Are advanced French sentences keeping you up at night?
Do you store your French novels in a locked chest so they don’t leak semicolons into the air while you sleep?
Are multiple clauses haunting your dreams, in which they hold hands to form a blockade at the end of your driveway to keep you from leaving your house?
Hey, I understand. No one prepared you for this!
Textbooks will typically give the most stripped-down examples for clarity, which doesn’t equip a wide-eyed French learner for the reality of what’s out there.
Seeing a sentence that employs a lot of grammar all at once may send you diving under the nearest row of hedges.
But you don’t have to live in fear!
You can develop street smarts that will make you hip to the ways of applied French grammar and keep those big scary sentences from pushing you around.
Step outside and I’ll show you how.
The One Simple Trick to Reading Any French Sentence
No matter how long or complex a French sentence is, it’s got to follow certain basic rules.
A simple trick to reading any sentence is to identify the action taking place. The first step is locating whatever verbs you can find. Let’s try an example:
Cette phrase me fait peur. (This sentence scares me.)
It literally reads “this sentence makes me scared,” so the verb here is fait (makes). That’s the action.
In order to see what’s really happening with that verb, though, we need to locate its subject. The subject is the person or thing that’s responsible for the action. Here, it’s cette phrase.
A verb only really needs a subject, but many will also have an object. An object is a thing toward which the action of a verb is directed. It’ll provide you more useful information about what’s going on. In this case, the object is me.
If you’re familiar with French grammar, you might be wondering why I’d walk you through all this stuff you already know in order to show you how to read an advanced sentence.
Here’s the thing, though: the more complicated the sentence, the more simply you need to think of it. Basic sentence structure will save you every single time, and it will set you up nicely for comprehending not only written French, but also spoken French as heard on FluentU.
Let’s take a look at how.
5 Advanced French Sentences, Deconstructed
1. The French Sentence that Refuses to Take a Breath
Excerpt from Voltaire’s “Candide”
Vingt belles filles de la garde reçurent Candide et Cacambo à la descente du carrosse, les conduisirent aux bains, les vêtirent de robes d’un tissu de duvet de colibri ; après quoi les grands officiers et les grandes officières de la couronne les menèrent à l’appartement de Sa Majesté, au milieu de deux files chacune de mille musiciens, selon l’usage ordinaire.
How to Read It Without Passing Out
This sentence isn’t so scary. In fact, it’s an example of how long sentences can be friendly and fun. Voltaire had fun with words. He’s also rumored to have drunk something like 50 cups of coffee a day, which might explain a few things.
As you may have already noticed, this sentence contains multiple verbs and more than one subject. In the first half (before the semicolon), twenty beautiful girls (the subject) do three things (verbs) to Candide and Cacambo (the object).
Vingt belles filles de la garde reçurent Candide et Cacambo à la descente du carrosse,
(Twenty beautiful girls of the guard received Candide and Cacambo as they dismounted the coach)
les conduisirent aux bains,
(conducted them to the baths)
les vêtirent de robes d’un tissu de duvet de colibri ;
(dressed them in robes made from a fabric of hummingbird-down)
At this point we’re introduced to a new subject, but the object (Candide and Cacambo) remains the same:
après quoi les grands officiers et les grandes officières de la couronne les menèrent à l’appartement de Sa Majesté
(after which male and female crown officers led them to His Majesty’s apartment)
The subject is now the crown officers, who are leading Candide and Cacambo (represented as “them”).
au milieu de deux files chacune de mille musiciens, selon l’usage ordinaire.
(between two lines of a thousand musicians each, according to custom)
Never be intimidated by bizarre subject matter or length. If you find this sentence troubling, let it be because you’ll almost definitely never receive such a royal welcome yourself!
2. The Syrupy Sentence Filled with French Wordiness
Excerpt from Benjamin Constant’s “Adolphe”
Un jeune homme avec lequel j’étais assez lié cherchait depuis quelques mois à plaire à l’une des femmes les moins insipides de la société dans laquelle nous vivions : j’étais le confident très désintéressé de son entreprise.
How to Read It Without Getting Stuck
This sentence hurls info at you in one giant sticky wordball. Extracting the main action here is going to take some finesse, but we’ll manage. Because it’s such a clingy mess, we’ll extract only the main action before the (colon) pause, eliminating all adjectives and asides:
Un…homme…cherchait…à plaire à…une…femme…
(A man had been trying to win the favor of a woman.)
That’s it! That’s what’s going on. The rest is just added information about these people and this situation. So now that we know what we’re cooking, let’s throw in the rest of the ingredients:
Un jeune homme avec lequel j’étais assez lié
(A young man with whom I was quite friendly)
cherchait depuis quelques mois
(had been trying for several months)
à plaire à l’une des femmes les moins insipides
(to win the favor of one of the least insipid women)
de la société dans laquelle nous vivions :
(of the society in which we lived)
And the last bit, thankfully, is short and sweet:
j’étais le confident très désintéressé de son entreprise.
(I was the very disinterested confidant in his undertaking)
The moral? Speak softly and carry a bottle of Purell. Reading advanced French sentences may require you to get your hands dirty!
3. The French Teeth-and-clauses
Excerpt from Marcel Proust’s “Du côté de chez Swann”
Mon père haussait les épaules et il examinait le baromètre, car il aimait la météorologie, pendant que ma mère, évitant de faire du bruit pour ne pas le troubler, le regardait avec un respect attendri, mais pas trop fixement pour ne pas chercher à percer le mystère de ses supériorités.
