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Phrases in French like la photo que j'ai prise (instead of que j'ai pris) have always struck me as unnatural. I've heard a lot of French people who fail to follow this rule when speaking spontaneously, and I've also heard a lot of hypercorrections in this area (e.g., la photo que j'ai faite prendre or je me suis permise de..), not only from uneducated people.

When I ask French people whether they think this feature of the language is artificial, they all say that the standard rule is perfectly natural to them.

I wonder though if this is an example of a feature of the spoken language that is supported primarily by the fact that it's taught in school, and would die out if not for that. (I've thought the same thing about fewer and less in English - with the difference that the French rule is unquestionably a rule in the written language.)

Is there a way to make that question rigorous from a scientific standpoint? If so, what is the answer?

EDIT: Here is a fact that is perhaps worth mentioning. Although you can almost always see the gender distinction in writing, you can only rarely hear it in the spoken language. That is, audible differences (such as that between pris and prise) is more of an exception. More typical would be la chanson que j'ai entendue or que j'ai chantée, where there is no audible distinction between the feminine and masculine past participles.

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    A similar, though not quite identical, rule exists in Italian, incidentally, though there it's limited to third-person personal and demonstrative pronouns to the exclusion of the relative ones. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 30 '14 at 19:10
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    "When I ask French people whether they think this feature of the language is artificial, they all say that the standard rule is perfectly natural to them." I think you mustn't have asked many - or you've been specially unlucky so that it has altered any relevant statistics. (I'm French) – Laure Dec 31 '14 at 19:52
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    @Laure The culture surrounding the French language is so prescriptive that few people who consider themselves educated, in my experience, willingly admit to departing from the standard. I'm sure if I'd been asking French linguists, I would have gotten more reasonable answers. – user6849 Dec 31 '14 at 20:05
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    I entirely agree with what you say in your comment. Moreover this participe passé avec avoir agreement is such a sore point in the learning of French grammar that I expect most people who consider themselves fairly well educated will not easily admit they do not master all the intricacies of that pseudo rule and I suppose that when they say the rule is logic to them they mean it is logic according to what they have been forced to learn and not to logic according to according to linguistic reasoning. – Laure Jan 1 '15 at 8:32
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    Emonds discusses this rule and its degree of naturalness (and learnability) in his 1985 paper Grammatically deviant prestige constructions about English "John and I went". – Colin Fine Jan 1 '15 at 12:02
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It is normal that you find this rule1 "unnatural". It is entirely artificial and has no logic. It is considered artificial by most grammarians of the French language nowadays (including Grevisse).

The agreement with the preceding past participle with avoir was introduced into French in the 16th century (by Clement Marot) a French Renaissance poet, who was deeply influenced by the Italian language that had a similar agreement with the preceding direct object. But the rule was not made compulsory until the 19th century and it has had its opponents ever since. And it is considered French school children's worst nightmare.

Here's an article that sums it all up nicely and gives several references.
And another one that deals more with the logics of this "rule" and its psychological implications when teaching (French) children.

When you say this rule is "supported primarily by the fact that it's taught in school, and would die out if not for that." you are entirely right, and it is one of the features of French grammar that lots of people would like to do away with, it is the object of endless discussions2.

Excerpt of the Dictionnaire de pédagogie by Ferdinand Buisson (1901) in which he proposed a reform of French spelling :

La règle d'accord enseignée actuellement à propos du participe passé construit avec l'auxiliaire avoir a toujours été plus ou moins contestée par les écrivains et par les grammairiens. Peu à peu elle s'est compliquée de plus en plus ; les exceptions sont devenues de plus en plus nombreuses, suivant la forme du complément qui précède le participe, suivant que le même verbe est employé au sens propre ou au sens figuré, suivant que d'autres verbes accompagnent le participe. En outre, elle tombe en désuétude. Il paraît inutile de s'obstiner à maintenir artificiellement une règle qui n'est qu'une cause d'embarras dans l'enseignement, qui ne sert à rien pour le développement de l'intelligence et qui rend très difficile l'étude du français aux étrangers.

The rule concerning the agreement of the past participle with avoir that is taught nowadays has been always more or less opposed by writers and grammarians. Various additions of exceptions have made it more complex over the years [...] besides it is now becoming obsolete3. It seems useless to artificially persevere in maintaining a rule that is a cause of embarrassment to education, that does not help developing intelligence and makes the learning of French very difficult to foreigners. (Translation's mine)

Concerning the edit in your question, you can roughly say that one can hear the gender agreement when the past participle ends with a consonant4. And it is only since the 18th century (Modern French) that the final e has become silent. Before that it was sounded and it can still be sounded for literary purposes (eg in poetry, in a song) when necessity arises to have a rhyme or certain line length.


