4

As in every (I think?) Romance language, attributive and predicative adjectives decline to agree with the noun phrase they modify. This includes participles in periphrastic verb forms like reflexives or motion verbs which conjugate with être as the auxiliary; so it’s il est allé and il est né, but elle est allée and elle est née.

For the majority of participles (and quite a few other adjectives), this doesn’t really make much difference in speech because all four possible forms (masculine singular, feminine singular, masculine plural, feminine plural) are pronounced the same, except that for plural forms, liaison of the final -s will apply. For a minority of participles, it matters in all forms: il a été pris, elle a été prise.

Uniquely (I think?) among modern Romance languages, French has an additional rule that participles in periphrastic verb forms conjugated with avoir as the auxiliary must inflect to agree with the direct object if the object comes before the verb and/or is a pronoun:1

Les trucs que j’ai faits vs Les choses que j’ai faites
Je l’ai vu (= I saw him) vs Je l’ai vue (= I saw her)

As someone who learnt French in school, I recall that subject agreement was taught to us from the very beginning – it is such an integral part of the language. Conversely, I didn’t learn about object agreement until my fifth or even sixth year of learning French, around the same time as we were taught the past subjunctive, and (I think) after we’d learnt the passé simple.

This has led me to treat object agreement as roughly equal in usage to the passé simple or past subjunctive, both of which are (in)famously somewhere between moribund and completely dead in normal, spoken French. But I realise I don’t have any real basis for this belief, and Google has been singularly unhelpful.

So my question in a nutshell is this:

Is object agreement as natural a part of spoken French as subject agreement? Or does it belong to elevated registers similar to the passé simple and tends to be ignored in normal speech?

To give an example, if I said, « J’ai pris ma clé, et je l’ai mis dans ma poche », would I sound perfectly natural (assuming there aren’t any other parts of it that sound unnatural, that is)? Or would it immediately mark me as a non-native speaker?

 


1 As a bonus question, which of these definitions is more accurate? Most of the time they overlap, of course, but is this always the case? I cannot come up with any contexts where a pronominal object can appear after its governing periphrastic verb, but would it be possible to front a non-pronominal object for contrastive emphasis without adding a repeated pronominal object, and if so, would object agreement apply there? E.g., « Mon père j’aime beaucoup ; ma mère je n’ai jamais connu(e?) »?

11
  • 2
    As always, I think back to this question where I learned that Georges Brassens, recipient of the Grand Prix de Poésie de l'Académie Française, slipped already in 1954 on the audible agreement that should have distinguished pris from prise...
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jul 8, 2023 at 15:24
  • 3
    @JanusBahsJacquet I wouldn't say it's really "on its way out" quite yet. It's still quite jarring to hear "J’ai pris ma clé, et je l’ai mis dans ma poche", the gender distinction is pretty strong, we are really used to doing that distinction in spoken French today.
    – Frank
    Jul 9, 2023 at 7:01
  • 2
    I had much more written out, but a browser crash wiped most of it out, so here's an abbreviated version without the bibliography: Various corpora have agreement rates of between 28 and 65%. Agreement is highly correlated to level of education but even university degree holders barely reach 2/3rd agreement. Other important factors are the audience targeted by the speech (public speech professionals such as politicians and journalist reach 78%, private speech professionals like middle managers or teachers 43 to 47%, and "normal" workers 30%); the auxiliary used (50% for avoir and 77% for s'être) Jul 9, 2023 at 16:57
  • 3
    the nature of the direct object that triggers agreement (3rd person pronouns are much more likely to be agreed with than non-pronominal objects or 1st and 2nd person pronouns) and metalinguistics elements such as "salience" of the PP and whether many complement follow or not (speakers show more agreement if the PP ends a clause or when the verb is the focus of the sentence) Jul 9, 2023 at 17:03
  • 2
    In short, it's highly variable in a way that suggest that it's a grammatical virus (an artificial rule learned in school and not fully mastered by the average speaker) but object agreement occurs at a much higher rate than something like the past simple that has fully disappeared from everyday speech Jul 9, 2023 at 17:05

2 Answers 2

3

The question is more complex than it seems.

Bases

Here is what french pupils learn in school about object agreement. They refer to it as "accord pour les participes passé avec avoir", which translates to "agreement for past participles when associated with have auxillary".

  • if the object comes after, then there is no agreement (ex: "J'ai pris ma clé": "ma clé" comes after "pris")

  • if the object comes before, there is agreement (ex: "je pense aux choses que j'ai faites": "choses" comes before "faites")

If you know this rule and apply it consistently you won't have any issue communicating with french speakers.

