank you. I actually like answers based on 'feelings' as you say. I think that's what makes someone a speaker, rather than just a student, of a language.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 1:19
  • On specifics of question 2, wouldn't avait pu and eut pu put this 'power' even anterior to (at an even remoter past than) ajoutai--as if Jerome wrote the letter yesterday but its effect on Alissa had already been felt the day before? (I realize that the sentence might 'sound' right even if this were the case as a matter of strict grammar.)
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 1:23
  • I've asked this related question: french.stackexchange.com/questions/24483/…
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 3:06
  • For your question about avait pu and eut pu, in this case it feels like the passé simple (ajoutai) is a tense of the narrative when avait pu*/*aurait pu is like a flash forward to the moment she answered. It is possible because everything already happened and is a flashback. "Le 12 juin 1960, elle se cassa la jambe, ce qui avait entraîné des complications médicales, et l'avait poussée à arrêter la danse.".
    – Destal
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 7:34
  • I see; the frame of time reference changes mid-sentence. That makes sense. Thank you again.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 7:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.