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The Siffler Syndrome


Modern conventional wisdom has it that the contextual approach (at the baker’s, at the dentist, at the airport etc…) is the best way to learn a language because it is likely to be more relevant.  Perhaps.  But the danger is that relevance consequently triumphs over rigour.

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Modern conventional wisdom has it that the contextual approach (at the baker’s, at the dentist, at the airport etc…) is the best way to learn a language because it is likely to be more relevant.  Perhaps.  But the danger is that relevance consequently triumphs over rigour.

But languages are structured around verbs (and other parts of speech).  Verbs are the beating heart of language; and where verbs in particular are concerned, the context matters very little indeed.  If you want something – at the baker’s. at the dentist’s or at the airport, it does not really matter – you are likely to use one verb.  That verb is “vouloir”.  “Je voudrais”, I would like, you will use in all contexts.  It is universal.  Why?  Because it allows you to express your needs, which are also universal.  We all need to survive, to associate and to express ourselves.  That is pretty much it.

So, in this book I adopt a structural approach, rather than a contextual approach.  Yes, you will encounter many contexts on your journey through the book, particularly in Chapter Twenty-Four.  But all the contexts serve merely to illustrate the structural role of the twenty-one most important verbs in the French language.  A sound knowledge of the way these verbs are used by French people in daily conversation will bring you fluency in the language far more effectively and efficiently than learning all the vocabulary that would otherwise be necessary to handle the hundreds, if not thousands, of different contexts that you are likely to encounter throughout your French experience.

This is the rationale for this very original book.


The Siffler Syndrome 


If être is the king “killer” verb, then avoir, to have, is the killer queen, if you like the Lady Macbeth of our verb list!  And for several good reasons.

First, as we have already seen, avoir is the auxiliary verb used in compound tenses wherever it is not être.  Therefore, thousands of regular verbs have avoir in the auxiliary; and many, many more irregular verbs also have avoir.  In our list, these irregular verbs all use avoir:

  • avoir (yes, I know that sounds odd but don’t we say in English, “I have had?”)
  • connaître
  • passer (in some uses)
  • devoir
  • dire
  • être
  • faire
  • mettre
  • pouvoir
  • prendre
  • savoir
  • servir

Second, avoir is a mainstay in familiar, colloquial, idiomatic and argotic language, just as is être.
Third, it is used in many frequently used fixed expressions (“expressions figées”), notable amongst them being il y a, meaning, there is or there are and…
Fourth, because in its most literal form, to have, in other words to possess, is at the core of our beliefs and, therefore, language, in all western societies (and others, too).

So, let’s being by conjugating avoir.

The Avoir Conjugations


Present Tense   Future Tense  
J’ai Nous avons J’ aurai Nous aurons
Tu as Vous avez Tu auras Vous aurez
Ils a Ils ont Il aura Ils auront
Elle a Elles ont Elle aura Elles auront


Imperfect Tense   Perfect Tense  
J’avais Nous avions J’ai eu Nous avons eu
Tu avais Vous aviez Tu as eu Vous avez eu
Il avait Ils avaient Il a eu Ils ont eu
Elle avait Elles avaient Elle a eu Elles ont eu


Future Perfect Tense Pluperfect Tense  
J’aurai eu Nous aurons eu J’avais eu Nous avions eu
Tu auras eu Vous aurez eu Tu avais eu Vous aviez eu
Il aura eu Ils auront eu Il avait eu Ils avaient eu
Elle aura eu Elles auront eu Elle avait eu Elles avaient eu


Present Conditional Tense Past Conditional Tense
J’aurais Nous aurions J’aurais eu Nous aurions eu
Tu aurais Vous auriez Tu aurais eu Vous auriez eu
Il aurait Ils auraient Il aurait eu Ils auraient eu
Elle aurait Elles auraient Elle aurait eu Elles auraient eu


Present Subjunctive Tense Imperative
J’aie Nous ayons Aie  
Tu aies Vous ayez Ayons  
Il ait Ils aient Ayez  
Elle ait Elles aient    

So, armed with the knowledge of how to conjugate avoir, let us begin with some basic ways of using this very versatile verb.

Avoir: The Basics

The basic meaning of avoir is, quite literally, to have, ie to possess.  So:

  • J’ai de la monnaie dans ma poche” ie I have some change in my pocket. Please note that “monnaie” does not translate as “money”.  The correct word for money is “l’argent”(m).
  • “Est-ce que tu as un tire-bouchon? Je voudrais ouvrir cette bouteille de vin” ie Do you have a corkscrew?  I want to open this bottle of wine.  (Incidentally, if you want to open a bottle of beer, you will need “un décapsuleur”; and if you want a thing (“machin”) that does both jobs, then you will need “un limonadier”).
  • Avez-vous un stylo? Je crois que j’ai perdu le mien” ie Do you have a pen?  I think that I have lost mine.

And of course, avoir works in exactly the same way in tenses other than the present:

  • “Dans le temps, nos gosses avaient une grande tente dans le jardin” ie In the past, our kids used to have a large tent in the garden.
  • “Je pense que j’irai à Londres demain. Il y a une petite boutique qui aura beaucoup de baskets américaines en stock” ie I think that I will go to London  There is a small shop which will have lots of American trainers in stock.

Very often too, you can use avoir to say that you “possess” all sorts of non-physical things – like a cold in the head!

  • “Maman, je me sens mal. Je crois que j’ai un rhume.” If it is something worse, it could be “la grippe” ie the flu, or
  • “Papa, j’ai eu une bonne note pour mon devoir de chimie à l’école aujourd’hui” ie Dad, I got a good grade for my chemistry homework at school today.

So, use avoir when you want to say that you have something, be it physical or intangible.  In fact, as you will see later in this chapter, avoir is extensively used to describe intangibles, for example, feelings, difficulties, opportunities.  Just a few examples here and then we will move on.  First:

  • “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a François?” (or “Qu’est-ce que tu as, François?) Tu as mauvaise mine” ie What is the matter, Francois? You do not look too well.

My second example is when you want to say that you are fed up.  There are several ways in French of expressing this.  Amongst them are:

  • J’en ai marre – I am fed up.
  • J’en ai ras la casquette – I am up to here with it, pointing to your forehead. This is the expression often used in south-west France.
  • J’en ai assez – I have had enough, and…
  • J’en ai ras le bol.

Additional information

Weight 0.5 kg
Dimensions 25 × 15 × 1 cm