I am trying to understand de plus and des plus as found in these passages.

From chapter 7 of La porte étroite by André Gide:

Quand Alissa m’accordait quelques instants, c’était en effet pour une conversation des plus gauches, à laquelle elle se prêtait comme on fait au jeu d’un enfant.

From part 1 of La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de La Fayette (édition Lepetit, 1820):

Jamais cour n’a eu tant de belles personnes et d’hommes admirablement bien faits ; et il semblait que la nature eût pris plaisir à placer ce qu’elle donne de plus beau dans les plus grandes princesses et dans les plus grands princes.

QUESTION

  1. I understand that the Gide phrase une conversation des plus gauches means a most awkward conversation. How does it come to mean that?

  2. What is the literal meaning of ce qu’elle donne de plus beau in Madame de La Fayette?

  3. How would you say in French:

    It seemed nature had taken pleasure in placing in the grandest princesses and princes what it gave (or had to give) of the most beautiful.

  4. How would you say in French:

    It seemed nature had taken pleasure in placing in the grandest princesses and princes what it gave (or had to give) of the more beautiful.

  5. Is there any syntactic or other interaction I should be aware of between the two usages (Gide and La Fayette's)?

BACKGROUND

About question 1

If I were left to myself I would have guessed that des was de + les and that there was something implicit after gauches, maybe choses. So the thing would have seemed to mean a conversation of the most awkward things

But one of my grammar books says that un monsieur des plus charmants is equivalent to un monsieur très charmant and in English a most charming gentleman. Here too, left to myself, I would have come up with something like a gentleman of the most charming qualities, by supplying qualities myself.

Should I simply accept that un or une + singular form of noun + des plus + plural form of adjective equals a most + adjective + singular noun? Or is there some deep explanation?

About questions 2, 3 and 4

Please never mind how donne should be rendered in English. That's not my question here.

My guess as to question 2 is that the phrase is about the superlative. It would make little rhetorical sense to talk of the more beautiful as if what was the most beautiful were then reserved for kitchen maids and stable hands. So I am wondering why not put a le in there somehow. Maybe expressions such as au plus and du moins are relevant.

up vote 1 down vote accepted
  1. I guess you could see it as parmi les plus gauches (des conversations) becoming abbreviated to des plus gauches. Maybe. I cannot guarantee that this is how it came to be, but it could be a reasonable explanation. See note below.

  2. I think it means what natures gives (us) that's most beautiful, i.e. the most beautiful that nature has to give us.

  3. what it gave (or had to give) of the most beautiful seems to beg a of .... It feels to me like something is missing in this sentence. This would work better for me: It seemed nature had taken pleasure in placing in the grandest princesses and princes the most beautiful it had to give. In that case I would translate to:

    On aurait dit que la nature avait pris plaisir à mettre ce qu'elle avait de plus beau dans les plus grandes princesses et les plus grands princes.

  4. If we again nudge the English sentence to: It seemed nature had taken pleasure in placing in the grandest princesses and princes the more beautiful it had to give, then my translation would be:

    On aurait dit que la nature avait pris plaisir à mettre ce qu'elle avait de plus beau dans les plus grandes princesses et les plus grands princes.

    With beau, it turns out the same! With meilleur instead of beau, you could have de mieux in 3, and de meilleur in 4. But even so, I am not sure the reader would pay a lot of attention to a possible difference between 3 and 4 in French. It feels to me like another case of couper les cheveux en quatre. I think we hear/read this as a semi-ready-made, semi-predictable formula and don't dwell on possible ambiguities or nuances. I don't think the reader would pause and ask himself/herself: "the author wrote de meilleur and not de mieux! Is the author implying that it had not placed the very best in them, but only something one step below, just good?" I even think that in this expression de mieux and de meilleur have in fact the exact same meaning. I don't know if a nuance really exists.

  5. Nothing that comes to mind right away. I'm sure there will be other contributions with more to say here :-)

    Note 1: About the background for 1 - I think the correct way to understand un monsieur des plus charmants would be un monsieur (parmi) les plus charmants (des autre messieurs) i.e. the plural refers to other messieurs, to whom this one is compared and said to be the most charming. In my opinion, this plural is not required because there are many charmantes (qualités), but because there are many messieurs. Same for the other expression: des plus gauches is plural because there are many conversations, as noted above.

