This question is on this passage from chapter 7 of La porte étroite by André Gide. Jérôme speaks the first line, and Alissa the second. They had noted certain 'ouvrages de piété vulgaire' at Alissa's bedside.

      – Ne lis-tu donc plus que cela ?
      – À peu près. Oui, depuis quelques mois. Du reste je ne trouve plus beaucoup de temps pour lire. Et je t’avoue que, tout récemment, ayant voulu reprendre quelqu’un de ces grands auteurs que tu m’avais appris à admirer, je me suis fait l’effet de celui dont parle l’Écriture, qui s’efforce d’ajouter une coudée à sa taille.
      – Quel est ce « grand auteur » qui t’a donné si bizarre opinion de toi ?
      – Ce n’est pas lui qui me l’a donnée ; mais c’est en le lisant que je l’ai prise… C’était Pascal. J’étais peut-être tombée sur quelque moins bon passage…
      Je fis un geste d’impatience. Elle parlait d’une voix claire et monotone, comme elle eût récité une leçon, ne levant plus les yeux de dessus ses fleurs, qu’elle n’en finissait pas d’arranger. Un instant elle s’interrompit devant mon geste, puis continua du même ton :
      – Tant de grandiloquence étonne, et tant d’effort ; et pour prouver si peu. Je me demande parfois si son intonation pathétique n’est pas l’effet plutôt du doute que de la foi. La foi parfaite n’a pas tant de larmes ni de tremblement dans la voix.

For convenience let me extract the relevant bit and give it a name.

(G2) Elle parlait d’une voix claire et monotone, comme elle eût récité une leçon


  1. Is it OK to insert si after comme so we get comme si? Does that change the meaning at all? Why should I choose comme over comme si, or vice versa?

  2. Is eût récité in conditionnel passé deuxième forme?

  3. I understand that certain si contexts take either plus-que-parfait (as ordinary) or conditionnel passé deuxième forme (as elevated). Does comme in Gide create such a context? If so, is the Gide clause equivalent in meaning to this?

    (Gp) Elle parlait d’une voix claire et monotone, comme (si) elle avait récité une leçon

    Note: '(Gp)' is for 'Gide in plus-que-parfait.'

  4. Consider:

    (Mp) Elle parlait comme si elle avait été malade.
    (M2) Elle parlait comme si elle eût été malade.

    Does (Mp) mean that she spoke as if she had been ill some time before? For example, she may have spoken yesterday, but been ill the day before. Or does it mean that she spoke (e.g. yesterday) as if she were ill (i.e. at the time of speaking)?

  5. Same question as 4 except as regards (M2).

  6. Same question as regards (Gp). I.e., does (Gp) mean that Alissa spoke as if she had previously (e.g. the day before) recited a lesson. Or does it mean that she spoke as if she were then (i.e. contemporaneously with speaking) reciting a lesson.

  7. Same question as 6, but as regards (G2), the Gide original.

  8. If Gide meant that Alissa spoke as if then reciting a lesson, could he have said:

    (Gi) Elle parlait d’une voix claire et monotone, comme (si) elle récitait une leçon

    Note: 'Gi' is for 'Gide in imparfait.'

  9. Again meaning that she spoke as if reciting a lesson, could Gide have said:

    (G0) comme (si) elle récite une leçon

    Note: 'G0' is for 'Gide in subjunctive present.'

  10. I realize that récite is both indicative and subjunctive present. Consider then:

    (Mi) Elle parlait comme (si) elle était malade.

    I assume that means, 'She spoke as if she were ill.' Can we say the following in its place?

    (M0) Elle parle comme (si) elle soit malade.


All the translations I have interpret the Gide clause as contemporaneous with parlait ('as if she were reciting,' 'als sagte sie eine Lektion her' and 'als sage sie eine Lektion her').

Therefore, I expect that fully understanding the clause would involve how eût récité, which ordinarily refers to a prior time, is here contemporaneous.


3 Answers 3

  1. You could, but the meaning is not the same. When only comme is used, it describes the way an action is done, and it always compared to doing the same thing. Here, speaking.

