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Unchanging Colors

In this lesson, we're going to discuss a somewhat tricky aspect of French color words. Like the vast majority of adjectives, most French color words agree in gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural) with the noun they modify. Let's take the adjective noir (black) as an example:

 

[Les cheveux] peuvent être noirs
[Hair] can be black.
Cap. 11, Le saviez-vous? - Le vocabulaire de la tête

 

Ensuite vous avez mon écharpe noire, une simple étole.
Then you have my black scarf, a simple wrap. 
Cap. 9, Fanny parle des saisons: S'habiller en hiver

 

In the first sentence, noir modifies the masculine plural noun cheveux ("hair" is always plural in French), so it takes the masculine plural ending -s (noirs). In the second sentence, noir modifies the feminine singular noun écharpe, so it takes the feminine singular ending -e (noire).

 

However, certain color adjectives are invariable—that is, they never change regardless of the gender and number of the noun. All of these adjectives are derived from nouns. Take orange for example. As in English, in French orange refers to both the color and the fruit (une orange). Though you can certainly have de multiples oranges (multiple oranges), the adjective form of the word never changes, even in the plural:

 

J'ai acheté des chaussures orange
I bought orange shoes. 

 

On the other hand, rouge (red) isn't invariable (since it's not derived from a noun), so it does change in the plural: 

 

Tu as acheté des chaussures rouges
You bought red shoes. 

 

Another common color adjective that never changes is marron. Un marron is a chestnut, but when used as an adjective, it just means "brown": 

 

Regardez ces chiens. Ils sont marron?
Look at these dogs. Are they brown?
Cap. 52, Leçons avec Lionel: Couleurs

 

The other word for brown, brun, is variable. In this example, it modifies the feminine plural noun feuilles (leaves): 

 

De tas de feuilles à moitié mortes... un jour vertes, un jour brunes
Lots of half-dead leaves... one day green, one day brown
Cap. 9-11, Stromae: Bienvenue chez moi

 

There's another word for "chestnut" too! It's une châtaigne. The related adjective châtain is variable and is often used to describe hair color:

 

[Les cheveux] peuvent être châtains. "Châtain", c'est marron. 
[Hair] can be chestnut-colored. "Chestnut" is brown.
Cap. 12-13, Le saviez-vous? - Le vocabulaire de la tête

 

Some other invariable color adjectives are: abricot (apricot), ardoise (slate), argent (silver), azur (azure), brique (brick), bronze (bronze), café (coffee), caramel (caramel), champagne (champagne), chocolat (chocolate).

 

There's one more instance of invariability you should be aware of when dealing with color words. When you use more than one adjective to designate a single color (like "light blue," "dark green," etc.), neither of the adjectives changes according to the noun it modifies. For example:

 

Il a les yeux bleu clair et les cheveux brun foncé
He has light blue eyes and dark brown hair

 

But: 

 

Il a les yeux bleus et les cheveux bruns.
He has blue eyes and brown hair

 

As you may have noticed, like many other adjectives, color adjectives always follow the noun in French. See our previous lesson for more information on that. And for a good introduction to colors in French, check out Lionel's video on the subject.

 

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned and tweet us @yabla or send your topic suggestions to newsletter@yabla.com.

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Prepositions of Place

In our last lesson on the difference between the verbs habiter and vivre, we mentioned that habiteris often followed by a preposition such as à or dans, but it doesn't always require one. So if you live in Paris, you could either say j'habite à Paris (I live in Paris) or simply j'habite Paris (I live in Paris)But in this lesson, we'll focus on instances in which the choice of preposition is very important. Take a look at this example: 

 

Je suis né à Paris en France et j'ai commencé à faire du piano vers l'âge de huit ans
I was born in Paris, in France, and I started to play the piano at around eight years of age
Cap. 3, Alex Terrier - Le musicien et son jazz

 

You'll notice that Alex uses two different prepositions here (à and en) that both translate as "in." So why does he say à Paris but en France? It all has to do with the types of places he's describing. When you're talking about being in a city, you use à:

 

Je suis né à Paris mais j'habite à Lyon. 
I was born in Paris but I live in Lyon. 

 

When you're talking about being in a feminine country (usually ending in e, such as la France), you use en (je suis né en France)But when you're talking about being in a masculine country, you useauunless the name of the country begins with a vowel, in which case you use en:

 

Ma famille habite au Botswana et en Angola.
My family lives in Botswana and in Angola

 

And for a plural country of either gender, you use aux:

 

Donc, treize, quatorze jours de vacances aux États-Unis.
So, thirteen, fourteen days of vacation in the United States.
Cap. 5, Interviews à Central Park: Différences culturelles 

 

These prepositions are translated as "in" in the above examples, but they can all mean "to" as well:

 

Aujourd'hui nous sommes à Londres et demain nous irons à Dublin
We're in London today and we're going to Dublin tomorrow. 

 

When you're talking about coming from a place, the rules are a bit more straightforward. For cities, feminine countries, and masculine countries beginning with a vowel, you use de/d'. For masculine countries beginning with a consonant, you use duAnd for plural countries, you use des

 

Je viens (I come)...        de New York (from New York). 
                                    d'Athènes (from Athens). 
                                   de Chine (from China). 
                                   d'Iran (from Iran). 
                                   du Canada (from Canada). 
                                   des Pays-Bas (from the Netherlands).

 

Knowing these prepositions will make it easier to describe where you're from, where you are, and where you're going in French!  


                                
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French Object Pronouns, Part 2: Indirect Object Pronouns

As we mentioned in our last lesson, a direct object is a noun that receives the action of a verb (such as "the ball" in "I throw the ball"). On the other hand, an indirect object indicates to whom or for whom the action is done (such as "my friend" in "I throw the ball to my friend"). Just as direct object pronouns replace direct objects (e.g. "I throw it to my friend"), indirect object pronouns replace indirect objects ("I throw the ball to him/her"). There are six indirect object pronouns in French: 


me (to me)              nous (to us)
te (to you)               vous (to you)
lui (to him/her)        leur (to them)


In French, an indirect object pronoun usually replaces "à (to) + a person." Unlike direct object pronouns, which can refer to either people or things, indirect object pronouns only refer to people.
 

Je jette le ballon à mon amie. / Je lui jette le ballon.
I throw the ball to my friend. / I throw her the ball [or "I throw the ball to her"].


The following example contains a mixture of direct and indirect pronouns. How did the speaker know when to use which? 
 