    Note 2: About de + les = des in the first expression. I think that les is recovered if we understand the sentence as parmi les plus gauches des conversations. But not: parmi les conversations des choses les plus embarrassantes (gauche maybe doesn't work here_). It is the conversations that are gauches themselves, no implicit "awkward thing" is needed to make sense of the expression. I believe the second expression que la nature eût pris plaisir à placer ce qu’elle donne de plus beau should be analyzed in the same way: de plus beau can be understood as de plus beau (parmi toutes les choses qu'elle a faites) (which is to say, everything that exists ;-)

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    On the English in 3 and 4, all I meant was what nature had to give from her store of the most beautiful things (or qualities). Please forgive the English if it sounds bad. I was trying mimic what I thought was going on in French. – Catomic Feb 14 '17 at 4:45
  • Yes, I think I got the meaning. I allowed myself to suggest a slight variant in English, and then I went ahead and translated that to French. I think I didn't betray the meaning you intended too much. – Frank Feb 14 '17 at 4:46
  • So, the Madame de La Fayette sentence is ambiguous between the superlative and the comparative (i.e. could mean either)--just like your sentence in 3 and 4? / Is à la Platon a reference to the Athenian philosopher? / See my reference to au plus and du moins. – Catomic Feb 14 '17 at 4:51
  • Yes, the philosopher who talked about Ideas/Forms, such as the Idea of the Beautiful, of the Just... I am not sure you should pay too much attention to the nuance of superlative and comparative... IMHO, the reader hears/reads a semi-ready-made expression and doesn't necessarily dissect it or feel put off by the ambiguity :-) – Frank Feb 14 '17 at 4:55
  • @Catomic - I added an important clarification at the end - I think there is some confusion about the plural in the expression. – Frank Feb 14 '17 at 5:08

The "de" in the first "des" is, as Frank said, more or less equal in meaning to "parmi". That is, "une conversation des plus gauches" means "one of the most awkward conversations" by way of "a conversation (selected from among) the most awkward".

The second "de" is not the same, as you seem to be aware. Its sense is quite near the bottom of the CNRTL page here (search: "Après les pron. neutres indéf."). Its function is simply to introduce a qualifier that might not sit right elsewhere in the sentence:

Elle nous donne quelque chose de beau. (Remarquez: beau est masculin, même après chose.)

She gives us something beautiful.

In my grammar, it is not possible for the superlative to be expressed via this exact construction.

You could instead say "ce qu'elle donne du plus beau", though grammatically it would be a little different (and, as you seem to intuit, more in line with your first phrase). This would be literally "what she imparts from among the most beautiful things (that there are to impart)".

Incidentally, there are plenty of results for "quelque chose du plus" in a regular Google search and in an Ngram search, though it's hard to find an exact match:

quelque chose du plus grand charme (something of the greatest charm -- not an adjective)

quelque chose du plus fort que ce que... (one of the things that is stronger than...; more like your first sentence. Also archaic source)

quelque chose du plus simple au plus complexe (de ... à as from ... to)

quelque chose du [plus loin dont on ait connaissance] (something from among the farthest things we know about)

That last one is pretty close.

But to return to the phrase you cited: when I say that the superlative can't be expressed via that construction, I mean strictly in terms of the grammar. In terms of the sense of the phrase, I think English would indeed best render it as a superlative.

ce qu'elle donne de plus beau

the most beautiful things she imparts

For your fourth question, the English isn't clear -- and this is a great example of why the comparative in English wouldn't be a good match of what is technically a comparative in French. If you had something to compare it to:

ce qu'elle donne de plus beau que ...

Compare this to the "du plus fort que ce que" to get a pretty exact view of the difference between the two constructions:

quelque chose de plus fort que ce que ...

Something stronger than that which ...

quelque chose du plus fort que ce que ...

Something from among those things that are stronger than ... (Grammatically supposes the existence of such a class of things)

  • This de is not the same as in the first sentence? I would have said it was about the same construction: des plus gauches, de plus beau. Note: it is not de beau, but de plus beau. – Frank Feb 14 '17 at 5:24
  • So this one: quelque chose du plus grand charme is ambiguous without more context! :-) But for a different reason. It could mean something of the most charming, if that is correct, i.e. there is "the most charming", and we are talking about "something of that most charming". There is also quelque chose du charme de ..., which is again different, and would be "something of the charm of", i.e. a bit of that charm, something undefinable, but which reminds us of that charm of ... . – Frank Feb 14 '17 at 5:28
  • If "grammatically" the original La Fayette sentence cannot express the superlative, do we have the option of changing de in it to du so as to force it to become a "grammatical" expression of the superlative? Or is that somehow bad (not allowed by grammar, not natural sounding, etc.)? – Catomic Feb 14 '17 at 5:30
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    @LukeSawczak. I just barely got my head to accept that distinction--or mechanically. I need to ponder and let it sink in and really become meaningful to me. (This is great.) – Catomic Feb 14 '17 at 5:36
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    @LukeSawczak - if you say ce qu'elle donne du [plus beau (parmi tout ce qui existe)], the meaning is again slightly different. It means nature gives you a bit of what is the most beautiful ... There is now an idea of giving you some of what's most beautiful, but not all. That was not IMHO present in either of the 2 exemples initially given by Catomic. – Frank Feb 14 '17 at 5:40

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