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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

Either/Or

There are two ways of saying "either... or..." in French, and they both involve repeating one word. The first is the construction soit... soit.... Soit is a conjunction that marks a set of alternatives, and it is also spelled the same as the third-person present subjunctive form of the verb être (to be):  

 

Les médecins étaient soit morts, soit partis.

The doctors were either dead or gone.

Caption 4, TV8 Mont Blanc - De retour de Haïti

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A similar construction with soit is que ce soit... que ce soit..., which can best be translated as "be it... or...":  

 

Que ce soit déposer dans le sable, que ce soit déposer dans la neige...

Be it landing on sand, or on snow...

Caption 26, Le Journal - École de pilotage

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The second way of saying "either... or..." is ou... ou.... Ou by itself just means "or" (not to be confused with , "where"), but when it is repeated to describe two or more choices or alternatives, the first ou means "either":

 

Ou vous pouvez le laisser tout simplement sur la plage, ou vous en servir comme cendrier.

You could either simply leave it on the beach or you could use it as an ashtray.

Caption 15, Jean-Marc - La plage

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Sometimes, bien can be added to ou to emphasize the distinction:

Ou bien il est très heureux, ou bien il est misérable. 

Either he's very happy or he's miserable.    

Note that you will often see a comma separating the alternatives soit... soit... and ou... ou... (soit morts, soit partis). 

Now that we've learned how to say "either... or...," we'll move on to its opposite, "neither... nor...." There is only one way to say this in French: ni... ni....

Ni vu ni connu

Neither seen nor known [on the sly]

When using ni... ni... with verb phrases, add a ne in front of the verb:

 

Nous ne sommes ni les premiers, ni les derniers.

We are neither the first nor the last.

Caption 3, La Conspiration d'Orion - Conspiration 2/4

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Sometimes, you might just find a single ni:

 

Cette femme habite un monde sans foi ni loi...

This woman inhabits a world without faith or law...

Caption 19, Le Journal - Milady

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So now, if you're ever asked to recite the unofficial creed of the US Postal Service in French, you won't hesitate to say:

"Ni la neige, ni la pluie, ni la chaleur, ni la nuit n'empêchent de fournir leur carrière avec toute la célérité possible".

"Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." 

(The creed is actually a line from Herodotus.)

 

Vocabulary

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