Il m'a dit: "Je le garde". Ben, je lui ai dit: "Écoutez, expliquez aux quatre cents personnes...”
He told me, "I'm keeping it." Well, I told him, "Listen, explain to the four hundred people...”
Cap. 24, Actu Vingtième: Vendanges parisiennes


It all depends on whether the verb in question would normally be followed by the preposition à. Garder isn't followed by à: you would say garder quelque chose (to keep something), but never garder à quelque chose. If you watch the video, you'll know from context that the speaker is referring to le fromage (cheese). So instead of saying je garde le fromage, he uses the direct object pronoun le (je le garde). On the other hand, you would say dire à quelqu'un (to tell someone), but never dire quelqu'un. Because of that à, the speaker knows to use the indirect objects me and lui


Here are some other examples of indirect object pronouns in action:


Si la nuit me parle de souvenirs passés
If the night speaks to me about past memories
Cap. 3-4, Boulbar: New York, 6 heures du matin

Mais je te donne plus que des mots
But I give you more than words
Cap. 12, Corneille: Comme un fils

Et là, je leur ai envoyé une petite nouvelle…
And here, I sent them a little short story…
Cap. 86, Claudine Thibout Pivert: 2ème Salon du livre et des vieux papiers Mazamet


We know these are indirect object pronouns because they all replace "à + person" in the verbal expressions parler à quelqu'un (to speak to someone), donner à quelqu'un (to give to someone), and envoyer à quelqu'un (to send to someone).


As you learned in our last lesson, when a direct object pronoun is followed by a verb in the past tense (passé composé), the past participle needs to agree in number and gender with the direct object pronoun. On the other hand, you don't have to worry about agreement in the passé composé with indirect object pronouns. That's why you have je leur ai envoyé in the example above and not je leur ai envoyés or je leur ai envoyées

 

Feel free to tweet us @yabla or send your topic suggestions to newsletter@yabla.com. Thanks for reading!

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French Object Pronouns, Part 1: Direct Object Pronouns

direct object is a noun that receives the action of a verb, such as the word "cookie" in the sentence, "I'm eating the cookie." It generally answers the question "what?" or "whom?" ("What am I eating? The cookie.") A direct object pronoun replaces the direct object when the latter is already implied. So instead of "I'm eating the cookie," you could just say, "I'm eating it."  

 

The French direct object pronouns are:

 

me (me)             nous (us)
te (you)              vous (you)
le (him, it)          les (them, masculine and feminine)
la (her, it)

 

Direct object pronouns have the same function in French as they do in English, with a few important distinctions. The most notable of these is that whereas in English the direct object always comes after the verb, in French it always comes before (except in the imperative, as we discussed in a previous lesson): 

 

Ce livre me fascine.
This book fascinates me

 

Quand un copain t'appelle pour son déménagement
When a friend calls you to help him with his move
Cap. 4, Oldelaf: La Tristitude

 

The third-person singular direct object pronouns (le and la) have the same gender as the noun they refer to: 

 

Le silence tue la souffrance, l'émoi
Silence kills suffering, the struggle
L'entends-tu, est-ce que tu le vois?
Do you hear it, do you see it?
Cap. 21-22, Indila: S.O.S.

 

La tarte à l'oignon! -Ouais, comment vous la faites? -Je la fais pas, je l'achète.
Onion tart! -Yeah, how do you make it? -I don't make it, I buy it.
Cap. 17, Actu Vingtième: Foire aux oignons

 

In the first example, the le of le vois refers to le silence. In the second, the la of la faites/la fais refers to la tarte à l'oignon. Both examples demonstrate another rule that applies to all singular direct object pronouns (me, te, le, and la): when the verb that comes after the pronoun begins with a vowel or silent h, the e or of the pronoun is dropped and is replaced with an apostrophe (this is known as elision). That's why you have l'achète instead of la achètel'entends instead of le entends, and t'appelle instead of te appelle.

 

Again, this only applies to singular direct object pronouns. With the plural pronouns, all you have to think about is number agreement. In the following examples, les refers to both the masculine plural ils and the feminine plural les pommes, and it doesn't change before a verb beginning with a vowel:

 

À l'assemblée, ils ont reçu un prix qui les touche mais les concerne peu…
At the assembly, they received a prize that touches them but concerns them little…
Cap. 25, Le Journal: Nouveaux artistes pluriculturels

 

Est-ce que tu aimes les pommes? -Non, je ne les aime pas.
Do you like apples? -No, I don't like them

 

The only other tricky aspect of French direct object pronouns occurs in the past tense (passé composé). If you have a feminine singular, feminine plural, or masculine plural direct object pronoun before a verb in the passé composé, you need to make sure that the past participle agrees in number and gender with the noun you're referring to: 

 

Je n'ai pas les jouets. Je les ai oubliés
I don't have the toys. I forgot them

 

Mais si toutes ces technologies existent depuis si longtemps, pourquoi est-ce qu'on ne les a pas utilisées?
But if all these technologies have existed for so long, why haven't we used them?
Cap. 3-4, Il était une fois - Notre Terre: 25. Technologies - Part 6


The root (masculine singular) forms of the above past participles are oublié and utilisé. But since jouets is masculine plural, we need to add an s to oublié to make it plural (oubliés). And since technologies is feminine plural, we need to add an e to utilisé to make it feminine and an s to make it plural (utilisées).


Stay tuned for part two of this series, which will focus on indirect object pronouns. À bientôt! 

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The French Imperative, Part 2

In our last lesson, we introduced the French imperative mood, which is used to express a command or a request. We concluded the lesson with a discussion of reflexive verbs, which become hyphenated in the imperative: for example, se souvenir (to remember) becomes souviens-toi! (remember!). In fact, any imperative verb followed by an object pronoun requires a hyphen:

 

Ouais, donne-moi l'info. 
Yeah, give me the info. 
Cap. 45, Plus belle la vie: Episode 2771 - Part 7

 

An imperative verb can even precede two object pronouns (and therefore two hyphens). For example, we could shorten the above sentence to: 

 

Ouais, donne-la-moi.
Yeah, give it to me.  

 

Let's break that down: donne is the imperative verb (give), la is the direct object pronoun ("it," referring to "the info"), and moi is the indirect object pronoun (to me). Note that in imperative expressions like this, the direct object pronoun always comes before the indirect object pronoun. You can learn more about French object pronouns here.

 

On the other hand, when you negate an imperative verb with object pronouns, the hyphens disappear and the pronouns move before the verb:

 

Ne te souviens pas. 
Don't remember

 

Ne me la donne pas.
Don't give it to me

 

Though we mentioned in our previous lesson that the imperative is nearly identical to the present indicative form of a verb, there are four very common verbs for which this is not the case: avoir (to have), être (to be), savoir (to know), and vouloir (to want). For these verbs, the imperative is nearly identical to their present subjunctive forms:

 

Mon ami, n’aie pas peur
My friend, don’t be afraid
Cap. 18, Arthur H et M: Est-ce que tu m’aimes?

