Tu et vous pour toi… ou toi pour vous (ou tu)…

1Yesterday, after months (!!!) of puzzling over it, and finding what I suspected was incomplete information about it, I finally found a concise article that explains the distinction between the French pronouns tu and vous and toi.

Vous and tu are second person French singular pronouns meaning you, and I already knew that the main distinction between them is in which social-cultural settings they’re appropriate (more about that distinction below).

But every so often I ran into toi, and I didn’t quite understand how that pronoun fit in. Clearly, I understood, toi ALSO is a second person singular pronoun, but also, clearly, toi is not interchangeable with tu and vous any more than tu and vous are interchangeable.

Toi is basically an object pronoun, the second-person singular pronoun which follows a preposition: avec toi, de toi, a toi, dans toi, pour toi, etc. It also can be used for emphasis the way the second “you” is used in “you idiot you,” for instance.

Seems simple enough. So why do nearly all of the dictionaries and phrase books I’ve seen not make this distinction clear? Pimsleur, for instance, has been drilling me in avec vous, when, in fact, avec toi is more common.

Similarly, my Oxford Beginner’s French Dictionary (an excellent resource for someone learning the language) was oddly vague about any distinction between toi and tu/vous in its entry:


Another odd thing that I’ve noticed in the Oxford Beginner’s dictionary: in all of its verb conjugation tables, the Oxford shows tu as the default second-person singular pronoun. In a sense, that’s correct: tu is, indeed, a second person singular pronoun.

But then in the English-to-French listing for you, we get this caution:

The usual word to use when you are speaking to anyone you do not know very well is vous… As a general rule, when talking to a French person use vous, wait to see how they address you and follow suit. It is safer to wait for the French person to suggest using tu

This is what I’ve read elsewhere: tu is a FAMILIAR pronoun. It’s not the pronoun you’d use with, say, a waiter or a clerk in a store or hotel, or a total stranger or even casual acquaintance. In those cases, the pronoun should be vous.

I’ve read that this convention and distinction is more relaxed with younger French people, who almost exclusively use tu even with casual acquaintances. But nearly everything I’ve read thus far in my limited and halting study of French has cautioned that in most situations, a speaker should default to vous.

Further, not doing so can make a person appear too forward or inappropriately familiar.

It’s just odd to me that the verb conjugation tables would default to tu instead of vous (or even both vous and tu).

Again, though, this just shows how much nuance any language contains, and, as with the phrase bon jour, how so much of that nuance is not strictly grammatical, but cultural and contextual, and further, how a misunderstanding of those contexts can lead to major faux pas.