    [Elle court] (A) comme si [sa vie en dépendait.] (B)

    A and B are not the same kind of action. B gives a reason that could explain the manner A is done.

    [Elle me parle] (A) comme [elle aurait récité une leçon.] (B)

    A and B are the same type of action. She speaks to me in the same way that she would recite a lesson. The meaning is very different.

    (Every time si is between parenthesis I assume it's omitted.)

  2. Yes.

  3. No. When you don't use si you can't use imparfait. You sentence would mean that she did recite her lesson earlier, and she spoke the same way. You lose the hypothetical part if you do that.

  4. I think you forgot the pronouns, but you're right in your first assumption.

  5. I'm not sure about this one. I think it can also mean "as if she was ill (at the time)"

  6. I already answered, it means she did recite a lesson, previously. (So your first assumption, but not hypothetical.

  7. In the case of G2, it means "at the time she was speaking".

  8. That basically means the same thing as G2, but it's a different style. It's less elevated than the original. It means she has an habitual way of reciting lessons, and she spoke in that way.

  9. It's kinda weird to use present tense here. It's not ungrammatical, but it implies she's still living in present day. You can say that if you speak about how someone you know spoke (during certain period of time to justify imparfait) some time before. That wouldn't be used in such a book.

    It's common to use present in these form, for things more likely to happen than those we use conditionnel with, but it has to be consistent with the tense of the story.

  10. Nope, if you use present here, you'll use indicative. Famous example:

    Moi la mer elle m'a pris comme on prend un taxi (Renaud, Dès que le vent soufflera)

  • Thanks. I supplied the pronouns in 4. Had I known comme and comme si were so critically different, I would not have used (si)! But if I understood you right, then (and let me number these question), 11. elle parlait comme s'elle récitait une leçon = elle parlait comme elle eût récité une leçon? That is, both these are she spoke as if she were reciting (i.e. contemporaneous) and hypothetical. 12. If said of a person speaking now, elle parle comme s'elle était malade = elle parle comme elle soit malade? Agan both contemporaneous and hypothetical.
    – Catomic
    Feb 9, 2017 at 13:23
  • @Catomic About 11., not quite. "elle parlait comme si elle récitait une leçon" = "She spoke as if she was reciting a lesson", and "elle parlait comme elle eût récité une leçon" = "She spoke like she would have recited/would recite a lesson". The difference is subtle and I'm not even sure it can translate, but it's really different things. Feb 9, 2017 at 13:31
  • @Catomic You used "comme s'elle" twice so I assume it's not a typo, but it's incorrect. si il smoshes into s'il, but si elle doesn't change. About 12., "comme elle soit malade" is never correct. a. You should use indicatif, and b. remember, it has to be similar action (speaking/reciting a lesson). Speaking and being ill is not comparable. Feb 9, 2017 at 13:33
  • S'elle was no typo. I really didn't know. Thanks. / About 11, I do know the difference between as if and as she would have in English. The latter ascribes a certain intention to Alissa. Something like, "If she was to recite a lesson, this is how she would have done it." In contrast, as if need not ascribe anything to Alissa. It may just seem to Jerome that she spoke as if she were reciting. Is it the same sort of difference in French?
    – Catomic
    Feb 9, 2017 at 13:40
  • About 12, understood. Question 13. Then, Elle court comme si elle courait pour sa vie = She runs as if she ran for her life; but Elle court comme elle courrait pour sa vie = She runs as she would run for her life. (I am not sure that French has run for one's life; pour sa vie may not be idiomatic.) Question 14. Instead of courrait, can we use coure such that Elle court comme elle coure pour sa vie?
    – Catomic
    Feb 9, 2017 at 13:50

To answer more generally: comme si + indicative here would together replace the conditional (and yes, eût is indeed conditionnel passé). In this regard it's much the same as in English:

...as if she had been reciting a lesson. / ...as if she were reciting a lesson.


...as she would have recited a lesson. / ...as she would recite a lesson.

