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I got an email with the following subject line:

Less than two months to complete your follow-up questionnaire | Il vous reste moins de deux mois pour remplir votre questionnaire de suivi.

Given the English sentence, I can deduce that "rester" here means something like "to remain", but I was still unsure of what "Il" meant and what it meant that rester took the object "vous".

So, I wanted to see if any dictionary could help me. I was hoping to find out:

  • what objects "rester" could take (ie, is "vous" an indirect, or direct object? And what does is the meaning of "to 'rester' an object"?)
  • to confirm my suspicion that "Il reste" uses a dummy subject, just like "Il pleut" does.

But when I go look it up here http://www.wordreference.com/fren/rester, and I quickly read the page, I don't see any information that helps me find the answers to these questions.

How can I look up this information on my own?

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    I don't understand why you believe you are not seeing the information you need in that link. The first definition listed gives you the relevant meaning~ "to be remaining, to be left." – temporary_user_name Feb 5 '18 at 23:30
  • @Aerovistae: the uncertainty about the dummy subject, and about what kind of object "vous" is (and what it means to "rester" that "vous" object] was the information i could not see from the link. i had no real way of knowing which meaning in the link was the correct one, given that i was confused about these things. – silph Feb 6 '18 at 4:40
  • One can say "il reste trois objets dans le sac" for example. I'd say it's a"dummy subject" just like in "il y a" – Quentin Ruyant Feb 11 '18 at 10:23
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As Aerovistae suggests, I think confidence in your intuitions, especially as you keep improving in French, is an important factor in the process.

However, I understand that if you weren't yet sure what rester à quelqu'un meant (if you hadn't seen it before and didn't have the English translation), it might be hard to pick exactly the meaning to use among the ones listed.

The two tacks I take in this situation are more or less this:

(A) To understand the phrase as a whole, I will identify a short enough, context-isolated phrase and put that into linguee.fr. In this case I'd choose « il vous reste ». Here's a match it found:

... je vous indiquerai quand il vous reste une minute.
→ I will give you an indication that you have a minute remaining

With enough of those, I get a sense of which words contribute to the meaning and deduce how I should read such expressions. In this case, a few of these matches would yield « Il vous reste X » → "You have X remaining."

(B) If I want to carefully understand the phrase piece by piece, I do something like what you seem to have done.

  • You accounted for the il using what you know about dummy subjects. The only alternative would be that it refers to some previously mentioned masculine noun. I guess the best candidate here is questionnaire way at the end. It seems like you have a strong enough grounding to know that the first explanation is more likely.
  • You accounted for the vous as either an indirect or a direct object.

    You can rule out direct because there is already a direct object: moins de deux mois.

    The indirect object hypothesis is good, and here's how you can test it. If any of the entries have rester à quelqu'un or rester à quelque chose you know that there is a specific meaning for that formulation. Compare, for example, en vouloir à [qqn].

    Since there is no such entry for rester à on WordReference, you have to fall back to a third explanation for the vous. It could be the à [qqn] of belonging, like « C'est à moi ».

You then combine your hypotheses with the meanings available there. "There – remains – less than two months – for you / belonging to you."

This more or less makes sense for the piece-by-piece translation; it's enough to reconstruct the idiomatic saying above, if this is your preferred route.

If it hadn't made sense, you would need to try combinations of (a) other explanations for pieces like il and vous plus (b) other definitions of the main verb rester below the first.

Again, for the sake of simply understanding a French phrase, this isn't the fastest route compared to using linguee.fr or even asking here, but it's one way to do it.


Edit: As lkl writes, since the dummy subject is called the pronom impersonnel in French, some common* verbs that pair with it might appear as a verbe impersonnel, which I'd forgotten about. So if you're in luck, your dictionary would just have il reste [qqch] as an entry and all you have to figure out is the vous.

(* Though it is indeed productive, so you couldn't exhaustively list all the combinations.)

  • (I am slowly digesting your response piece by piece). So, are you saying that a dictionary doesn't tell me when a verb can use the dummy subject "il" ? And that I only can a) make guesses (using reasoning of "does it make sense that it is a dummy subject, instead of "il" referring to some masculine noun mentioned previously), and b) use linguee.fr to see instances of "il [verb]", to feel confident (but not prove) that it is a dummy subject being used? – silph Feb 6 '18 at 3:59
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    @silph That could almost be its own question, but to answer quickly: Indeed, il [verb] is a very productive construction, used spontaneously with arbitrary verbs, rather than something isolated to a few words. It's part of the grammar rather than the dictionary. One way you can tell it's a dummy subject is definitely checking the antecedent. In this case questionnaire (the only singular masc. noun in sight) comes too late and doesn't quite make sense. Note that unlike ce, you don't really get implied antecedents with il. It has to be something explicitly mentioned or a dummy subject. – Luke Sawczak Feb 6 '18 at 4:36
  • i did not realize that the [à qqn] of belonging could be made into an object pronoun! so now this sentence makes sense to me. i'm still unclear, though, in cases where it really is a not-belonging object that is involved; in these situations, i don't know if a dictionary will let me know if a verb takes indirect or direct objects, and if it will tell me what it means to [verb] that object. i'll ask more questions in the future the next time i run into that particular problem. – silph Feb 6 '18 at 4:39
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    @silph Another clue for dummy subjects that's more definitive, in this case anyway, is the direct object, moins de deux mois. A careful look at the WR entry will show that none of the meanings is actually transitive (besides a dummy subject one!). It doesn't take a direct object... so how can it have one? There's our clue. The il [verb] [direct object] is a transformation where the original subject of the verb becomes the direct object. In other words, il reste moins de deux mois would be wrong if il referred to a person somehow causing two months to remain or something. – Luke Sawczak Feb 6 '18 at 4:39
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    Another way it might be listed in a dictionary is as verbe impersonnel. This is how it appears in the Collins Robert, along with numerous examples, Il reste encore un peu de pain, il leur reste juste de quoi vivre, etc. – lkl Feb 6 '18 at 11:00

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