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This question has two parts.

Firstly I wanted to know how to use this phrase properly but, more specifically, whether the expression takes 'de' or not or whether it is optional. I have heard the phrase 'de quoi j'ai l'air?' (how do I look?) and 'elle a l'air d'en avoir marre' (she looks feed up). However, I have heard the expression used without the preposition 'de' as well i.e. 'il a l'air triste' or 'il a l'air plus vieux qu'il l'est.'

Secondly, while working, a woman jokingly asked if I was OK because she said I looked like I'd just been running (i.e I was huffing and puffing) and when i recounted the story to my colleague, I said: 'la dame m'a dit que j'avais l'air d'etre venu de courir.' However, he told me this was not correct and the correct way to say it is: '...j'avais l'air que je venais de courir.' What's confusing me is the fact that, since the subject, 'je' remains the same, I thought I could use the auxiliary of 'venir' in the infinitive, similar to the phrase 'je suis content d'etre venu' ('i'm happy I came'). But since he insisted I was incorrect, I was hoping someone could clarify the mistake and explain how the phrase should be used in the past tense.

2

1. Avoir l'air without de exists and means to look, e.g.

Il a l'air triste. (He looks sad)

When followed by a verb, de is required and plays a role similar than to in English:

Il a l'air d'être triste. (He looks to be sad (but he might not be))

When followed by a substantive or a pronoun, de is also required and is similar to like:

Il a l'air de quoi ? (He looks like what? / What does he look like?)

Il a l'air d'un clown ! (he looks like a clown!)


2. You friend was definitely wrong when telling you were incorrect.

While

La dame m'a dit que j'avais l'air que je venais de courir.

can be heard in very colloquial "broken" French of from kids, a standard and correct sentence would use de, not que, e.g.:

La dame m'a dit que j'avais l'air d'avoir couru.

Note that que je venais de courir might have been used with a different construction:

La dame m'a dit que qu'on aurait dit que je venais de courir.


See also Pourquoi dit-on "avoir l'air de ..." ?

  • Thanks. I noticed you edited your second example from 'la dame m'a dit que j'avais l'air de venir courir' and was wondering why that was, simply because 'd'avoir couru' doesn't imply the recent nature of the running, so to speak, as well as 'venir de courir' would. – Armaan Kapila Nov 28 '18 at 13:24
  • I changed it just because of the repetition de -ir de -ir which doesn't sound good but is otherwise perfectly correct. @aCOSwt suggested d'avoir couru in a since deleted comment, and I picked it for being of a better style. The fact the run just happened seems quite implicit to me. – jlliagre Nov 28 '18 at 13:56
  • Oh ok thanks. But since 'j'avais l'air...' is in the imperfect tense, shouldn't the next part of the sentence be in the past tense as well which is why I had suggested 'j'avais l'air d'etre venu de courir' but LPH below writes that that doesn't work well. – Armaan Kapila Nov 28 '18 at 14:28
  • Avoir couru is the infinitif passé form of courir (past infinitive) so does quite well match the past tense requirement you state. On the other hand, venu de courir is not grammatical. You might have written j'avais l'air d'être venu courir but that means something different. – jlliagre Nov 29 '18 at 20:36
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A

"De quoi j'ai l'air?" does not really mean "How do I look?". "What do I look like?" is the correspondent English question. If you consider possible answers to that question you'll find returns such as those;

{On dirait/Vous avez l'air de} quelqu'un qui n'as pas dormi du tout et qui tient à peine debout; votre démarche est chancelante.

  • You look like someone who hasn't slept at all and who can barely stand on his feet; your gait is very unsteady.

{On dirait/Vous me paraissez être} une fille qui n'as aucune notion de maquillage correct ou bien une fille qui est sur le point de faire une répétition dans une pièce de théatre .

  • To me you appear to be a girl who has no notion of making up properly or who is ready to rehearse a part in a piece of theater.

Tu donne l'impression d'un joueur de football américain avec tout ce rembourrage sous tes vêtements. C'est ça! C'est l'apparence que je voulais avoir.

  • You look like an american football player with all those stuffings under your clothes. Yes! That's the appearance I wanted to give myself.