 

Mais soyons prudents! 
But let's be careful!
Cap. 17, Il était une fois - les Explorateurs: 10. Amerigo Vespucci - Part 4

 

Sachez qu'il y a de nombreux trains directs de Paris vers Trouville, Deauville.
Know that there are numerous trains direct from Paris toward Trouville, Deauville.
Cap. 35, Voyage en France: La Normandie - Cabourg 

 

The imperative form of vouloir is mostly used in the second-person plural (veuillez) as a formal way of saying "please": 

 

Veuillez ne pas quitter. Vous allez être mise en relation avec notre secrétariat.
Please stay on the line. You will be connected to our secretary's office.
Cap. 5, Manon et Clémentine: Rendez-vous chez le médecin

 

That about covers it for the imperative! Don't forget (n'oubliez pas) to check out our new videos this week and don't hesitate (n'hésitez pas) to tweet us @yabla or send your topic suggestions to newsletter@yabla.com.

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The French Imperative

In one of our new videos this week, Patricia recites Charles Baudelaire's "L'Horloge" (The Clock), a gloomy but rousing poem about the passage of time and the importance of memory. We'll leave it up to you to analyze the many existential questions this poem raises. Instead, in this lesson, we'll focus on a more basic aspect of the poem: its repeated use of the imperative mood, which expresses a command or request. You'll find a particularly ominous instance of the imperative in the poem's final line: 

 

Où tout te dira: Meurs, vieux lâche! il est trop tard!
When all will say to you: Die, old coward! It is too late!
Cap. 25, Le saviez-vous? - La poésie française: Baudelaire - Part 2

 

The imperative is fairly simple to learn, since it only exists in the second-person singular (tu), second-person plural (vous), and first-person plural (nous) forms, and because it's conjugated almost exactly like the present indicative. To make a verb imperative, you just take the present indicative tuvous, or nous form and drop the pronoun. That's it! So in the example above, meurs is the present indicative tu form of the verb mourir (to die). If Baudelaire had left in the tu, he would have had: Tu meurs, vieux lâche! (You are dying, old coward!) But by simply removing the tu, he changed the meaning to something much more forceful.

 

The only tricky aspect of the imperative comes with verbs ending in -er. While -ir and -re verbs are exactly the same in the present indicative and the imperative, there's a special rule for conjugating -er verbs in the imperative in the tu form: in addition to dropping the tu, you also drop the -s at the end of the verb: 

 

Tu manges tes légumes. / Mange tes légumes. 
You are eating your vegetables. / Eat your vegetables. 

 

You don't have to worry about changing the verb in the nous and vous forms: 

 

Nous mangeons nos légumes. / Mangeons nos légumes.
We are eating our vegetables. / Let's eat our vegetables. 

 

Vous mangez vos légumes. / Mangez vos légumes. 
You are eating your vegetables. / Eat your vegetables. 

 

In "L'Horloge," Baudelaire makes frequent use of the command souviens-toi (remember):

 

Souviens-toi que le Temps est un joueur avide
Qui gagne sans tricher, à tout coup! c'est la loi.

Remember that Time is a greedy player
Who wins without cheating, every time! It's the law.
Cap. 18-19, Le saviez-vous? - La poésie française: Baudelaire - Part 2

 

You might be wondering why there's a toi after souviens. The reason is that with reflexive verbs such as se souvenir (to remember), the object pronoun moves after the verb in the imperative. So instead of tu te souviens (you remember), you have souviens-toi (not souviens-te). Instead of nous nous souvenons (we remember) and vous vous souvenez (you remember), you have souvenons-nous (let's remember) and souvenez-vous (remember). Here's another example with s'asseoir (to sit): 

 

Assieds-toi.
Have a seat.
Cap. 4, Le Jour où tout a basculé: À la recherche de mon père - Part 7 

 

We'll continue our discussion of the imperative in our next lesson. In the meantime, why not read some more Baudelaire

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The French Subjunctive, Part 2: Irregular Verbs

In our last lesson, we introduced the general rule for conjugating French verbs in the present subjunctive: take the third-person plural (ils/elles) present indicative form of the verb, remove the -ent, and add the subjunctive endings: -e, -es, -e, -ions, -iez, and -ent.While this rule applies to the vast majority of verbs, some of the most common French verbs have irregular subjunctive conjugations. 

 

In this video about a tile factory in Courboissy, we find two irregular subjunctive verbs in the same caption, both introduced by the phrase pour que (in order that, so that): 

 

Alors soit pour que ça soit respirant, pour que vous ayez une maison respirante…
So either in order for it to be breathable, so that you have a breathable house…
Cap. 36, Salon Eco Habitat: Terres cuites de Courboissy

 

The first verb is être (to be)which is conjugated as follows in the subjunctive: je sois, tu sois, il/elle/on soit, nous soyons, vous soyez, ils/elles soient. Note that the first soit in the above caption is not the same as the third-person subjunctive form of être—it's a separate word meaning "either." See our lesson Either/Or for more information on that. 

 

The second verb, avoir (to have), looks like this in the subjunctive: j'aie, tu aies, il/elle/on ait, nous ayons, vous ayez, ils/elles aient. 

 

Like the first-person subjunctive forms of avoir, those of aller (to go) also begin withai-j'aille, tu ailles, il/elle/on aille.

 

Si vous voulez que je m'en aille
If you want me to go away
Cap. 17, Bertrand Pierre: Si vous n’avez rien à me dire

 

But in the nous and vous forms, the changes position: nous allions, vous alliezThen it goes back to where it was for the third-person plural: ils/elles aillent

 

Most forms of vouloir (to want) contain the letters euilleje veuille, tu veuilles, il/elle/on veuille, ils/elles veuillent.

 

…il n'y a rien d'autre à faire qu'à attendre que le vent veuille bien se lever.
…there's nothing else to do but wait until the wind finally decides to pick up.
Cap. 15-16, Il était une fois - les Explorateurs: 10. Amerigo Vespucci - Part 1  

 

But its nous and vous forms look a little different: nous voulionsvous vouliez

 

Faire (to make or to do) and pouvoir (to be able to) both have a double s in the subjunctive: 

 

Maintenant qu'on est en numéro trois, il faut qu'on fasse quatre, cinq, six.
Now that we are on step three, we have to do four, five, six.
Cap. 34, B-Girl Frak: Le “6-Step”

 

Et maintenant pose ton assiette en or devant moi pour que je puisse manger son contenu.
And now set your gold plate before me so that I can eat its contents.
Cap. 4-5, Contes de fées: Le roi grenouille - Part 2

 

The full subjunctive conjugations of these verbs are:

je fasse, tu fasses, il/elle/on fasse, nous fassions, vous fassiez, ils/elles fassent 
je puisse, tu puisses, il/elle/on puisse, nous puissions, vous puissiez, ils/elles puissent

 

Finally, there's savoir (to know), which has a ch in the subjunctive: je sache, tu saches, il/elle/on sache, nous sachions, vous sachiez, ils/elles sachent.