Quatre livres…

Since I really committed to speaking French the last two years, I’ve gathered a mini-library of French books: mainly dual-language dictionaries, but also a few textbooks, a couple phrase books, grammar guides, books on verb conjugation, a couple children’s picture dictionaries, and a handful of texts, including a French-English Bible and French editions of Walden, ou la vie dans les bois and Tu es dans le vent, Charlie Brown,  among others.
But the last few weeks, I’ve found a few of the most useful books yet. Speaking the language is supposed to be the best way to learn it, but somehow this newly-found combination of books has really stoked my learning in a way that even the Pimsleur Conversational French lessons  haven’t.
14976393_10210263894049190_773938628447378041_oThe first find was a book called French Fun: The Real Spoken Language of Quebec by Steve Timmons. My first exposure to French came from listening to French language radio broadcasts on the CBC; since then, I’ve listened to French language radio from France, and already, I can tell the difference between the two dialects, although I don’t know enough about the language to put a finger on the differences, except to say that they feel and sound different. Being back in Vermont, I’ll probably make a few weekend jaunts to Quebec before I take the big plunge into Paris next spring, so French Fun is useful on that level… but it’s also giving me a good sense of the way that the language is used “on the street” as opposed to academically (and any written text is going to be, to some extent, academic). Certain Quebec turns of phrase barely translate literally, but, like the simple phrase bon jour, can be the key to surviving in that language. There are also numerous Franglais words and Americanisms. French Fun is a glimpse of the Quebecois people and their province through the language that links them to their European cousin.
french-words-you-must-knowThen someone tipped me off to the Oxford Beginner’s French Dictionary. Why I felt like I needed another dual-language dictionary in addition to my Larousse, Robert, Langenscheidt, Berlitz, Merriam Webster, Milet, and Random House, I have no idea, but I bought a used copy on eBay, taking a chance that it was, as described, different, and I’m glad I did. The difference is that the Oxford Beginner’s Dictionary is organized and designed not for language reference, but for language learning. The information about gender, conjugation, and usage is easier to find than in most of those other dictionaries. It’s actually a READABLE dictionary, which sounds strange, but it’s a fun book to just open and thumb through at random. It also has a lot of useful supplemental information, including 66 conjugation tables, and, if I ever want to just cram, a two-page microprint list of about 700 words with the heading “The French Words You Must Know.”
The Oxford Beginner’s French Dictionary has worked in conjunction with the third book I found:English Grammar for Students of French by Jacqueline Morton, a slim “study guide for those learning French.” As with the Oxford volume, it seemed counterintuitive to get a book about ENGLISH grammar (after all, I’m learning French, right?)… but experience has taught me that sometimes the counterintuitive choice is right, especially when the book just appears on the free shelf at the library, so I grabbed it, and I’m glad I did. English Grammar for Students of French is designed to work in conjunction with most basic French textbooks and classes, and it presents a review of English grammar along with the French equivalents. Reviewing it, I feel like I’m finally understanding such mysteries as French noun gender and the language’s use of articles, possessives, and other nuances that only crop up when you use (or misuse) French. This one is RECOMMENDED if you’re taking French at any level.
The last book was a bandes dessinées volume of comics by French cartoonist Philippe Coudray, volume three of L’ours Barnabe, a comic that’s been published in the USA as Benjamin Bear. I’ve read other comics and children’s books in French, but so far, my favorite is Barnabe the Bear and his best friend, Rabbit. Bandes dessinees are popular in France; they’re not really children’s books, not really comic books, not really graphic novels. This volume is akin to a collection of Sunday color newspaper comics. It’s fun to read the French, look at the drawings, and see how close I can get to the actual meaning of the words. The more learning can resemble play, the better it can be, and Coudray’s comics are a perfect combination of French wordplay and visual humor. Fun.
These four books all came my way as I’d pretty much committed myself to delving in deeper, while at the same time I felt weary of the audio language (“Ou est La Rue St. Jacques? Est que vous voudrais bois quel que chose?”) lessons.
Funny: when I look at the shelf-full of French books I’ve amassed, there are books that are SIMILAR to these four titles, but somehow, they weren’t the right combination. What I needed was not only to listen to and speak French, but also get a good reference book (like the Oxford volume) and supplement it with material that explains the language (the grammar book) and its cultural context (French Fun), and then apply that material to reading a fun book that I enjoy (L’ours Barnabe).
All of which is to say this: if you hit a lull in your learning, stick with it, and keep trying to find the combination of learning materials that works for you.
Bonne chance!

“Je quittai les bois pour un aussi bon motif que j’y étais allé…”

meme-thoreau-more-lives-to-live-french“Je quittai les bois pour un aussi bon motif que j’y étais allé. Peut-être me sembla-t-il que j’avais plusieurs vies à vivre, et ne pouvais plus donner de temps à celle-là. C’est étonnant la facilité avec laquelle nous adoptons insensiblement une route et nous faisons à nous-mêmes un sentier battu. Je n’avais pas habité là une semaine, que mes pieds tracèrent un chemin de ma porte au bord de l’étang ; et quoique cinq ou six ans se soient écoulés depuis que je ne l’ai foulé, encore est-il fort distinct. Je crains, il est vrai, que d’autres ne l’aient adopté, contribuant de la sorte à le laisser visible. La surface de la terre est molle et impressionnable au pied de l’homme ; tel en est-il des chemins que parcourt l’esprit. Que doivent être usées autant que poudreuses donc les grand’routes du monde – que profondes les ornières de la tradition et de la conformité ! Je ne souhaitai pas de prendre une cabine pour le passage, mais d’être plutôt matelot de pont, et sur le pont du monde, car c’était là que je pouvais le mieux contempler le clair de lune dans les montagnes. Je ne souhaite pas de descendre maintenant.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ou la vie dans les bois, traduction par Louis Fabulet

Clique ici pour l’Anglais

Cover“A Basket of a Delicate Weave:” Thoreau and Walden

I’ve published my Goddard College MFA long critical paper about Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a Kindle short, entitled A Basket of a Delicate Weave: Thoreau andWalden. It’s available for download now from the Amazon Kindle store for 99 cents.

