Au premier coup ne tombe pas l'arbre.

I heard this French proverb and used it in my research paper, but now I'm not sure about its grammatical correctness. I think "L'arbre ne tombe pas du premier coup." sounds more correct. Is this sentence correct? And if it is wrong, is it completely wrong? I'm so worried about it because that research paper was important for me.

up vote 4 down vote accepted

This order is correct. While the common order of French sentences is Subject - Verb - Complement, here is one of the cases where the opposite order is possible, especially in a literary context.

As Christophe rightly points, there is a difference between au premier coup and du premier coup.

Here the sentence has a more than likely implicit part:

Au premier coup [de hache] ne tombe pas l'arbre.

i.e. "with a single [axe] hit, the tree doesn't fall down" or "on the first [axe] hit, the tree doesn't fall down."

The verb is intransitive and the first clause is an indirect object or circumstantial.

See this page that gives some examples like:

Autour de l’arbre s’était enroulé un chèvrefeuille

vs

Un chèvrefeuille s’était enroulé autour de l'arbre

and

Une heure plus tard se produisit un évènement imprévu

vs

Un événement imprévu se produisit une heure plus tard

The usual form is subject + verb + complement:

L'arbre ne tombe pas au premier coup.

You can insist on the timing by starting with the complement:

Au premier coup l'arbre ne tombe pas.

When you start the sentence with something else than the subject, you may invert the subject and the verb. It is a stylistic figure:

Au premier coup ne tombe pas l'arbre

CAUTION: there's a difference between "au premier coup" and "du premier coup". The former takes "coup" in its literal meaning (shot, stroke, blow, glance) whereas the latter is figurative (i.e. the first try).

  • There should be a comma in your second sentence: Au premier coup, l'arbre ne tombe pas. Beware also that the French attention advice usually translates to "warning" or "caution". – jlliagre Sep 15 at 22:15
  • 1
    Your last paragraph/warning is very helpful, in my opinion, especially in contexts like this one where "coup" would seem to the best noun to use in its literal sense with taking a chop at a tree. – Papa Poule Sep 15 at 22:17
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    @jlliagre it is indeed a warning since jack compares the two possibilities and seems not to be aware of the difference ;-) I fully agree that the comma is highly recommended and I thank you to point it out. I left it out to focus only on the order, since it is not strictly mandatory from the grammatical point of view in this case (see for example rule I.1 here and other sources). – Christophe Sep 15 at 23:05
  • I overlook the probable OP confusion between au premier coup and du premier coup before reading your reply but my comment was more about your usage of the French interjection ATTENTION where English would have use WARNING. – jlliagre Sep 15 at 23:42
  • @jlliagre Indeed ! – Christophe Sep 16 at 0:44

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