There are three ways in which falloir can be used:

  1. Il falloir + noun / Il + personal pronoun + falloir + noun.

  2. Il falloir + infinitive (probably the most used form of falloir).

  3. Il falloir que + subjonctive (when either the subjects in the main clause and the secondary clause are different or the language is soutenue).

But recently I have noticed, especially in 19th century French, a fourth way in which falloir can be used:

  1. Il + personal pronoun + falloir + infinitive.

Here are a few such emplois:

Quand elle eut un enfant, il le fallut mettre en nourrice.

La musique du bal bourdonnait encore à ses oreilles, et elle faisait des efforts pour se tenir éveillée, afin de prolonger l'illusion de cette vie luxueuse qu'il lui faudrait tout à l'heure abandonner.

Elle se levait en sursaut; mais quelquefois il lui fallait attendre, car Charles avait la manie de bavarder au coin du feu, et il n'en finissait pas.

Or, comme il n'y a, de la Huchette à Buchy, pas d'autre chemin que celui d'Yonville, il lui avait fallu traverser le village, et Emma l'avait reconnu à la lueur des lanternes qui coupaient comme un éclair le crépuscule.

Léon jura qu'il lui fallait retourner à son étude.

Elle s'esquiva brusquement, se débarrassa de son costume, dit à Léon qu'il lui fallait s'en retourner, et enfin resta seule à l'hôtel de Boulogne.

(All quotes are from Madame Bovary).

I don't understand the combination between the personal pronoun, usually in the dative case, and the immediately following form of falloir. When translated into English, it doesn't seem to make any sense at all.

Why is falloir used like this? And is this usage considered nowadays to be outdated?

  • 1
    Great question. I've been noticing lately that in other Romance languages, the order of object pronouns and the components of verb sequences is quite different from French. For example, in Spanish, you say, "Lo tengo que comprar," about the same as if French said "Je le dois acheter" (or even "Le je dois acheter"!). I'm pretty sure older French forms do more of that than newer French forms, but would need more familiarity with literature to dig up examples out of hand. – Luke Sawczak May 31 '17 at 12:58

Most of the forms you cite are literary.

The word order used in first one (le falloir) used to be the standard until the 18th century when the usage moved to the current one (falloir le).

Il le fallut mettre en nourriceIl fallut le mettre en nourrice (Sending him to wet nurses was necessary)

See this NGram:enter image description here

The remaining sentences do not use this archaic inversion but a different formal pattern: subject + pronoun + falloir + infinitive.

The pronoun (me, te, lui, nous, vous, leur) is an indirect objet representing who is required to do something. E.g.:

Il me faut partir.

The usual way to express the same is:

Il faut que je parte.

The second sentence moves also the verb at the end of the sentence while current usage would not do it :

qu'il lui faudrait tout à l'heure abandonnerqu'il lui faudrait abandonner tout à l'heure

The remaining sentences follow the same formal pattern:

Il lui fallait attendreil fallait qu'elle attende (feminine here because elle se levait en sursaut)

Il fallait attendre → "To wait was required"

Il lui fallait attendre → "It was a requirement for him to wait"

This is different from the first sentence where le refers to the object (him) while here lui refers to the subject (for/to him). Note that this usage is not literary when falloir is followed by a noun, for example :

Il lui fallait une heure = He/she needed one hour.

Compare to :

Il fallait une heure = One hour was needed.

Here is an interesting reference from Jean-Michel Kalmbach about falloir usage .

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  • 1
    Of course they are literary. They're from Madame Bovary. What did you mean by that? As to your example, Il lui faut une heure, that type of grammatical construction I understand. What I don't understand is what I call type 4, Il + personal pronoun + falloir + infinitive, which your example is not illustrative of because that would translate as Il + personal pronoun + falloir + noun [not infinitive]. – ΥΣΕΡ26328 May 31 '17 at 12:57
  • @jlliagre Could you discuss the literary trend for your first example some more? Other instances of [subj + obj + verb + verb], where the object appears to belong to the second verb, if they come to mind? – Luke Sawczak May 31 '17 at 13:00
  • I mean by literary that they are of a formal register and not expected in everyday's conversation. Il lui fallait attendre is very similar to Il lui fallait une heure, i.e. She had to wait here. – jlliagre May 31 '17 at 13:01
  • 2
    Yes, il les allait voiril allait les voiril allait voir « eux » – jlliagre May 31 '17 at 13:55
  • 1
    Another example, from the great La Fontaine: the third fable of his first book is La Grenouille qui se voulait faire aussi grosse que le Bœuf, nowadays often changed in La Grenouille qui voulait se faire aussi grosse que le Bœuf, as can be verified in several recent and even not so recent printings and adaptations of the fables. – Pas un clue Jun 5 '17 at 19:11

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