1 Accord du participe passé avec avoir.
2 Just one found in a quick google search.
3 Let's not forget he was writing at the beginning of the 20th. century at a time when not as many people could attend school as we do nowadays.
4 See this answer on French Stackexchange.

  • "The agreement with the preceding past participle with avoir was introduced into French in the 16th century (by Clement Marot)" - that is wrong. Marot merely standardised a situation existing already in Old French. – fdb Nov 17 '16 at 23:54
  • I wouldn't put it as "artificial" so much as anomalous. Basically in french, whatever comes first typically generates agreements with what follows it according to the default word order. Most adjectives come after nouns, verbs normally come after their subject etc (note that phonetically, determiners are fused to the noun and not independent words). While the avoir rules follows the "agree with what comes first" aspect, it's anomalous in that agreement is dependent not only on word order inside the phrase rather than the default order, but also on other elements that come afterward. – Circeus Apr 2 '17 at 15:20
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In Latin and in other ancient Indo-European languages the form created by adding *-to- to the weak stem is, in the case of transitive verbs, a perfect passive participle, but in the case of intransitive verbs a perfect active participle. The Romance constructions of past participle with “to be” and “to have” continue Late Latin *essere + intransitive p.p. and habere + transitive p.p.p. Thus:

(a) elle est allée = she is (in the state of having) gone

(b) je l’ai vue = I have her (as one who has been) seen (by me)

with the participle agreeing in gender with the subject in the former case and with the object in the latter case. At an idealised “proto-Romance” level one would imagine (a) being used with all intransitive verbs, and (b) with all transitive verbs, but there must have been a strong pressure in favour of (b), which eventually wins over the great majority of intransitive verbs as well.

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    I like this explanation from a historical perspective. Given the extent to which the rule regarding avoir is flouted in the spoken language, and the many hypercorrections, I'm still inclined to believe that this justification is no longer understood intuitively by speakers. – user6849 Dec 31 '14 at 18:38
  • Spanish standardized haber+p.part with the invariant participle but tener+p.part. with agreement with a difference in meaning (c.f. English I have done / did them vs. I have them done. Asturian, which only uses tener, uses the neuter p.part. for the perfect aspect, and then agrees otherwise – user0721090601 Nov 18 '16 at 12:24
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The rule is actually very logical and to someone whose language has inflexion, it is very, very natural. The past participle is basically a deverbal adjective relating to the object, thus it makes a lot of sense that there is an agreement in the nominal categories.

E.g. in Czech, there is a similar construction being born (have st. + past participle) and the PPP agrees with the object in case (typically accusative), number and gender:

mám tu knih-u přečte-n-ou I have the book-(ACC-SG-FEM) read-PPP-(ACC-SG-FEM)

mám ty knih-y přečte-n-é I have the book-(ACC-PL-FEM) read-PPP-(ACC-PL-FEM)

So in French, which also distinguishes grammatical number (in its own strange way) and gender, such a construction makes sense as well. This of course does not change the fact that this distinction disappeared due to the progressing grammaticalisation of the passé composé and was only artificially reintroduced.

  • There is a certain logic to it, but that doesn't prove that it comes naturally to French speakers (and anyway, the prescriptive rule has many exceptions to agreement). As you say, the compound tenses are grammaticalized constructions; they don't just behave like the verb "avoir" + an adjective. For example, in the sentence "il a marché", "marché" doesn't modify anything. – sumelic Nov 17 '16 at 23:26
  • My only intention was to point out that the construction has its own internal logic and is fairly natural under certain circumstances, which are very shaky at best in French (particularly with the past participle number and gender being distinguished only in writing for vast majority of PPPs). Again, in Spanish where the number/gender distinction is still maintained, this construction does not exist at all (la mejor pelicula que he visto) either. – Eleshar Nov 17 '16 at 23:37
  • I guess I'm confused for the following reason. If you agree that the construction is shaky in French and nonexistent in Spanish, I don't understand why you start out by saying "to someone whose language has inflexion, it is very, very natural." French and Spanish both have inflexion! Maybe to someone who speaks Czech, it seems like Romance languages don't have any inflexion by comparison, but many English speakers find gender agreement of adjectives in Romance languages to be a lot of inflexion relative to English. – sumelic Nov 18 '16 at 7:11
  • @Eleshar, the structure absolute exists in Spanish: Ya tengo hechos los deberes. – user0721090601 Nov 18 '16 at 22:22
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I asked a similar question to French stackexchange a while back:

https://french.stackexchange.com/questions/8801/quels-participes-pass%C3%A9s-se-prononcent-diff%C3%A9remment-selon-le-genre

Based on the answers I got, I'd say your suspicion is correct -- this is a prescriptivism that educated native French speakers seem to think is natural. My experience is that it is rarely done in practice for those verbs such that a genuine difference in pronunciation exists. I imagine that when the difference was pronounced across all paradigms, it was made more frequently in spontaneous speech.

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