Is the meaning of these two statements the same? Practically speaking, yes. The "condition" of the conditional may be paraphrased "If it were the case that..."

Indeed, one often specifies the condition for the conditional in sentences of this familiar construction of si + imparfait (or plus-que-parfait) followed by the conditional:

S'il avait acheté le chat, on entendrait des miaulements.

Which can also be reversed:

On entendrait des miaulements s'il avait acheté le chat.

Because we don't have to spell out our line of thinking most of the time, the condition can be implicit or tautological:

...as she would have recited a lesson if she were reciting a lesson.

In such cases, it's usually omitted for obvious reasons:

...as she would have recited a lesson if she were reciting a lesson.

However, with si doing the job of distancing the clause from reality in order to make a comparison, you could equally well leave the other half and still have it be hypothetical.

...as she would have recited a lesson if she were reciting a lesson.

  • 2
    Deriving both "halves" from the "tautology" (i.e. in the last two examples) was indeed a very clever way to make the thing intuitive. Thank you.
    – Catomic
    Feb 10, 2017 at 4:05

I'll try to answer you in the best possible way even though I don't know every grammatical rules :

1 - It may be grammaticaly correct but it's ugly and wouldn't be used. Plus it's important for you to understand that old french is spoken here , it's oudated. "Comme si" is more an up to date expression so it's an other reason why it doesn't match.

2 - Yes it is

3 - I don't realy know what to answer about "comme" and the context because it's old french , the actual version would be "comme on récite une leçon". What you came with is correct but it's "ugly" , if you want to speak in the past : "comme si elle récitait" . Using the "Imparfait"here because it's in the past but refering to smth not over yet.

4 - First , you forgot "elle" : "comme si elle avait été malade". It's is "plus que parfait" , used to describe something which came to it's end , which is over. So she's speaking as if she were ill , but it was over at the time she speaks about it.

5 - Same about "elle here" . Then , it is "Passé antérieur" , quoting wikipédie : "Le passé antérieur exprime une action antérieure à un passé simple" which means it refers to something over which took place before somthing you would talk in "Passé simple".

6 - Here it means that she spoke as if she were then (i.e. contemporaneously with speaking) reciting a lesson , i can tell because of the use of "imparfait" which as I told before is used to speak of an action which took place in the past but is still going at the moment you speak about it.

7 - It's complicated. Here it means that she spoke as if she were then (i.e. contemporaneously with speaking) reciting a lesson but I can't realy explain why. (Maybe i could , but in french , and I don't know if it would be ok with you)

8 - Yes , it's correct.

9 - Something here is wrong , the exact formulation using the present would be "comme on récite une leçon"

10 - Mi is correct with the "si" , not without. Without the "si" it's a comparison : she speaks like she's ill. You're right on the meaning of the sentence.

Nonetheless M0 isn't correct at all. "Le subjonctif présent exprime une action incertaine, non réalisée au moment où nous nous exprimons." You can't speak about smth taking place in the present in way that discribes smth which didn't take place yet , and may take place in the future !

I hope it helped you , sorry if my english fails me , i'm like you : still learning ! :P

  • Thank you; but are you sure that avait été is passé simple and that eût été is passé antérieur?
    – Catomic
    Feb 9, 2017 at 14:01
  • 2
    I'm sorry but Gide is not "old French". Old French (le français ancien) only goes up to the 14th century. And then comes middle French. fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancien_français. It is merely very formal literary French.
    – Lambie
    Feb 9, 2017 at 14:03
  • a été is passé simple , avait été is plus que parfait , sorry if I said smth else ^^ I edited my answer :) And it's not some"real" old french i know but the point here was to say that it's an old way to speak which is not used anymore exept in a very formal way to speak
    – Rolexel
    Feb 9, 2017 at 14:34
  • It is not even speaking. It is writing. So...
    – Lambie
    Feb 9, 2017 at 20:25
  • Yes it's written but it's about ppl speaking and i'm pretty sure the storry takes place years ago
    – Rolexel
    Feb 10, 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.