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I encountered this sentence on Duolingo.

(1) Je me demande ce qu'écoute cette passagère.

It is mostly the end of the sentence that is unfamiliar to me, where the subject of the clause (passagère) is after the verb (écoute).

There are several alternatives mentioned in the forum, which make more sense to me:

(2) Je me demande ce que cette passagère écoute.

(3) Je me demande ce qu'elle écoute cette passagère.

And another example of the "inversion" that is unfamiliar to me:

(4) Je me demande ce qu'est en train d'écouter cette passagère.


(2) is the simplest construction to me. (3) also makes sense, I can view "cette passagère" as an optional bit at the end of the sentence that clarifies who "elle" is. I am mainly confused why you can simply remove "elle" in (3) to obtain (1).

Is there a name for this kind of construction? I called it "inversion" above, but I know inversion usually refers to the construction for questions.

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  • 1
    This other question probably has the answer to yours: french.stackexchange.com/questions/17753/…. The short answer is that in relative clauses which either lack a direct object or whose DO is a weak pronoun or (ce) que, you can freely place the subject before or after the verb. This is mostly done in formal or literary registers Jan 8 at 17:55
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I

The repetition of the pronoun "elle" in "(3)" is termed "dislocation"; this type of "dislocation" is called "cataphorique".

This type of "dislocation" is considered by some people to be a mark of bad style: Le point. I share this point of view, although I have to add that there are cases of utilisation, which you describe aptly ("as an optional bit at the end of the sentence that clarifies …"), when it becomes justified, but then you would expect, most often, a pause before the subject, marked by a comma possibly, or suspension points. You will find, nevertheless that a lot of people do not use it this way and it becomes a redundancy to which can't be attached any particular meaning.
You can remove "elle" in "(3)" so as to obtain "(1)" because the inversion "subject/verb" is possible (you must remove the punctuation before the subject if there is any). See "II" for some details on this inversion.

II

This inversion "subject/verb" is often found (EspaceFrançais);

enter image description here

What is important to understand about this inversion is that it is merely a choice of the writer that they make out of a concern with style ("surtout quand le sujet est composé de plusieurs mots").
In French, this inversion is called "l'inversion du sujet et du verbe" or, shorter, "l'inversion du sujet".

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  • Thank you very much for introducing me to these terms. I like the examples in II, but they are both kind of oratorical. (The first example "Tombe sur moi..." seems almost like the imperative?) Does (1) in my question carry this kind of voice?
    – angryavian
    Jan 15 at 2:15
  • @angryavian No, it is not an imperative but a subjunctive usually introduced by "que"; however, in this variant "que" is ellipted. Here is another example: "Vienne la nuit, sonne l'heure, Les jours s'en vont, je demeure.(G. Apollinaire - "Sous le pont Mirabeau"). The various notions that can be communicated are found here.//No, "(1)" has nothing to do with that.
    – LPH
    Jan 15 at 13:54
  • Thanks very much for the subjunctive reference, I see the examples "sans que" there. I also now see more explanation about the inversion in (1) on the EspaceFrancais link, just above the excerpt that you pasted into your answer. Thanks again for your help!
    – angryavian
    Jan 15 at 15:04
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I believe the reason why you are confused about the fact that by removing elle in (3) you obtain (1) is just because it is an incorrect statement.

Sentence (3) requires a pause after écoute, represented by a comma:

Je me demande ce qu'elle écoute, cette passagère. (common)

The cette passagère part is only loosely linked to the whole sentence. It is optional so you can remove it without breaking the grammar. You can also move it so both of these sentences are equally valid and equivalent to (3):

Cette passagère, je me demande ce qu'elle écoute. (common)

Je me demande ce que cette passagère elle écoute. (informal)

In (1), the status of cette passagère is very different than in (3). The verb écouter requires a subject so you can't remove cette passagère unless you replace it with a pronoun, i.e.:

Je me demande ce que cette passagère écoute.

Je me demande ce qu'elle écoute.

Finally, the inversion found in (1) is one of the several cases in French where a sequence of verb subject is possible.

A well known case is interrogative sentences but here, we have an indirect interrogative subordinate clause (I wonder "what is listening this passenger?")

As (2) demonstrates, this inversion is not mandatory. It is even forbidden if a pronoun is used instead of a noun:

Je me demande ce qu'elle écoute. (Correct)

*Je me demande ce qu'écoute-elle. (Wrong)

In informal or regional French, you might also hear:

Je me demande qu'est-ce qu'elle écoute, cette passagère.

A formal direct interrogative would be:

Qu'écoute-t-elle ?

and its common spoken French variant would be:

Elle écoute quoi ?

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  • Thanks very much for the examples. I understand that in (1), cette passagère is not optional whereas in (3) it can be removed, but my question is more about the inverted order of the subject and verb in (1).
    – angryavian
    Jan 15 at 2:11
  • Answer extended to describe this case.
    – jlliagre
    Jan 15 at 9:19
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    Thanks very much! This is what I was looking for. Thanks especially for noting that the inversion is forbidden if the subject is a pronoun.
    – angryavian
    Jan 15 at 15:06

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