The image that many have of Henry David Thoreau, based largely on Walden, is that he was a nature-loving misanthrope who built his cabin in the woods to escape a society with which he felt at odds, who eschewed contact with his fellow man, and who wanted nothing but to be left alone in the woods. WhileWalden is, on its surface, a record of that sojourn, it is, as Thoreau scholar Walter Harding wrote, “a book that impels its reader to action.”

In this paper, I argue that Walden is, in many ways, a book about action: not just an account of Thoreau’s own action against a society he felt at odds with, but a call for his neighbors to wake up and do something themselves.

A Basket of a Delicate Weave will give students and  lovers of Thoreau’s work new insights into the book, its author, and its still-relevant message.

Click here to download the book from the Kindle Store.

Eva reviews: “Les chats de Siné”

100_1677Les Chats de Siné by Siné

The publisher says… On ne compte plus les écrivains et les dessinateurs passionnés par les chats au point de leur consacrer une part de leur œuvre. Siné, une fois encore, a trouvé le moyen de se distinguer. Ses Chats lui ressemblent. Teigneux, dévergondés, ils ne respectent rien tout en faisant parfois patte de velours… Aujourd’hui, Les Chats de Siné est LE classique félin par excellence.

Eva says… Well, THIS is a weird one. It’s got all these cartoons about cats, but you know what? The words are all in FRENCH! And what’s really weird is that I got it at the dump JUST WHEN we got Spot [our cat] AND just when I started learning French! So that’s good timing there!

Click photo to enlarge

Some of them are silly and Mama says they’re all names of people but the guy drew them like cats. So that’s CLEVER.

So “cat” is “chat” in French, and for girl cats it’s “chatte,” so now I know what to call Spot in French. She’s Spot la chatte. And she likes poisson, which is fish, and souris, which is mice. And other French stuff that I don’t know the words for, but that’s O.K. She’s from Vermont anyway. She doesn’t need to know how to say those words until we go to Canada.

100_1715I’ll figure this one out someday but it was free and it’s comics and it’s cats and it’s French, so that makes it good enough for me!

Eva’s rating: ♥♥♥♥ (out of five)

(Les Chats de Siné by Siné. Published by Scarabee et compagnie. ISBN 2-86722-032-7)



Eva Kelly is this blog’s six-year-old resident children’s book critic. 

Click below to read more of her reviews…

on this blog, or…

on her Goodreads page, or…

Cover front finalEva Kelly’s Book Of Book Reviews 

is now available in print!

120+ children’s book reviews written by avid reader Eva Kelly (with help from her parents and author Max Harrick Shenk).

Click here for more information.


Une milky raspberry seizure, svp: Adventures in Franglais

100_1695I am learning to speak French. This has meant buying a lot of French language books, listening to French radio stations, speaking French when I can, writing in French occasionally (after all, I am a writer!), and other small things. One of those “small things” has been setting my iPhone language to French. It seemed like a great way to learn what the language and words MEAN, and how they’re actually used. Face it: I know what the buttons and commands are in ENGLISH, so the French buttons and commands will be equivalents, right? Not direct translations, but I know what they mean, because they’re in the same place onscreen and do the same things in French as they do in English.

Saisissez le code = enter password. Annuler = cancel. Envoye = send. Appareil photo = camera app. Etc.

