Belgians want to ditch ‘absurd’ French grammar rule (and they might be right)

Belgians want to ditch 'absurd' French grammar rule (and they might be right)
Photo: AFP
French-speaking Belgium has announced its desire to officially scrap an "obsolete and absurd" element of French grammar and maybe they have the right idea.

Learners of French will no doubt sympathize with the Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles, the organisation that represents French-speaking Belgium.

On Monday two French-speaking Belgian academics Arnaud Hoedt et Jérôme Piron, supported by the federation, expressed their desire to scrap a complex rule of French grammar: the past participle agreement for the verb avoir (to have).

Unlike when used with the verb être- to be (where past participles must show agreement with the pronoun) the past participle normally doesn't change when used with the verb avoir, eg. j'ai mangé, nous avons vu, tu as joué (I have eaten, we have seen, you have played).

But there are exceptions.

The rule states that if the direct object comes before the past participle, the past participle should agree in gender and in number with that direct object.

The example the Belgians give is: “Les crêpes que j'ai mangées”, where the past participle of manger (to eat) takes the plural and feminine form to agree with the direct object “les crêpes”. However if the direct object was after the past participle the agreement doesn't apply so it would be “J'ai mangé les crêpes.”

(Yes we are supporting the Belgians on this one.)

In a tribune in French newspaper Liberation the Belgian academics basically say the rule is “obsolete and complicated beyond the absurd”. According to reports the grammar rule is “an archaic survivor inherited from medieval monks, imposed by the poet Clement Marot at the court of Francis 1st” in the 16th century.

They want to scrap all the exceptions to the rules so that the past participle doesn't ever change when used with avoir. In other words it would be “Les crêpes que j'ai mangé”. 

The rule tends to only really affect written French because when it's spoken there is normally no difference between the pronunciation of the past participles.

READ ALSO: Belgian French: How it differs to the French spoken in France

Belgian French: How it differs to French spoken in France

The organisation which said it has consulted the International Council of the French Language (Cilf) and the Belgian version of the General Delegation of the French Language (DGLFLF) wants to ditch the agreement and keep the past participles the same.

“In school, children ask: why before and not after? Often, teachers know how to explain the rule but not why it exists. The incoherence of the traditional rules prevents them from giving meaning to their teaching,” the academics say.

“It would be so much more beneficial…to teach our children everything that allows them to master the language rather than to retain the most arbitrary parts of its writing code”.

We wait to hear what the “immortals” at the Academie Francaise have to say about it but it appears the Belgian academics are not too bothered about the opinion of the guardians of the French language.

“Not being composed of linguists the Academy has never managed to produce decent grammar so cannot act as a reference,” they said.

Some in France think the Belgians might have a point, with Nice Matin signing off their article on the subject with the line “perhaps the Belgians are not wrong”.

And if they are going to change a few of the more complicated French grammar rules, below is a lit of a few other changes that could be made that would no doubt bring a smile to the faces of French language learners, including adopting the Belgian number system instead of the French one.

READ ALSO: How France could make learning French easier

How France could make learning French easier

Member comments

  1. I love French grammar as it is.Mastering it is a intellectual high. One problem…egg stinks, which a number of French friends don’t seem to know the meaning.
    Remember,”If it isn’t clear…..”

  2. Yes indeed – and once again we can look to Belgium for a way forward 🙂 They’ve got septante, octante and nonante to follow soixante. I’ve no idea why ‘four twenties nineteen’ was ever regarded as a great way to express 99. Give me nonante-neuf any day!

  3. I must admit that I do find some of the French grammar rules somewhat illogical, but the numbering system is just plain crazy and needs simplifying.

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.