How to Read It Without Getting Mauled
This childhood reflection is made up of several different chunks of action that occur within the fuzzy time frame of the imparfait. There are, however, just two subjects: the narrator’s parents. Splitting up the action of each will calm this narrative beast.
Father Action #1
Mon père haussait les épaules
(My father would shrug his shoulders)
Father Action #2
et il examinait le baromètre
(and he would examine the barometer)
Father Action #3
car il aimait la météorologie
(as he liked meteorology)
Mother Non-Action #1
pendant que ma mère,
(while my mother)
évitant de faire du bruit pour ne pas le troubler,
(avoiding making noise so as not to bother him)
Mother Action #2
le regardait avec un respect attendri,
(watched him with a tender respect)
Mother Non-Action #3
mais pas trop fixement
(but not so fixedly)
pour ne pas chercher à percer le mystère de ses supériorités.
(as to try to pierce the mystery of his superiority)
It might surprise you to know that Proust’s sentences tend to be pretty straightforward despite how long they are, as in this tidy depiction of 19th century family life. So feel free to check out more!
4. The French Stream-of-neurosis
Excerpt from Guy de Maupassant’s “La Parure”
Elle réfléchit quelques secondes, établissant ses comptes et songeant aussi à la somme qu’elle pouvait demander sans s’attirer un refus immédiat et une exclamation effarée du commis économe.
How to Read It Without Losing 10 Years of Your Life
This sentence is made up almost entirely of one woman’s thoughts, but it’s packed with action, containing a grand total of six verbs! Let’s go through them one at a time:
Elle réfléchit quelques secondes
(She reflected for a few seconds)
établissant ses comptes
(making her calculations)
et songeant aussi à la somme
(and also thinking of the amount)
Verbs #4 & 5
qu’elle pouvait demander
(that she could ask for)
sans s’attirer un refus immédiat
(without bringing on herself an immediate refusal)
et une exclamation effarée du commis économe.
(and an alarmed exclamation from the economic clerk)
Throughout the sentence, the subject (the woman) remains the same, but the object switches from her calculations to the amount (of money) she could ask for to the theoretical refusal and alarmed exclamation. Racing thoughts, real or fictional, tend to result in a seething mass of verbs, so be ready to pick them off one by one!
5. The Abstract, Arty French Sentence
Excerpt from a sonnet of Stéphane Mallarmé
Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !
How to Read it Without Spilling Your Champagne
The combination of abstract imagery and complex sentence structure makes this stanza from Mallarmé’s famous sonnet difficult to read, mind-boggling to translate and probably impossible to translate well.
Friends, this is the motherload. You get through this and the entire French world of written language is yours.
Anyone got an ice pick? Now, we’re not going to try to interpret Mallarmé’s imagery here, or to fully understand the merits of his work. However, cutting the stanza at a precise point in the middle and pulling it apart reveals something interesting about its structure:Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !
This separation has a symmetry to it, but also a grammatical logic. The left-hand part now contains all the main action of the sentence. It can be read without its other half, even preserving a rhyme in the second and third lines:
Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
(The blank, enduring and beautiful today)
Va-t-il nous déchirer
(Will it tear for us)
Ce lac dur oublié
(This hard forgotten lake)
Cool, huh? The first line is the subject. The second asks a question with a compound verb. The third line is the object. A simple prose translation could go something like this:
“Will the blank, enduring and beautiful today tear this hard forgotten lake for us?”
You can see that even when it’s maximized for readability in English it’s quite weird and abstract. How can a “today” tear something? What would that even look like? This should serve as a reminder that some of the difficulties you’ll encounter in reading advanced French texts will have absolutely rien à voir (nothing to do) with your French language abilities.
However, it’s important to confront unusual word usage head-on. In this case, the word aujourd’hui is being used as a noun. Normally, it would act as an adverb, just like the word “today” in English. It might help you to think of the first line as “(That which is) the blank, enduring and beautiful today.” This clarifies that the whole group of words is being treated as a single subject.
Now, let’s put the rest of this sentence together. The second half provides us with more information but adheres to the structure we already have:
Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
(The blank, enduring and beautiful today)
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
(Will it tear for us with a drunken wingbeat)
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
(This hard forgotten lake haunted below the frost)
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !
([By] the transparent glacier of flights not taken)
Note that the French word que refers back to the object before it. The lac dur oublié is what’s being haunted below the frost by the glacier, etc.
This takes a bit of a stretch to think about and you still might not “get” Mallarmé’s poem, but hopefully you have a better understanding of the sentence.
As you continue to confront more difficult texts, you’ll probably encounter situations in which you don’t understand what you’re reading. But remember, verbs will always tell you what’s happening. So familiarize yourself with all their forms and keep an eye out for them!
With practice and a methodical approach, no corner of the French language will be closed off to you.
You may even stop thinking of sentences in terms of how difficult they are and just enjoy what they express!
And one more thing...
If you like learning French on your own time and from the comfort of your smart device, then I'd be remiss to not tell you about FluentU.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews, documentary excerpts and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native French videos with reach. With interactive captions, you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with learn mode. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning, and play the mini-games found in our dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."
All throughout, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a totally personalized experience. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
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