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When Adverbs Get Cozy with Adjectives

Laurence Boccolini, the beloved rich and famous French host of TV Channel 2, should be a happy woman. Quite the contrary, malheureusement. In Le Journal’s video on age and fertility, she describes her sorrow at being unable to conceive

Mais c'est une femme profondément meurtrie, parce qu'elle n'a pas réussi à donner la vie.

But she's a deeply wounded woman, because she hasn't been able to create a life.

Caption 2, Le Journal: L'âge et la fertilité

Notice that the adverb profondément (deeply) is modifying the adjective meurtrie (wounded), and that both words together describe this femme (woman). It's important to note that, like in English, the adverb precedes the adjective, so it's profondément meurtrie, not meurtrie profondément, but unlike the English translation, this phrase meaning "deeply wounded" follows the noun it modifies, femme. Indeed, that is the typical pattern; in most cases, when an adverb modifies an adjective that is qualifying a noun, the adverb-adjective pair will appear after the noun.

Let's take another look, this time at an, ahem, somewhat happier example. Someone who was not concerned with fertility problems was the famous poet Victor Hugo. He conceived five children. For those interested in learning about more than just the literary side of Victor Hugo, the singer Bertrand Pierre clues us in to some of the poet's other "talents" in this Yabla exclusive interview:

Il avait une activité sentimentale et sexuelle assez débordante.

He had a rather overactive romantic and sex life.

Caption 30, Bertrand Pierre: Victor Hugo

Here we see a noun, activité (activity), which we translated as "life" to fit this context (you wouldn't really say "a romantic activity" in English), being modified by two adjectives: sentimentale (romantic) and sexuelle (sexual). Then that whole chunk, his "romantic and sex life," is being modified by the adjective-adverb combo assez débordante (rather overactive).  

Take a look at the order of the words. It might help to think of the words like building blocks. First you have activité. Now, what kind of activité do you mean? Since you are talking about his romantic and sexual life, you add the building blocks sentimentale and sexuelle. In English, these blocks go before the noun; in French, they go after. Now, what kind of romantic, sexual life did he have? Well, a rather overactive one! So you add the building blocks assez débordante to what you've already built to finish up the block tower. And again, in English we see that "rather overactive" appears before the phrase it modifies, while in French, assez débordante follows it.

So is it always the case that an adverb+adjective modifier will follow the noun? If only it were so simple. In fact, the Bertrand Pierre example above is an interesting case. Bertrand could actually also have said: il avait une assez débordante activité sexuelle (he had a rather overactive sex life) and placed the adjective débordante (overactive) before the noun activité (activity). Why? Because the adverb assez (rather) modifying the adjective débordante (overactive) is a short adverb.

Most adverbs in French are formed by adding the suffix -ment (as in profondément above), and the general rule is to place the adjective qualified by an adverb after a noun (as in une femme profondément meurtrie). However, if the adverb is short (generally, these are adverbs not ending in -ment), like très (very), plus (more), assez (rather), etc., then the adjective can be placed in either location: before or after the noun that it describes.

You can see an example of this "before" placement in the beautiful Le Journal video about Easter Island—a video that may be as beautiful as the native French Riviera that Michel Garcia left twenty-eight years ago:

On se rend compte que la France, c'est un très beau pays et qu'on y vit très bien.

You realize that France is a very beautiful country and that life is very good there.

Caption 33, Le Journal: L'île de Pâques

Notice the very short adverb très (very) that modifies the adjective beau (beautiful) placed here before the noun that it qualifies: pays (country). This diver who appreciates the beauty of both countries could have easily said, and would have been equally correct to say: La France, c’est un pays très beau, placing the adjective after the noun. Remember, this is because très (very) is a short adverb that qualifies the adjective beau (beautiful).

Whichever way Michel says it, we have to agree with his statement!

 

Grammar

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