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More adventurous than the average bear

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Le subjonctif

"Louis XVI fut éxécuté le 21 janvier 1793, place de la Révolution, aujourd'hui place de la Concorde.

Louis XVI was executed the 21 st of January, 1793, on what was then the Place de la Revolution, today Place de la Concorde.

TV announcers use the passé simple. Professors use it. Stu- dents use it as a joke when they want to sound pretentious.

I used to get emotional about tenses when I taught grammar. I'd invent personalities for each tense. The passé composé was easy—that was Meursault’s tense, one time only in the past, easy come easy go. The imparfait was just that- imperfect—it captured those indefinite, unsatisfied human conditions. The subjunctive: most of life takes place in the subjunctive, not the inclicative—one action subjecting, subjugating itself in the subordinate clause to a realm of feeling or doubt. “I am afraid [feeling] that you don't understand [subjunctive]” versus “I know [certainty] that you understand [indicative]."

The subjunctive has a schoolyard reputation for extreme formality since it's the last verb form people learn in the grammar sequence—second year. I remember my feelings of expertise when I could rattle off my tongue, “Il va falloir que je m'en aille” (I'm going to have to go now), and glide out of a room. The subjunctive is really something else; realm of doubt, desire, fear and trembling before language.

I think about the tenses all the time, especially that slash in the imperfect time line, proving that a sudden event can come and disturb the smooth thoughtlessness of everyday living. The time line is my theory of history; my own history fits it to a tee."

--- French Lessons: A Memoir / Alice Kaplan
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