 

Comment tu veux que je le sache moi?
How do you want [expect] me to know?
Cap. 26, Plus belle la vie: Episode 2771 - Part 2

 

Congrats! You're now fully capable of conjugating any French verb in the present subjunctive. Feel free to send us any suggestions for future lesson topics by tweeting us @yabla or emailing us at newsletter@yabla.com.

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The French Subjunctive: Emotional and Hypothetical

In this lesson, we'll be tackling the subjunctive, a verbal mood that expresses a wide range of situations, such as a wish, an obligation, a possibility, a doubt, or an emotion. Whereas the indicative mood simply describes something that happens, the subjunctive mood describes something that may happen, something you want to happen, something you're afraid will happen, and other hypothetical situations. It's the difference between the phrases "you are here" and "I wish you were here." 

 

The general rule for forming the subjunctive in French is to take the third-person plural (ils/elles) present indicative form of the verb, remove the -ent, and add the subjunctive endings: -e, -es, -e, -ions, -iez, and -ent. Take a look at this handy chart for a concise summary of the conjugation of regular subjunctive verbs. We'll go over irregular subjunctive conjugations in another lesson. 

 

Let's take the verbs dire (to say) and réfléchir (to think about) as examples. To conjugate them in the first-person singular subjunctive, we would go to the third-person present plural indicative (disent and réfléchissent), drop the -ent, and add the first-person singular subjunctive ending -e. The results are dise and réfléchisse

 

Qu’est-ce que tu veux que je te dise? 
What do you want me to tell you
Cap. 32, Plus belle la vie: Episode 2771 - Part 2 

 

Avec tout ce choix, il faut que je réfléchisse.
With all these choices, I have to think about it.
Cap. 10, Il était une fois… L’Espace: 3. La planète verte - Part 3

 

Besides the conjugation, the most important aspect of the French subjunctive is that it almost always follows the word que (that), as in the expressions tu veux que and il faut que above. Vouloir que (to want) and il faut que (it is necessary that) are among the large number of French expressions that require the subjunctive. You can find a detailed list of these expressions here.
   
The subjunctive is used to express some of the most basic emotions, such as happiness and sadness: 

 

On est vraiment très heureux que nos huit jeunes puissent partir.
We are truly very happy that our eight young people are able to go.
Cap. 8, Télé Lyon Métropole: Sport dans la ville & Afrique du Sud

 

Je suis triste que mon ami ne vienne pas au concert avec nous. 
I'm sad that my friend isn't coming to the concert with us. 

 

It's also used in a number of conjunctive phrases such as pourvu que (as long as), bien que (even though), and avant que (before):

 

Tu pourras leur parler de ce que tu voudras, pourvu que tu parles au moins deux heures.
You'll be able to talk to them about whatever you like, as long as you speak for at least two hours.
Cap. 3-4, Il était une fois... L'Espace: 6. La révolte des robots - Part 5 

 

J'aime le karaoké bien que je ne chante pas très bien. 
I love karaoke even though I don't sing very well. 

 

...avant que leurs enseignements ne soient exploités par l'industrie.
...before their lessons are exploited by industry.
Cap. 21, Le Journal: 2000 mètres sous les mers

 

As the above example demonstrates, some subjunctive constructions (like avant que) require a ne without a pas (known as a ne explétif) before the verb. See our previous lesson for an in-depth look at this special use of ne.
  
Some phrases, such as penser que (to think that), only take the subjunctive in the negative: 

 

Je ne pense pas que ça serve à grand-chose, ce que tu comptes faire.
I don't think it's going to help much, what you're planning to do.
Cap. 29, Plus belle la vie: 2772 - Part 3

 

If we make that sentence affirmative, we'll need to change servir from the subjunctive to the indicative:

 

Je pense que ça sert à beaucoup de choses, ce que tu comptes faire.
I think it's going to help a lot, what you're planning to do.  

 

To sum up, the subjunctive is used after a vast number of expressions that convey a wide variety of subjective and hypothetical states. This multitude of usages makes learning the subjunctive no easy feat, but the fact that the subjunctive almost always follows the word que makes it a little less daunting. So if there's one thing you should take away from this lesson, it's that whenever you see a verb after the word que, there's a good chance it should be in the subjunctive! 

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Qu'est-ce qu'il y a?

Il y a is probably one of the most common French expressions, and appears countless times in Yabla videos, which makes it a perfect lesson topic! Though it literally means "it has there," il y a is the equivalent of "there is" or "there are." You'll find it very useful when describing a location or a situation: 

Donc, en effet, il y a des vagues, il y a du courant. Le courant est fort.
So, indeed, there are waves, there is a current. The current is strong.
Cap. 2, À la plage avec Lionel: La plage

As the above example demonstrates, il y a remains unchanged regardless of whether its object is singular (du courant) or plural (des vagues). It does change, however, according to the tense of the sentence. Here it is in the imperfect, passé composé, and future tenses: 

Il y avait un lièvre mais, tu vois, il courait trop vite.
There was a hare, but you see, it was running too fast.
Cap. 14, Il était une fois - Les Amériques: 1. Les premiers Américains - Part 7 

Quand il est mort, il y a eu un million de Parisiens qui ont suivi le cortège.
When he died, there were a million Parisians following the procession. 
Cap. 15, Bertrand Pierre: Victor Hugo

Il y aura beaucoup de tableaux à voir au musée.
There will be many paintings to see at the museum. 

Il y a can also be used to indicate the passage of time, in which case it usually means "ago":

On a commencé il y a dix minutes. 
We started ten minutes ago
Cap. 47, Actus de quartier: Fête de quartier Python-Duvernois - Part 3

You can also use the phrase il y a... que to express the same thing, though in this case it usually means "for" or "since":

Il y a trois mois que j'habite à Paris. 
I've lived in Paris for three months. 

Incidentally, you could rewrite the above sentence three different ways, all with the same meaning: 

Ça fait trois mois que j'habite à Paris. 
Voilà trois mois que j'habite à Paris. 
J'habite à Paris depuis trois mois. 

Another more informal way of using il y a is when you notice someone looking sad or upset and you ask them: Qu'est-ce qu'il y a? (What's wrong?) Even more informally, you can shorten that question to: Qu'y a-t-il? If you're wondering why there's suddenly a "t" and two hyphens there, check out our lesson on inversion for a full explanation. 

