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Jack Smith

On being led to the guillotine by a host of folks familiar with the French language

June 19, 1985|JACK SMITH

Every time I try to use French I get into trouble. One reason is that I'm too proud to check it out with my wife, who, though not a French grammarian, at least understands the idiom.

The other day I attempted to show my familiarity with that noble language in commenting on Secretary of Education William Bennett's sampling of the sort of education he thinks all children ought to have.

"We should want every student to know how mountains are made," he said, "and that for most actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. They should know who said 'I am the state,' and who said 'I have a dream.' They should know a little of how a poem works, how a plant works and what 'If wishes were horses, beggars would ride' means. . . . They should know something about the Convention of 1787 and about the conventions of good behavior. . . ."

Bennett's remarks, by the way, were made in support of two bills that would make it easier for parents to send their children to "better" schools, by which I assume he means private schools.

It was my view that there was nothing in Bennett's catalogue of knowledge for all children that any child couldn't learn in a public school, provided they have the books, the teachers are decently paid, and the pupils come from homes and communities that really want them to be educated.

"As for who said, 'I am the state,' " I said, "it is supposed to have been said by Louis XIV, the Sun King, but of course what he really said, since he was French, was 'L'etat, c'est moi.'

"Translated literally into English, that comes out, 'The state is me.'

"But of course any English teacher will tell you that 'The state is me' is bad grammar, since the pronoun should be in the subjective case, and any educated American would say 'The state is I.'

"But of course no American could possibly say, 'The state is I,' because, grammatically correct though it may be, it is politically impossible in this Republic, thanks to that convention in 1787."

My embarrassment is the more acute because I am corrected by a high school student, Jay Blossom of Cerritos.

Jay writes: "You made a rather significant error in your column. You translated 'L'etat, c'est moi' to mean 'The state is me.' However, the French way to say that statement is 'L'etat est moi.' You left the c' (short for ca )-- that or it --out of your translation."

(My wife says that c is short for ce , not ca . I hope she's right.)

"Furthermore," he goes on, "Louis XIV was using perfectly correct French when he uttered his immortal words, using a disjunctive pronoun after a linking verb. Therefore, the correct translation into English would be 'The state, it is I."

Correct.

Janet M. Gordon of Beverly Hills makes the same point, and carries it further:

"Tsk! tsk! If wishes were horses your French teacher or your wife would have taught you all about disjunctive pronouns.

" Moi means I just as often as me because je is incorrect whenever there is no verb, as in qui est a la porte? Moi '; after the verb etre : c'est moi ; in a compound subject: Jack Smith et moi nous savons ou se trouve New Zealand. ' " (Once again I apologize for the absence of accents and other diacritical marks; we aren't yet tooled up for diacritical marks.)

So much for my French.

An even more important criticism comes from Paul Monroe. "Actually," he writes, "the translation 'The state it's me' is good English; but 'The state is I' is very bad English.

"There is a submerged and ignored case which the more pedantic grammarians have ignored for some centuries but continues to exist, in English as it does in French. 'C'est moi, seigneur' is good French; 'It's me, O Lord,' is good English.

"The case can perhaps be called the demonstrative, because it points to the object of attention. It certainly exists and is used daily. If the phone rings and you pick it up, asking 'Who's there?,' and the caller knows you, the answer is likely to be 'Me.' It will never be 'I'. It can't be; it wouldn't be English."

I agree that 'It is me' is American idiom and "It is I" is not.

Actually, when I said "any English teacher will tell you that 'The state is me' is bad grammar" I was being deliberately pedantic.

The latest word on that subject is in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, by William and Mary Morris, second edition, just published.

"Many people--most of us, in fact--were taught in school that 'The verb to be takes the same case after it as before.' This is widely interpreted to mean that, since the subject of a verb is nominative, the predicate noun or pronoun must also be nominative. Generally speaking this is true. Purists and perfectionists in language carefully say, 'It is I' and 'It is he.' These forms, however, strike many ears today as needlessly stilted and affected. The accepted colloquial idiom favors it's me .

"Here is a case where the preponderance of educated, intelligent people (the two aren't always the same) favors the less formal version. Even such eminent users of the English language as Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill have been known to say 'It's me.'

Well, if it's good enough for Winnie and the Queen, it's good enough for moi .

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