8

I encountered this in Astérix. Soldiers are in formation and one prods another with his spear and asks Alors, il se rend, oui ou non ? to inquire as to whether Astérix has surrendered himself. The prodded soldier responds Ça énerve, d'attendre.

I'm not sure if this means "That's irritating, just wait!" or "It's irritating, having to wait." It seems to be the second one, that makes more sense grammatically, but I'm not really sure.

I basically need an explanation of the grammar of d'attendre. I'm not sure precisely why there's a de or why it's in the infinitive. Has the de basically turned it into a noun phrase, where ça = d'attendre = "the act of waiting"?

8

Ignoring intonation and punctuation for a moment, there's two structures in French that can produce a surface form like "Ça énerve d'attendre":

The first is an impersonal construction, where the logical subject of a sentence appears in object position and a dummy pronoun (il or ça) fills the object position:

La neige tombe - Il tombe de la neige

Les touristes arrivaient alors par dizaine - Il arrivait alors des touristes par dizaines

Attendre est énervant - Il est / c'est énervant d'attendre

Two things to note is that the subject pronoun is always neutral and triggers masculine singular agreement and that marking of the erstwhile subject with de is obligatory.

The second is right dislocation, where an argument is moved outside of the sentence (in this case, at the end) and reflected in its core by a pronoun:

La neige tombe - Elle tombe, la neige

Les touristes arrivaient alors par dizaine - Ils arrivaient alors par dizaines, les touristes

Attendre est énervant - C'est énervant, d'attendre

Attendre énerve - Ça énerve, d'attendre

If we contrast right dislocation and the impersonal construction, two major differences appear:

  • Dislocated subject noun phrases are unmarked like normal subjects while the impersonal construction has to be marked with de. Yet right dislocated infinitive phrases have to be marked with de.

  • The resumptive pronouns of a dislocated element conserve their agreement features: gender in the first two sentences and number in the second. In the case of infinitives, they have to be echoed by ça.


Both the impersonal construction and left dislocation serve the same purpose: put the focus on the verb phrase by moving it to the start of the sentence, as Luke Sawczak noted in a comment.

Which construction is used is largely a question of register, with the impersonal one being privileged in higher and more formal registers and dislocation dominating everyday colloquial speech.

Yet it's interesting to note that both constructions can produce the exact same form when the displaced subject is an infinitive:

Te voir lui a fait plaisir - Ça lui a fait plaisir de te voir - Ça lui a fait plaisir, de te voir

The main differences between the impersonal construct and left dislocation of an infinitive are the pronoun used (either il or ça in the first case but only ça in the second) and the specific prosodic pattern of the dislocated element, marked in writing by a comma (often said to be a pause, but this is not supported by the literature, that describes it as a flat intonational contour of the right dislocated element instead). However, this prosodic signature can be absent and the dislocated element fully integrated to the rest of the sentence (see references at the bottom of the answer).

When digging further however, the constructions do not necessarily coincide. It's the case of the sentence that prompted the question: A more formal counterpart of "Ça énerve d'attendre" would be "Il m'énerve d'attendre" but this is not a well formed sentence.

So if "Ça énerve d'attendre" has to be the dislocated counterpart of "Attendre m'énerve", why does the comma intonation seems not only unnecessary to the question writer and to many commenters, but outright wrong?

A possibility is that in spoken language both constructions have been conflated, giving rise to a new construction with the syntax of dislocation (ça as subject pronoun) and the prosody of the impersonal construction. But this will have to remain idle speculation (at least until I find something more conclusive in the literature).


BUTHKE Carolin et al. "Les sujets nominaux du français et leur reprise pronominale: leur reprise pronominale: dislocation ou doublement ?" (conference paper) http://prosodia.upf.edu/membres/sichel_bazin/presentations/Buthke_et_al_PFC_NO_10.pdf

AVANZI Matthieu, "L'interface prosodie/syntaxe en français : Dislocations, incises et asyndètes" http://www.theses.fr/2011PA100065

  • I agree that the comma is perfectly fine and not only for pause value, siding with the parsing that it's right dislocation (thank you for remembering this term!). But then I'm not a native speaker, so if it feels "intuitively" wrong to those who are, you could be right about an impending language shift. In any case, nice answer. – Luke Sawczak Mar 9 '17 at 1:00
  • Hmmm - it looks like sometimes when you dislocate, you have to impersonalize, rather than always having the choice between the two? – Frank Mar 9 '17 at 1:50
  • It feels to me that both having the comma and no comma are acceptable, probably because the register is spoken language rather than written language, so I would expect the rules to be more relaxed. – Frank Mar 9 '17 at 1:54
2

This sentence means Attendre est énervant: the action of waiting is annoying.

As a side note Ça énerve, d'attendre is not entirely correct (in term of grammar), and would be more right without the comma. The comma makes a break in diction, in order to amplify d'attendre.


For the grammar part, d'attendre is the COD of the sentence.

Let's take another example with the same structure:

Tu construis une maison. Il arrête de parler.

Here une maison has the same role as d'attendre (COD). As it completes the verb, it must be separated from the verb (with the préposition de).

2

That's your second guess. The de in d'attendre can be seen as a shortcut of le fait de.

Attendre must be separated from the verb:

Ça énerve attendre would be incorrect.

Ça refers to attendre, the sentence might be reordered that way:

Attendre, ça énerve

i.e. "To wait, it's irritating" or "To wait irritates"

Reference TLFi

II.− De marque une relation syntaxique; il est introducteur de subst., de pron. ou d'inf. en fonction de compl., de suj., d'attribut, d'appos., ou en fonction expressive.

B.− [De introducteur de suj., d'attributs, d'appos.; de signifie « le fait de », en parlant d'un fait particulier.]

b) [Annoncé par un pron. neutre.] C'est bien vrai que ça ne vaut rien pour personne, de vivre les uns sur les autres (Zola, Germinal, 1885, p. 1276).

  • So is ça impersonal here? Or is it a pronoun referring to d'attendre as I initially guessed? – temporary_user_name Mar 8 '17 at 18:01
  • 1
    Yeah, ça is just resuming "attendre" in order to allow the verb to move to focus position closer to the start of the sentence. D'attendre is the antecedent of ça, and is not a COD nor the same as de parler in the other answer. – Luke Sawczak Mar 8 '17 at 19:12
  • @LukeSawczak Thanks for putting me back on the right track! – jlliagre Mar 8 '17 at 19:35
  • :) For the de, I was also thinking about a comparison with sentences like "Mieux vaut parler que de se taire." Without anything before the verb, it would seem as though the first infinitive is the subject... and interestingly, the de is optional (if we look for a bunch of such sentences) but it could not be inserted before "parler". Wondering how to account for that! Although it may not be worth examining fixed constructions like that for general lessons. :p I really need to pick up a good grammar or LBU one of these days. – Luke Sawczak Mar 8 '17 at 19:37
  • For a non-native speaker you do a great impression of being one. – temporary_user_name Mar 9 '17 at 1:20
-2

The comma matters, without it the sentence would sound unbalanced (to my french ears at least).

  • Can you perhaps add sources or more details to your answer ? In its current form, it does not add anything that is not in the other answers. – Evpok Nov 24 '17 at 13:14

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