It's very common for il y a to be shortened to y a in casual speech:

C'est festif, euh... Y a de la barbe à papa.
It's festive, uh... There's cotton candy.
Cap. 32, Actus de Quartier: Fête de la rose au caviar rouge

To sum up, let's review all the uses of il y a in a short dialogue: 

Qu'est-ce qu'il y a? -Je suis en colère parce qu'il y a trop de tableaux au musée du Louvre. Il y a trois mois que j'habite à Paris et je n'ai pas encore tout vu!
What's wrong? -I'm mad because there are too many paintings in the Louvre. I've lived in Paris for three months and I still haven't seen everything!

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Which Is Which?

Imagine your friend is trying to decide on a shirt to wear to a party and asks for your opinion. In French, there are two main forms that question could take: 

Quelle chemise préfères-tu? 
Which shirt do you prefer? 

Laquelle de ces chemises préfères-tu? 
Which of these shirts do you prefer? 

There's a slight but important difference between these two questions. Though quelle and laquelle both mean "which," laquelle more specifically means "which one." Since laquelle is a pronoun, you can simplify the second sentence and just say, Laquelle préfères-tu? (Which one do you prefer?) However, you can't simplify the first one (Quelle préfères-tu?) because quelle is an adjective and therefore always precedes a noun. 

Note that quelle and laquelle agree in number (singular) and gender (feminine) with the noun they refer to, chemise. Their other forms are quel/lequel (masculine singular), quels/lesquels (masculine plural), and quelles/lesquelles (feminine plural). As you can see, the pronoun is formed by combining the definite article le, la, or les with the corresponding form of quel.

Besides introducing a question, lequel/laquelle/lesquels/lesquelles can also be used after a preposition. Here they are in action with the prepositions sur (on) and dans (in):

Le territoire sur lequel ils sont installés…
The territory on which they have settled…
Cap. 40, Actus de Quartier: Fête de quartier Python-Duvernois - Part 4

Par exemple, j'ai ma deuxième robe, dans laquelle je chante mon duo.
For example, I have my second dress, in which I sing my duet.
Cap. 25, Melissa Mars: Mozart, L'opéra rock - Part 1 

Watch out for the prepositions à (to) and de (of, from) in this construction. Just as à + le becomes au instead of à le, and de + le becomes du instead of de leà + lequel and de + lequel become auquel (to which) and duquel (from which, of which, about which). In all forms except the feminine singular (à laquellede laquelle), à and de combine with the pronoun to form one word: 

Masculine singular: duquel (de + lequel), auquel (à + lequel)
Masculine plural: desquels (de + lesquels), auxquels (à + lesquels)
Feminine plural: desquelles (de + lesquelles), auxquelles (à + lesquelles)

An important note about duquel/de laquelle/desquels/desquelles: these constructions are often replaced by the word dont, the subject of our previous lesson. So instead of a sentence like: 

Voici le livre duquel je t'ai parlé hier. 
Here is the book about which I spoke to you yesterday. 

You would more often hear:

Voici le livre dont je t'ai parlé hier. 
Here is the book I spoke to you about yesterday. 

However, you have to use duquelde laquelle, etc., whenever the de is part of a prepositional phrase such as près de (near), à côté de (next to), or loin de (far from):

Il est bordé des quais de Valmy et de Jemmapes au bord duquel se trouve le fameux Hôtel du Nord.
It is bordered by the Quais de Valmy and Jemmapes, along which is found the famous Hôtel du Nord.
Cap. 32-33, De nouvelles découvertes avec Marion: Le canal Saint-Martin

Another important note: Though it's common in English to end a clause with a preposition like "about" or "from," you can never do this with deduquel/de laquelle, etc., or dont. For example, you can say "the book I spoke to you about," but you can never say le livre je t'ai parlé duquel or le livre je t'ai parlé dont. You can only say le livre duquel je t'ai parlé or le livre dont je t'ai parlé (the book about which I spoke to you).  

Thanks for reading! Tweet us @yabla or email us at newsletter@yabla.com with any questions, feedback, or suggestions for future lesson topics. 

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Don't Forget About "Dont"!

In our last lesson, we introduced the word dont, a relative pronoun with a wide variety of uses. Let's start with the two most straightforward meanings of dont: "whose" and "including": 

...un riche marchand dont la fille préférée s'appelait Belle.
...a rich merchant whose favorite daughter was called Belle.
Cap. 2, Bande-annonce: La Belle et la Bête

 

Et grâce à lui, j'ai rencontré beaucoup de gens très intéressants, dont Gilles Proulx.
And thanks to him, I met lots of very interesting people, including Gilles Proulx.
Cap. 29, Le Québec parle aux Français - Part 2 

 

 

It's usually pretty easy to distinguish these two uses of dont from context, but punctuation also provides a clue: dont is usually preceded by a comma when it means "including," but not when it means "whose."  

 

 

Now let's get into the grammar behind dont. Like all relative pronounsdont refers back to an element in the main clause (un riche marchand and gens très intéressants in the examples above). But in many cases, dont more specifically refers to the preposition de + a noun. To see how this plays out, let's look at how dont can be used to combine two sentences into one:

J'ai un chat. Le poil de mon chat est très doux.   
I have a cat. My cat's fur is very soft.
J'ai un chat dont le poil est très doux. 
I have a cat whose fur is very soft. 

 

As you can see, dont stands in for de and refers back to chat. It also prevents the redundancy of saying chat twice.

 

Dont often replaces the de used in fixed expressionssuch as être fier/fière de (to be proud of), parler de (to talk about), and avoir besoin de (to need):

Et puis il y a une chose dont Michel est particulièrement fier.
And then there is one thing that Michel is particularly proud of.
Cap. 35, Le Journal: L'île de Pâques 

...dans la ville de Dongtan en Chine, dont nous avons déjà parlé.
...in the city of Dongtan in China, about which we've already spoken.
Cap. 17, Il était une fois... Notre Terre: 25. Technologies - Part 8 

Voici le livre dont j'ai besoin.
Here is the book that I need. 

We could rewrite all of these examples using de:

Et puis Michel est particulièrement fier d'une chose. 
And then Michel is particularly proud of one thing.

Nous avons déjà parlé de la ville de Dongtan en Chine. 
We've already spoken about the city of Dongtan in China.

J'ai besoin de ce livre-ci. 
I need this book. 

That about covers it for dont! Though the scope of its applications can be a little daunting, it's a very useful and succinct word that will make your French sound very sophisticated. Don't neglect to use dont whenever you can! 