Details

But of course this rule is only an approximation, because in reality there are a ton of exceptions.

For starters, object agreement always happens when a past participle is used as an adjective (so, without être nor avoir):

Une fois découpées en lamelles, les pommes de terre peuvent être ensuite frites dans l'huile. (here "découpées" agrees with "pommes de terre")

With avoir, the agreement only happens with a direct object, not an indirect one:

J'ai mangé une tarte. (no agreement because the object comes after)

La tarte? Je l'ai mangée! (agreement because the object, here is the pronoun l', comes before)

J'ai mangé de la tarte. (no agreement because the object comes after and it is an indirect object anyway)

La tarte? J'en ai mangé! (no agreement because the object is indirect)

Pronominal verbs are their own can of worm that I won't detail here as I am not sure myself to have understood it correctly. Just remember it is weird.

Jeanne s'est souvenue de son rendez-vous.

Jeanne s'est permis de partir en retard.

If the participle is directly followed by an infinitive, there is agreement only if the object is the thing that does the action suggested by the infinitive

Ma voisine, je l'ai entendue dire des calomnies à ton sujet.

La calomnies, je les ai entendu dire par ma voisine.

There is an exception with the verbs faire and laisser which never agrees when followed by an infinitive:

Mes élèves, je les ai fait courir un kilomètre pour les calmer.

In case of a tournure impersonnelle, there is no agreement:

Combien d'essais et d'erreurs il a fallu avant d'arriver à ce résultat?

I haven't included all the exceptions here.

Conclusion

There is serious support from linguists to simplify the way those agreements work. Anyway the rules that I listed under "bases" are those that most people know and you will rarely encounter somebody who complains about any of the mistakes listed in "details".

8
  • 1
    Some of these I wouldn’t classify as exceptions, but contexts where no agreement would be expected: fully adjectival participles are not verbal, so ‘object’ doesn’t apply at all; indirect objects and other prepositional phrases (as in the example given) are functionally very different from objects; and in the neighbour example, les calomnies are not the object of entendu, but of dire. But I was not aware of the exceptions with faire and laisser, impersonal constructions, nor that there are exceptions for reflexive verbs. Jul 10, 2023 at 17:11
  • Could you kindly use a cap for nationalities and languages? I cannot correct the word French in your text because it is only one word... I think it would be a great idea to talk about spoken and written French in this regard.
    – Lambie
    Jul 10, 2023 at 17:25
  • Hmmm La tarte? J'en ai mangé! (no agreement because the object is indirect)? Ce en ne correspond pas à la tarte? Je dirais auss: Jeanne s'est permisE de partir en retard. et La calomnies, je les ai entendues dire par ma voisine. parce que les est le COD avant le verbe - tout au moins je crois que c'est ce que j'ai appris.
    – Frank
    Jul 10, 2023 at 17:27
  • @Frank: précisément, il s'agit de cas typiques où même les francophones tendent à "faire l'erreur". Pour l'exemple de la tarte "en" correspond bien à la tarte, mais dans le sens "manger de la tarte", c'est donc bien un COI. Jul 10, 2023 at 17:56
  • 1
    @AnneAunyme Oui c'est le genre de truc qu'on a appris une fois à l'école et qu'après on oublie plus ou moins dans la pratique - surtout à l'oral, qui est le sujet de cette question ("spoken French").
    – Frank
    Jul 10, 2023 at 17:59
4

We wouldn't say J’ai pris ma clé, et je l’ai mis dans ma poche. We would definitely say je l'ai mise dans ma poche. That object agreement is not optional or dying in spoken in French, and it's not restricted to some registers of languages.

5
  • 2
    Agree it is not optional or dying in spoken French, but not so sure about about register (level of education).
    – Lambie
    Jul 8, 2023 at 16:15
  • @Lambie Yeah, I can see the register question - maybe you are right, but the bar would be quite low, meaning, if you don't do that agreement, the assumption will be that you have a very low level of education, or just don't master the language very well at all.
    – Frank
    Jul 8, 2023 at 16:45
  • 2
    I also agree that wrong agreements are shocking. However, there are some questions about maintaining this rule : Faut-il supprimer l’accord du participe passé ?.
    – Graffito
    Jul 8, 2023 at 16:52
  • 1
    @Graffito À ne surtout pas mentionner aux enfants en âge scolaire - on se prend immédiatement dans la figure: "mais non! c'est pas faux ce que j'ai écris! C'est une nouvelle règle!" (histoire vécue)
    – Frank
    Jul 8, 2023 at 16:56
  • C'est moi que t'as upvoté. :) [pardone-moi mon franglais]
    – Lambie
    Jul 8, 2023 at 17:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.