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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."

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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

Caption 2, Nouveaux Talents? - Adonis chante

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

It takes two years to train French Army helicopter pilots.

Caption 29, Le Journal - École de pilotage

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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.

Caption 16, LCM - Recette: Crêpes

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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.

Caption 13, Le Journal - Contrôle des prix alimentaires - Part 1

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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.

Captions 20-21, Voyage dans Paris - Le Treizième arrondissement de Paris

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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

Caption 12, Amadou et Mariam Sénégal Fast Food

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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.

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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

Grammar

The Story of Ou

An accent, or the lack of one, can sometimes determine the meaning of a French word.

For example, let's take ou, the common conjunction that means "or." After his extensive travel abroad, Chef Rachel Gesbert likes to use exotic ingredients when he returns to France "or" to Europe:

 

Et quand on revient en France,

And when we return to France,

ou en Europe... on a envie de certains produits.

or to Europe... we feel like mixing certain products.

Captions 27-28, Le Journal - Gourmet en Bretagne

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Ou bien also means "or," plain and simple. Anglophones, seeing the extra word bien, might be tempted to translate ou bien as "or even," or to add some other nuance. But in fact, ou bien is used pretty much interchangeably with ou, as we find in the report on the recent discovery of Saint-Exupéry's lost plane, near Marseilles.

 

Mais personne ne sait s'il s'agit d'un accident, d'un suicide,

But nobody knows whether it's a question of an accident, of a suicide,

ou bien d'un tir ennemi.

or of enemy fire.

Captions 27-28, Le Journal - Saint-Exupéry

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However, when we draw a simple accent grave over the u in ou, we get the adverb , which is used to indicate "where." Anne Liardet, mother of three, racing solo around the world on the "Vendée Globe," tells us:

 

J'suis bien, là je suis...

I'm all right where I am...

Caption 25, Le Journal - Les navigateurs du Vendée Globe

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In their worldwide hit "Senegal Fast Food," Amadou and Mariam, the singing-songwriting duo from Mali, ask:

 

Dakar, Bamako, Rio de Janeiro

Dakar, Bamako, Rio de Janeiro

est le problème, est la frontière?

Where is the problem, where is the border?

Captions 25-26, Amadou et Mariam - Sénégal Fast Food

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Another meaning of is "when," indicating time. Notice the way French movie star Agnès Jaoui uses it when talking about dreams and fame:

 

C'est bien... de rêver, mais y a un moment

It's good... to dream, but there comes a time when

il faut juste se récupérer soi-même.

you have to go back to who you are.

Captions 32-33, Le Journal - Le rôle de sa vie

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So, there you have it: the short story of ou!

FYI: Keep in mind there are at least two other words that sound exactly the same as ou and , but have their own unique spellings: une houe is "a hoe," like we use in the garden, and du houx is "holly," the stuff the halls are decked out with come Christmas!

Vocabulary

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