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Quelle est la seule chose que vous faites en privé qui pourrait vous embarrasser si le public le savait ?

I came across this question on French Quora. Shouldn't the ending be “la savait”, cause “la seule chose” is feminine?

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The antecedent of le here is not la chose, but the clause « que vous faites cette chose ». This is given le, masculine singular, only because that functions as the default inflection when gender and number don't apply.

It's definitely tempting to find the nearest noun for a given pronoun. But certain pronouns, especially le and en, tend to associate themselves with implied elements of the discourse:

Est-ce que tu as bien aimé Anne ? Et dire qu'aujourd'hui, tu le regrettes.

Personne n'a écrit un livre sur comment en lire.

It might be helpful to realize that in English, we often give these elements no pronoun at all. We just omit them:

— He's coming back at midnight. Il revient à minuit.
— I know. Je le sais.

Here le refers to « qu'il revient à minuit », but there's no corresponding it for "that he's coming back at midnight".

| improve this answer | |
  • merci beaucoup! – Jaden Wong Jul 12 at 4:20
  • This is no doubt correct but I am struggling to see why "Quelle" agrees but "le" does not given they surely refer to the same thing. – abligh Jul 12 at 11:46
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    @abligh No reason why to assume they refer to the same thing. Quelle stands for quelle chose. "What (thing, fem.) is the one thing you do in private that could embarrass you if the public knew... " — How should we complete that sentence? Not with "...said thing" (fem.) but with "...that you did it" (masc., by default). – Luke Sawczak Jul 12 at 12:41
  • To the list of vague pronouns in the answer we could add ce, ça. Unlike quel, those ones can and often do refer to implied phrases instead of nearby nouns. – Luke Sawczak Jul 12 at 12:46
  • I would add that one could say "I know it" in English, and that "it" in that case replaces the (implied) dependent clause "that he is coming back at midnight." – phoog Jul 12 at 19:40

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