So this morning I was looking at the Google Traduction app on my iPhone, and noticed the phrase…

> Appuyer pour saisir du texte

Now, because of where it was onscreen and what it DID, I knew what that phrase MEANT —tap this button and then enter the text you wish to translate— but since I knew that words and phrases don’t always translate literally and directly “by the book,” I was curious…


100_1691…I took out my favorite pocket English-French dictionary, and, word for word, went through the phrase and translated it…

In my fiction universe, my character Margo’s parents come from divergent backgrounds in Canada. Tom LeDoux is an Ontario hoops player who can’t speak French, et Francoise Trudeau, elle est de Quebec et ne parlais pas anglais. Right?

So (1) the grounding of their MARRIAGE is that they love each other and connect in spite of words getting in the way; (2) Margo and her brother John Paul have to serve as translators for their parents; and (3) Tom cannot seem to get his French down pat.

So there was a vignette I wrote in an early draft of my first novel, where Tom wants Fran to make him a raspberry milk shake, and so he looks in whatever French-English dictionary he falls back on and comes into the kitchen repeating the phrase to himself so he doesn’t forget it, and when Fran says “Pour quoi, Thomas? What?” he asks her to make him une laiteaux framboise saisie.

Laiteaux = milk. Framboise = raspberry. Saisie = shake. Raspberry milkshake. Right?

She snorts a laugh. “You want a milky raspberry seizure?!

“Non. Frappé, Thomas. Frappé.”

Meanwhile, one of my favorite books ever is Mark Twain’s dual language edition of “The Jumping Frog.” There are many editions and printings of this story, but this particular edition is, essentially, a tri-lingual translation. The complete title of the slim volume is The Jumping Frog: In English, Then In French, Then Clawed Back Into Civilized Language Once More By Patient And Unremunerated Toil.

Click to enlarge

In his introduction, Twain said that he heard that the French didn’t think he was “funny,” so he found a French translation of “The Jumping Frog” and re-translated it back into English. Of course, the re-translation back into English is a disaster, since Twain took the literal, dictionary translation that the French editor created and put it back into English by probably the same method (looking up the words in a bilingual dictionary). It’s probably one of the funniest books I ever read.

So I know that when I refer to my Robert or Larousse dictionary, they’re not going to tell me that “Appuyer pour saisir du texte” means “Press here to enter text”… the translation is going to be more like

> WHAT THE FUCK?! “Support for seize some words?” Huh?!

So an important lesson I’m learning as I speak and read and write French is that, just as in English, words and phrases often can’t be translated literally. The “book meaning” is seldom what you encounter in usage.

As a friend who’s coaching me in French told me, the definition of baisir is “to kiss,” but in common French usage, it can also mean “fuck.”

When I typed Appuyer pour saisir du texte into the text box in Google, it actually spat back Press to enter text, which, of course, was what my intuitive understanding told me. That was the point of setting my phone’s language to French: familiar phrases and words and commands would be in the same place, just in a different language.

I’m not sure what algorithms Google Translate uses, but so far, it seems to be spot-on. It seldom gives me the same “meaning” that I’d get by doing a word-for-word lookup in one of my language books.

What’s helping me learn the language is not just the stack of grammar books, although they’re a help. It’s been listening and reading and speaking. Attempting to communicate and to garner communication. Putting the French or Quebecoise jazz or classical radio station on the computer and listening to the cascade of words and discerning as much as I can. Even a small understanding can feel like a major victory. I was thrilled, a couple weeks ago, when I was listening to TSF Jazz and heard the DJ say “Neuf neuf” and realized WHY she was saying it. “Neuf neuf. Nine-nine. They’re at 99 FM. I GET THAT!

My goal is to go to France for an extended period… not just a vacation, but maybe to housesit. Or maybe I should try London, an English-speaking city where France is accessible but I’m not immersed by daunting necessity.

Or maybe… I don’t know… maybe I should live someplace else, like someplace that is right across the border from a Francophone culture, like, ohh, I don’t know, say…VERMONT??

But I know that two things that will make me take off with this are being immersed in it, and being in a situation (like maybe a relationship) where, like Tom LeDoux, I am forced to use it and ask someone I love to make me a milky raspberry seizure occasionally.

Click here to read an online version of Mark Twain’s The Jumping Frog: In English, Then In French, Then Clawed Back Into Civilized Language Once More By Patient Unremunerated Toil.