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Speak less badly: verbs and prepositions

When you’re studying another language, English is not your friend. You would do best to forget you know English (if you do) anytime you’re trying to speak or write French.

You might be saying, “But aren’t there tons of cognates?” (Yes, and here’s a list of some 1700 of them.) Or maybe your objection goes something like, “Don’t you realize that the grammar of French is remarkably close to that of English, especially compared to a language like Japanese or Swahili?” (And I’ll admit that it is. They’re relatively very close to each other.)

But listen. Your objections are wrong.

Why are they wrong? Because although English and French share a lot of similarities, that’s not always a good thing.

Why not? It often leads to learners assuming similarities that don’t actually exist. On a vocabulary level, that could be something like taking the English word “crash” and using it (with a spelling change) in French as the verb cracher…the problem being that this means “to spit”, not “to crash”. On a grammatical level, this happens when learners use the word order of English in a French sentence: “I sometimes eat puppies” is a fine English sentence, but Je parfois mange des chiots is not (hopefully you noticed that the placement of the adverb parfois is wrong).

This brings me to one of the most rage-inducing sets of mistakes learners make– and sometimes, continue to make for years, never quite figuring out that French is not English-with-different-words-and-a-silly-accent. That mistake comes from the way a lot of English verbs take prepositions.

Example: “to ask”. You can “ask a question” with no preposition, but as soon as you’re requesting a physical thing, it becomes “to ask for“. Of course, if you assume French is English with the words switched out, you’re going to say (and this hurts me to even type it) *demander pour (which kind of means “to ask on behalf of”, which doesn’t make sense in the way it usually gets used by learners). I have seen it and heard it over and over, read it used non-stop while grading papers and feeling like I needed to scrub myself with steel wool and harsh solvents to get it off of me. French does not associate pour with demander. This French verb meaning “to ask for” requires a direct object, with no preposition: Il a demandé un pain. Oh, and because of this, if you say demander une question, you’ve conveyed the meaning of “to ask for a question”, as an AP test-writer’s boss might do (“I want you to have twenty questions on my desk by Tuesday”). For what you usually mean, you want the verb poserPoser une question. OK?

The same applies to verbs like chercher (“to seek”, “to look for“), écouter (“to listen to“), and many others. Do yourself a favor, and don’t just look up single words in the dictionary. Find either a dictionary that gives context and example sentences, or use a site like linguee.com. That site allows you to enter a word or phrase and see how it’s been used in parallel (translated) texts. Here’s an example:

ask linguee

Pretty great, right? There are so many resources out there that no one really has much of an excuse anymore. Once it clicks for you that even two similar languages like French and English are very different, you’ll be on your way to really learning how to do it right. Good luck.

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