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This and That, Part 2

In our last lesson, we introduced the French demonstrative pronouns (celui, celle, ceux, celles), which combine with the suffixes ci (here) and  (there) to form expressions such as "this one," "that one," "these," and "those." In this lesson, we'll explore two other useful constructions featuring these pronouns.

 

The first is celui/celle/ceux/celles + de + noun, which is used to indicate ownership or possession. Here's a straightforward example from the Beauty and the Beast trailer: 

Je suis venue échanger ma vie contre celle de mon père.
I've come to exchange my life for that of my father.
Cap. 23, Bande-annonce: La Belle et La Bête

"That of my father" is the literal translation of celle de mon père, but the sentence could also have been translated as, "I've come to exchange my life for my father's." As we mentioned in the last lesson, the demonstrative pronoun has to agree in gender and number with the word it's referring to. In this case, the feminine singular celle refers to the feminine singular noun vie

 

 

The second construction is celui/celle/ceux/celles + qui, que, or dontQui (that, who) and que (that, whom) are relative pronouns, or words that introduce a dependent clause. While qui acts as the subject of the clause (usually followed by a verb), que acts as the object (usually followed by a noun or pronoun). With a demonstrative pronoun in front of them, they create expressions like "the one(s) that/who" (demonstrative pronoun + qui) and "the one(s) that/whom" (demonstrative pronoun + que): 

Vous savez... celui qui se trouve derrière la maison voisine.
You know... the one that's behind the house next door.
Cap. 20, Il était une fois: Notre Terre - 9. Les écosystèmes - Part 4

...dans des situations un peu meilleures que celles qu'ils avaient en arrivant.
...in situations that are a little bit better than the ones that they had when they arrived.
Cap. 24, Le Journal: Les Restos du Cœur 

Cet homme n'est pas celui que j'ai vu hier. 
That man is not the one whom I saw yesterday. 

 

Dont is another relative pronoun that means "whose" or "of which": 

J'habite une maison dont les volets sont bleus.
I live in a house whose shutters are blue. 

 

The demonstrative pronoun + dont combination means "the one(s) whose" or "the one(s) of/about which." In this combination, dont often replaces an object preceded by de:
 

Tu parles de ma chemise rouge? -Non, celle dont je parle est bleue. 
Are you talking about my red shirt? -No, the one that I'm talking about is blue. 

 

So, to review, the three major constructions featuring demonstrative pronouns are:

-demonstrative pronoun + -ci or - (celui-cicelle-là, etc.)
-demonstrative pronoun + de + noun (celle de mon père)
-demonstrative pronoun + qui, que, or dont (celui que j'ai vu hier)

 

The two big takeaways here are that demonstrative pronouns always replace a previously mentioned noun (and must agree with it in gender and number) and are always accompanied by another word, whether the suffixes ci and , the preposition de, or the relative pronouns qui, que, and dont

 

That about covers it for demonstrative pronouns! If you have any suggestions for future lesson topics, feel free to tweet us @yabla or email us at newsletter@yabla.com.

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This and That Part 1

The expressions "this one" and "that one" are probably the most basic way of distinguishing between two things, such as two different types of saxophone: 

Le saxophone alto, celui-ci, et le saxophone ténor. C'est celui-là.
The alto saxophone, this one, and the tenor saxophone. That's that one
Cap. 5, Alex Terrier: Le saxophone - Part 1

 

As you can see, the French equivalents of these terms have two different components: the word before the hyphen and the word after the hyphen. In this example, celui is the masculine singular demonstrative pronoun referring to le saxophoneCi and là mean "here" and "there," respectively, but when added as a suffix to celui, they mean "this" and "that." An easy way to remember this distinction is to remember that there is an i in both ci and "this," and an a in both  (note the accent) and "that." 

 

The demonstrative pronoun changes depending on the number and gender of the word it refers to. Its other forms are celle (feminine singular), ceux (masculine plural), and celles (feminine plural): 

Elle prendra place dans une collection comme celle-ci à l'Assemblée Nationale.
She will take her place in a collection like this one at the National Assembly. 
Cap. 26, Le Journal: Marianne

Donc, tous ceux-là, ce sont des thés verts. 
So all those are green teas. 
Cap. 16, Joanna: Torréfaction du faubourg

Et dans chacune des batteries, on a cent deux cellules comme celles-ci
And in each of the batteries, we have one hundred and two cells like these
Cap. 54, Bateau sport 100% électrique: Le Nautique 196 E

 

As you can see from the last two examples, the plural forms of these expressions are best translated as simply "these" and "those." 

In more formal language, celui-là/celle-là means "the former," while celui-ci/celle-ci means "the latter":

J'ai un frère et une sœur. Celui-là est professeur et celle-ci est avocate. 
I have one brother and one sister. The former is a teacher and the latter is a lawyer. 

 

Ci and  can also be attached to nouns as a more demonstrative way of saying "this" and "that," but only when the noun is already preceded by a demonstrative adjective (ce/cet/cette/ces):

Le courant apparemment remonte un petit peu par ce côté-là.
The current apparently goes up a little bit on that side
Cap. 9, À la plage avec Lionel: La plage

 

Je préfère ces photographies-ci. 
I prefer these photographs. 

 

If someone were asking your opinion on a collection of photographs, you could also just point to the ones you like and say, Je préfère celles-ci (I prefer these) or, Je préfère celles-là (I prefer those). 
 

There are even more uses of celui/celle/ceux/celles that we'll save for another lesson. C'est tout pour cette leçon-ci (That's all for this lesson)!

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Légendes dites urbaines

Our latest Grand Lille TV video focuses on the end of an urban legend: a house in Villeneuve D'Ascq that was said to be haunted is now being torn down. Urban legends are dubious by nature, so speaking about them usually involves expressing some degree of doubt, suspicion, or uncertainty. In fact, the news report on the ex-haunted house in Villeneuve D'Ascq demonstrates a few different ways to express doubt, suspicion, or uncertainty, or simply relay something that may or may not have actually happened. 

 

The first expression comes in the video title itself, Clap de fin pour la maison dite hantée (End of the so-called haunted house). Un clap de fin is a filmmaking term referring to the clapperboard used to mark the end of a scene. More importantly, the word dite (the feminine singular past participle of dire, "to say") is used here as an adjective meaning "so-called." Think of it as a sort of disclaimer indicating that Grand Lille TV doesn't officially believe the house was haunted. 

