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A question of size Posted by on May 9, 2017 in Grammar, Vocabulary

The results are in! I’m sure you all have heard, but as discussed last week, France held the second tour of the presidential elections dimanche (Sunday). And dimanche prochain (next Sunday) Emmanuel Macron will be sworn in as the youngest French president.  There has been so much coverage of the topic, I didn’t think it worth spending too much time on, but being president of any country is hard, so I just wanted to start by wishing him bon courage (lit. ‘good courage’ but more generally ‘good luck’). And now, a little lesson about scale . . . or more specifically about size (la taille) and degree (but not the temperature!).

Are you familiar with the American expression (and the practice that goes along with it) “He (or she) loves me, he (or she) loves me not”? You pick a flower, usually a daisy, and recite this magical phrase as you pluck each petal from the flower. In French they use the same flower (une marguerite) but now the expression is “Il (ou elle) m’aime un peu, beaucoup, passionnément, à la folie.” (He/she loves me a little, a lot, passionately, insanely.) The title of the film “Un peu, beaucoup, aveuglement” is a play on this expression.

Peu (a little or small amount) and beaucoup (many, a lot) are adverbs of quantity. They describe how much (or how little) of something (like love) you have. They are different from (though sometimes confused with!) petit (little, small) and grand (big, large), which are adjectives (adjectives which, unlike most in French, come before the noun they modify, though they still must agree in gender and number with that noun).

Let’s look at some examples (click the highlighted words if you would like to hear the phrase spoken):

Il est riche. Il a beaucoup d’argent. / He is rich. He has a lot of money.

Je suis pressé. Je n’ai pas beaucoup de temps. / I’m in a rush. I don’t have much/a lot of time.

Donne-moi un peu de café, s’il te plaît. / Give me a little coffee, please.

Mme Dupont ne peut pas vous voir aujourd’hui. Elle a très peu de temps libre. / Mrs. Dupont cannot see you today. She has very little free time.

Elle a une petite voiture et un petit chien. / She has a small car and a little dog.

Ils ont une grande maison. / They have a big house.

M Leclerc travaille dans un grand magasin. / Mr. Leclerc works in a big store/a department store.

An older French expression you may sometimes come across is “Peu ou prou“. It means essentially the same as “Plus ou moins” (“more or less“). The word “prou” is an old form meaing “beaucoup“.

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Image Copyrights:
fleur de marguerite‘ / daisy – By Pierre Mirosa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Marguerite de Valois – By François Clouet – http://0rchid-thief.livejournal.com/587231.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6546236

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About the Author: Tim Hildreth

Lise: Maybe not always. Paris has ways of making people forget. / Jerry: Paris? No, not this city. It's too real and too beautiful. It never lets you forget anything. It reaches in and opens you wide, and you stay that way. / An American in Paris