1

The other day I was at the hospital and I witnessed a conversation between two doctors about some intern:

Tu es sans pitié, dis-moi... En même temps, elle n’aurait pas autant envie de nous rattraper si on n’était que douceur avec elle. [user Con-gras-tue-les-chiens, on French Stackexchange, cc by-sa 3.0]

  • Could you explain in simple terms what that last part means or what you understand from it?
  • Is that last bit a typical, meaningful and clear French expression or construction, can you explain how it works, why is there a noun (douceur ; softness) and not an adjective (doux ; soft) here, is that a comparison, a metaphor, is that colloquial, is that (seemingly word for word "to be but something with someone") an idiom?
  • What would be other idiomatic ways to express this or to rephrase the last part of the sentence, are there synonyms to douceur which would be more typical in this context, are there any set expressions with a similar meaning in French?

Once I figure this out I'll be able to find an equivalent for these in any language I please on my own.

3

First I would have said "Si l'on n'était que douceur avec elle". Then, you could change the sentence to "Si nous n'étions que douceur avec elle" without changing the meaning.

Literally translated, "if we were only softness with her". Basically, the sentence means that they are not kind/soft with her.

If you want to use the adjective doux, you can say "Si nous n'étions que doux avec elle".

I don't know if it is a rule but it's a common way of talking, however I'm only aware of it being used in the negative form:

  • Tu n'es que méchanceté.
  • Il n'est qu'amour et miséricorde.

This sentence expresses with emphasis how the subject is and only is something.

In this sentence, they are saying that if they were soft (and only soft) with her, she wouldn't be that much motivated to catch up with them. One misunderstanding could be thinking it means if they were softer.

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