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English wikipedia lists two variations right from the beginning: l'esprit de l'escalier and l'esprit d'escalier.

I understand that the full(er) phrase, avoir l'esprit de l'escalier, is attributed to Denis Diderot, and reads/sounds like the most formal.

On the other hand, the Oxford dictionary lists simply esprit de l'escalier; and it seems that an even briefer esprit d'escalier is passable.

"The spirit of the stairways" is such a great expression, and I would love to better understand the distinctions in usage. (Is it mostly formal vs. casual?)

Merci!

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    Personally, I think it is a very rare expression: I think I have never heard it used in spoken speech, only in literature or rather "high-quality" articles. My bet is that if you used it with the man on the street in France, he would probably not understand that phrase... – Greg Nov 29 '17 at 8:26
  • @Greg I often hear "long(ue) à la détente" instead from native French speakers in casual speech. – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Nov 29 '17 at 11:34
  • @alone-zee: true, this is very common, but long à la détente has a far broader meaning, it rather means "slow to react or to understand" in general, not just slow to find a retort. Ex: J'ai du lui expliquer trois fois en détail. Il est long à la détente... – Greg Nov 29 '17 at 11:57
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    Related: french.stackexchange.com/questions/1525/… – jlliagre Nov 29 '17 at 13:09
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I don't think there is a formal-vs-casual distinction per se between the two here. But again, I'd say (and I have no source for this, mind you) that the expression lost its "l'" over time. To my modern French ear, "L'esprit de l'escalier" sounds precisely like what a learned man might have said in Diderot's time. My guess would be that the elision occurred through general laziness. But I don't think people today would use one or the other to sound more (or less) formal. In fact, I've never heard anything else than "esprit d'escalier" but I have read the other version a few times.

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L'esprit de l'escalier is the original form, l'esprit d'escalier is more modern (some would say less correct).

L'esprit de l'escalier could also be understood as its litteral meaning: a spirit that would haunt the stairs. This confusion is not possible with the modern form.

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"L'esprit d'escalier" is the most commonly used form.Never heard "de l'escalier".

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The "best" form is indeed (avoir) l'esprit de l'escalier which translates to "staircase wit". It is seldom used is everyday's conversation outside by cultured, literary oriented people (e.g. French teachers, theater comedians, authors, critics...)

My first impression would have been that esprit d'escalier is incorrect but this isn't the case as this simplified form is listed in dictionaries. The latter is getting more and more popular but I would still recommend the original form.

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