"How do I look?" corresponds rather to a question as "Comment me trouve-tu?/Comment me trouvez-vous?"; less usual, but closer to the English is "Quel effet je fais?", "Quelle impression je donne?"

Answers can be as the following samples;

  • Tu as l'air normalle, propre, comme d'habitude! Ne te tracasse pas.

  • Vous avez l'air un peu débraillé avec cette chemise qui dépasse de votre pantalon derrière; c'est vraiment ce que vous voulez?

  • Vous paraissez un peu guindé mais il ne le remarqueront pas.

  • Comment le trouve tu après ces deux rounds? (How does he look after those two rounds?) Still in great shape, it's going to be a great match!

  • Vous paraissez vieux mais très alerte.

"Avoir l'air de" does not mean the same thing in plain statements and in questions.

If you ask "De quoi ont-ils l'air?" it can only be on the level of physical appearance. No one will answer by "Ils ont l'air d'en avoir par dessus la tête."; that refers to an attitude having to do with a person's morale; to elicit an answer of this sort you have to ask another question, as for instance, "Comment se sentent-ils?" (How are they feeling?); you can then answer using "avoir l'air de", which means "to give the impression that"; this is because "avoir l'air de" is used to say "give an impression" both for "physical appearances" and as well for moral appearances or intellectual ones;

examples

Elle avait l'air de savoir ce qu'elle disait. Nous avions l'air d'être honnêtes. Ils avaient l'air d'être de pieux chrétiens.

B

"Il a l'air plus vieux qu'il l'est." is not said; "l" can have for antecedent only "vieux" and so what's being said is "Il a l'air plus vieux qu'il est vieux."; but "il est vieux" does not stipulate how old, so that's got no sense. It is necessary to turn that differently and one would say things such as "Il fait plus vieux que son âge.", "Il a l'air plus vieux que l'âge qu'il a vraiment.", "Il a l'air plus vieux que son âge."

C

"la dame m'a dit que j'avais l'air d'être venu de courir." is not correct; you can say

"La dame m'a dit que j'avais l'air de quelqu'un qui venait de courir." or
"La dame m'a dit que j'avais l'air d'avoir couru.".

(There are possibly other ways to say that.)

Why you can't say "avoir l'air de venir de" is not clear to me. You'll notice that when the verb is not the modal verb then there is no problem;

Elle avait l'air de venir du froid.
Ces phrases ont l'air de venir tout droit de la bible.

"J'avais l'air que je venais de courir." is not correct either; if you absolutely want to use "venir de" another form than "avoir l'air de" is necessary; those are natural ways of say it;

La dame m'a dit qu'il lui semblait que je venais de courir.
…qu'elle croyait que je venais de courir.

  • Thanks a lot. So is my attempt (...l'air d'etre venu de courir') wrong in any context because 'venir de' acts as a modal verb in this sentence? I was hoping you could help me understand this as the first answer says 'my friend was wrong when he said I was incorrect.' So if I were the lady saying this to someone in the present moment, I would say something like 'vous avez l'air de quelqu'un qui vient de courir (you look like you've just been running) or 'vous avez l'air de courais' (you look like you've been running). – Armaan Kapila Nov 28 '18 at 13:37
  • @ArmaanKapila 1. It seems wrong to me and I suspect the reason could be the modality, but that's a vague notion; all I can assert is that I've never found the form « avoir l'air de venir de manger/de travailler/de pleurer/de se battre/de bronzer/… » although there are plenty of occasions for it; it sounds strange and so I conclude that it is not used, as on top of that I know as natural other forms (Il avait l'air de quelqu'un qui venait de bronzer intensément.). The first answer does say that but the form for which I say something is wrong was not taken up in that answer: (continued) – LPH Nov 28 '18 at 14:32
  • @ArmaanKapila other forms were used and they are correct substitutes. I persist in believing your friend right (but only as your form goes). 2. That is right for the first one. For the second it is wrong again: you must say "Vous avez l'air d'avoir couru.", as it is written in the first answer and in mine also. – LPH Nov 28 '18 at 14:33

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