 

But dit as an adjective doesn't always have to be a disclaimer—like "so-called," it can also just refer to a commonly used name for something. Since it's an adjective, it always agrees in gender and number with the noun it modifies:

C'est un petit peu le cœur du quartier dit de la nouvelle Athènes.
It's kind of the heart of the so-called "Nouvelle Athènes" (New Athens) neighborhood.
Cap. 16, Voyage dans Paris: Le 10ème Arrondissement - Part 2

 

The next expression tells us the source of the alleged haunting using a tricky verb conjugation:

La présence d'un fantôme d'un enfant qui aurait été tué par ses parents à l'époque
The presence of the ghost of a child who had supposedly been killed by his parents at the time
Cap. 5, Grand Lille TV: Clap de fin pour la maison dite hantée

 

What we're dealing with here (besides a heartbreaking story) is the past conditional tense (also called the "conditional perfect"). It's formed by combining the conditional form of the auxiliary verb (avoir or être) with the past participle of the main verb. In this example, we actually have two past participles (été and tué) because the sentence is in the passive voice ("been killed"). 

 

The French conditional usually corresponds to the word "would": un enfant qui aurait été tué literally means "a child who would have been killed." But, as we discussed in a previous lesson, the conditional is also used to relate an uncertain fact or event, in which case it's often translated using words like "supposedly," "reportedly," or "apparently" without the conditional "would." We can tell that this is the best translation of the past conditional here because "a child who would have been killed" doesn't make sense in the context of the video. In general, context is key for determining whether the French conditional is a "true conditional" ("would be") or an expression of doubt or uncertainty ("is supposedly"). 

 

Our last two expressions are packed into one caption: 

C'était soi-disant... une maison qui... devait être hantée. 
It was a so-called... a house that... was supposed to be haunted.
Cap. 13, Grand Lille TV: Clap de fin pour la maison dite hantée

 

First we have another word for "so-called," soi-disant, which is also used in English (as in "a soi-disant artist," or a self-proclaimed artist). Unlike the adjective dit, which goes after the noun, soi-disant goes before the noun (une soi-disant maison hantée, "a so-called haunted house") and doesn't change in gender or number. 

 

The speaker hesitated a bit here and chose not to use soi-disant in the end. Instead, he used the verb devoir, which usually means "to have to" or "must," but can also mean "to be supposed to," both in the sense of having a duty and of supposedly being or doing something. Incidentally, soi-disant can also be used as an adverb meaning "supposedly," so the speaker also could have said, une maison qui était soi-disant hantée (a house that was supposedly haunted).

 

For practice, try finding some straightforward sentences expressing a fact and turn them into expressions of doubt, suspicion, or uncertainty using the examples above. Beginners can play around with dit and soi-disant, while more advanced learners can tackle the past conditional. As an alternative, try writing about your favorite urban legend in French! 

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Don't Take it Personally!

For most people, learning to conjugate verbs probably isn’t the most exciting part of studying a language (unless they have friends like our very own Margaux and Manon, that is). But luckily, in French as in other languages, there are a few verbs that cut you a break. These are the "impersonal verbs," and the beauty of them is that you only have to worry about conjugating them with the pronoun il (he/it). They’re called "impersonal" because they don’t refer to any specific person—il in this case just means "it."

A good number of these verbs have to do with that most impersonal of dinner party topics, the weather. Imagine this conversation between two partygoers who don’t have much to talk about:

Est-ce qu’il pleut dehors? -Non, il neige!

Is it raining outside? -No, it’s snowing!

The two forms that you see above, il pleut and il neige, are the only conjugations of pleuvoir (to rain) and neiger (to snow) that exist in the present tense. This is obviously because people can’t "rain" or "snow": you can’t say je pleux (I rain) or tu neiges (you snow). Unless you have superpowers, that is!

Some other impersonal weather expressions: il gèle (it’s freezing), il bruine (it’s drizzling), il tonne (it’s thundering), il grêle (it’s sleeting).

Next we’ll take a look at one of the most common impersonal verbs, falloir (to have to, to be necessary). In the present tense, you’ll see this as il faut:

Il faut protéger la terre.

We have to protect the earth.

Cap. 2, Nouveaux Talents? - Adonis chante

Il faut deux ans pour former les pilotes d’hélicoptère de l’armée française.

It takes two years to train French Army helicopter pilots.

Cap. 28, Le Journal: École de pilotage

As you can see, you can have "il faut + infinitive" (to have to do something) and "il faut + noun" (to need something). A bit more complicated is the phrase il faut que..., which requires the subjunctive:

Il faut que je fasse la pâte.

I have to make the batter.

Cap. 16, LCM: Recette - Crêpes

Another impersonal verb you’ll see quite frequently is s’agir (to be about), in the expression il s’agit de...:

Il s’agit de voir où sont les abus.

It’s a question of seeing where the abuses are.

Cap. 12, Le Journal: Contrôle des prix alimentaires - Part 1

La seule prison qui se trouve dans Paris intra-muros, il s’agit de la prison de la Santé

The only prison located within Paris itself, namely, the Santé [Health] Prison

Cap. 19, Voyage dans Paris: Le Treizième arrondissement de Paris - Part 1

Note that s’agir is just the reflexive form of agir (to act), which is not an impersonal verb.

Sometimes regular old verbs can become impersonal too. Basic verbs like avoir, être, and faire can be conjugated left and right, but they can also be impersonal:

Il est minuit à Tokyo, il est cinq heures au Mali

It’s midnight in Tokyo, it’s five o’clock in Mali

Cap. 12, Amadou et Mariam: Sénégal Fast Food

Il est intéressant de vivre dans un pays étranger.  

It is interesting to live in a foreign country.

Il y a beaucoup de choses à faire aujourd’hui.

There are many things to do today.

Il fait froid en hiver

It is cold in the winter.

As you can see, impersonal verbs come in handy when you’re talking about the time, the weather, and the general state of things. You can learn more about them on this page

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Euphony in French: On or L'on?

We've dealt with the concept of euphony before, in our lessons on the French aspirated h and on liaisons. Euphony in French is the tendency to avoid having a word that ends in a vowel before a word that begins with a vowel. It's the reason why you have l'animal instead of le animal—it just "flows" better! In this lesson, we'll look at two specific instances of euphony, before the pronoun on and before the indefinite article un/une

Take a look at the way on is used in this caption: 

Ce que l'on demande, c'est d'avoir uniquement la photo de l'animal.

What we’re asking is to have only the photo of the animal.

Cap. 17, Grand Lille TV: Des photos contre l’abandon des animaux

You might be wondering what l’ is doing before on here. L’ is the contracted form of le and la (the), and on is a singular pronoun meaning "we," "they," or "one." But it doesn’t make any sense to say "the we." So what does the l’ mean here? Actually, it doesn’t really mean anything! In formal and written French, you’ll see l’on instead of on and l’un/l’une instead of un/une in certain situations for euphonic purposes.

There are two situations where l’on is preferred over on

1. After que (see the example above) and words that end in que, such as lorsque (when), puisque (since), and quoique (although). This is to avoid the contraction qu'on, which sounds the same as a rude French word that we won't mention here. 

2. After short words ending in a vowel sound, such as et (and), ou (or), (where), and si (if):

Si l’on fait la queue, on a froid.

If we wait in line, we’re cold.

Cap. 11, Fanny parle des saisons: Activités

And there are two situations where l’un/l’une is preferred over un/une:

1. When un/une is followed by a preposition (usually de or des):

Voici Indira, sans doute l'un des animaux de compagnie les plus insolites qui puissent exister.

Here is Indira, undoubtedly one of the most unusual pets that could possibly exist.

Cap. 3, Angers 7: Un lama en plein appartement

2. At the beginning of a clause:

L’une des icônes principales de l’église est le martyr saint Mina.

One of the church’s principal icons is the martyr Saint Mina.

Cap. 15, LCM: Joyeux Noël... orthodoxe! 

As we mentioned, l’on and l’un/l’une are mainly used in formal and written French. In casual spoken French, you’ll often just see the words without the l’:

Ça fait longtemps qu’on attend ça.

We’ve been waiting a long time for this.

Cap. 16, Alsace 20: Rammstein à Strasbourg 

But since it’s always good to know the "proper" way of speaking, keep these rules in mind!

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"Faire" + Infinitive: Causing Something to Happen

There's a simple French construction you can use when you're talking about getting someone to do something: faire ("to make" or "to do") + infinitive. It may even be easier than actually getting them to do it!

The construction is known as the causative, and as its name suggests, it's used whenever the subject is causing something to happen. Just put faire in front of whatever action you want someone to do:

On essaie juste de se défouler et de faire rire l'autre

They just try to unwind and to make each other laugh.

Cap. 5, Le Journal: Les effets bénéfiques du rire!

"Faire + infinitive" is especially useful when you're having someone perform a service:

Henri Quatre... décida de faire construire une place en l'honneur du Dauphin, la place Dauphine

Henry the Fourth... decided to have a square built in honor of the Dauphin, the Place Dauphine

Cap. 17-18, Voyage dans Paris: Ponts de Paris

Je vais faire réparer mon ordinateur.

I'm going to get my computer fixed.  

Incidentally, if you're talking about making someone or something an adjective, the construction to use is rendre ("to make" or "to render") + adjective (never "faire + adjective"):

Ce cadeau va rendre mon ami heureux.

This gift will make my friend happy

Like most verbal constructions, "faire + infinitive" can also become reflexive. In this case, the subject is being made to do something (not making someone else do it). Of course, being made to do something isn't always a good thing:

Je me suis fait voler mon sac.

I had my bag stolen

Je me suis retrouvé en train de me faire réveiller

I found myself being awakened

Cap. 10, Le Journal: Les relations franco-gabonaises

Il faut se faire entendre, hein.

You have to be heard, you know.

Cap. 57, Manif du mois: Fukushima plus jamais ça

Me faire réveiller and se faire entendre could be translated more literally as "having myself be awakened" and "make oneself be heard."

The reflexive form of "faire + infinitive" can also be used to describe something that you have someone do for you or to you:

Je me fais livrer mon dîner chaque nuit.

I have my dinner delivered to me every night. 

On peut aller se faire faire des massages.

You can go have a massage.

Cap. 25, Le Journal: iDTGV - Part 1

There's no typo in that last example—the second faire is just the infinitive part of the "faire + infinitive" construction. Without it, you would have on peut aller se faire des massages, or "you can go give yourself a massage," which isn't nearly as luxurious. 

Now that you know all this, you can sit back and have a French person build a square in your honor. You deserve it! 

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Une poignée de dollars: French Collective Nouns

A collective noun (nom collectif) is a singular noun that represents a group of objects or people. Some French examples include une série (a series), une poignée (a handful or fistful), un tas (a pile), une foule (a crowd), and, of course, un groupe (a group). Although collective nouns can stand alone in a sentence, they are often followed by a complement (a group of something). The tricky part about using collective nouns is determining whether the verb should agree with the collective noun (and be singular) or with its complement (and be plural).

The agreement all depends on which of the two (the collective or its individual parts) is being emphasized. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at two different ways of using the word poignée:

Une poignée d'humains s'est emparée d'un pouvoir qui les dépasse eux-mêmes.
A handful of people has taken over a power beyond their control.
Cap. 89-90, Actus de Quartier: Manif anti-nucléaire à Bastille

Une poignée de nationalistes saluaient la naissance tant espérée.
A handful of nationalists were greeting the much hoped-for birth.
Cap. 9, Le Journal: Un petit prince japonais

In the first example, the singular verb agrees with the collective noun (poignée) because the group of people as a whole has taken over. In the second example, the plural verb agrees with the complement (nationalistes) because the emphasis is on the individual nationalists who are giving the greeting. So if you’re talking about what a group of things does as a single entity, you use a singular verb. But if you’re talking about what the things in the group do themselves, as individuals, you use a plural verb.

Sometimes, the word preceding the collective noun can indicate whether the verb is singular or plural. If the noun is preceded by a definite article (le, la) or a demonstrative (ce, cet, cette) or possessive (mon, ton, etc.) pronoun, the verb will often agree with the collective noun and be singular:

Cet ensemble d'obstacles sera difficile à surmonter.
This group of obstacles will be difficult to overcome.

If the noun is preceded by an indefinite article (un, une), the verb will often be plural and agree with the complement:

Un ensemble de personnes marchent dans la rue.
A group of people are walking in the street.

But many times, the decision to make the verb agree with the collective noun or its complement all boils down to personal preference or the speaker’s intention. This is true of number words like une douzaine (a dozen), une quinzaine (around fifteen), and une vingtaine (around twenty), which can take either a singular or a plural verb:

Une centaine d’exilés tibétains ont tenté d’occuper l’ambassade de Chine à New Delhi
About a hundred Tibetan exiles have tried to occupy the Chinese embassy in New Delhi
Cap. 2, Le Journal: Manifestations au Tibet

Une douzaine d'huîtres coûte dix euros.
A dozen oysters costs ten euros.

You can see our lesson on words like centaine and douzaine here.

There’s no room for personal preference when it comes to the words la plupart (most), la majorité (the majority), and une quantité (a lot). These always take a plural verb:

La plupart des gens à Miami parlent l’espagnol, pour vous dire
Most people speak Spanish in Miami, you know
Cap. 22, Fred et Miami Catamarans: Fred et sa Vie à Miami

Notre équipe de traducteurs chez Yabla vous souhaite une multitude de succès! (Our translating team at Yabla wishes you a multitude of success!)

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