Today I want to look at a very common verb in spoken French, point out a few pitfalls and then show how you can impress native speakers with some really sophisticated uses.
Using “répondre à”
Most readers here know that répondre in French is “to reply” or “to answer.” Notice in the following examples how répondre is always followed by a form of the preposition à. This is very different from English.
Attendez, je dois répondre au téléphone.
Hold on, I have to answer the phone
Répondez aux questions.
Answer the questions.
Je réponds à votre courriel d’hier.
I’m replying to your e-mail of yesterday.
Je n’ai pas encore répondu à ma mère
I haven’t answered my mother yet.
On répondra à votre demande sous peu.
We will answer your request shortly.
This presence of the à preposition is very important because it means that the noun following the preposition is probably treated like an indirect object. This has major implications for the forms of the pronouns that will be used, And this is where English-speaking learners come to grief. Look at the following examples:
Dis à ma mère que je vais lui répondre plus tard.
Tell my mother that I’ll answer her later.
Mes parents m’ont laissé un message. Je leur répondrai demain.
My parents left me a message. I’ll answer them tomorrow.
C’est une question à laquelle je ne peux pas répondre.
It’s a question I cannot answer.
Si vous posez les questions, je vais essayer d’y répondre.
If you ask the questions, I’ll try to answer them.
Here is a common idiomatic expression:
Poser la question, c’est d’y répondre.
(literally) Ask the question is to answer it at the same time.
(idiomatically) The answer is obvious.
Notice how lui and leur are used when referring to people whereas à laquelle and y are used with objects such as “questions.”
In the following examples, note how the à is used to introduce a descriptive phrase:
Elle a répondu à voix basse.
She answered in a hushed voice.
J’ai répondu au mieux de mes connaissances à toutes les questions.
I answered all the questions to the best of my knowledge.
In the last example, avoid au meilleur de ma connaissance a literal translation often heard in Canada.
Using “répondre de”
Répondre is often used with the preposition de to introduce a description, as in:
L’accusé a répondu de manière évasive.
The accused answered in an evasive manner.
Je vais essayer de répondre de façon claire à votre question.
I’ll try to answer your question clearly.
Now, if you really want to impress people with your ability to speak French, here is a use of répondre de that is somewhat rare. Look at the following examples:
Les émeutiers devront répondre de leurs actes.
The rioters will have to answer for their actions.
Je suis prêt à répondre de mes gestes.
I’m ready to answer for my actions.
Although “actes” and “gestes” are probably the most common complements of répondre de, you could use all sorts of words that lend themselves to this construction, as in:
répondre de ses écrits
answer for his writings
répondre de ses insultes
answer for her insults
While we are on “répondre de,” I should point out that there is a related and really literary or legal usage in the sense of “to be reponsible for people.” You will almost never hear this in modern spoken French, but if you read the plays of Molière, legal texts and classical literature, you will come across things like:
Vous devez répondre des personnes qu’on a confiées à votre garde.
You are responsible for the persons under your stewardship.
Je ne peux répondre de mon frère; je ne réponds que de moi-même.
I am not responsible for my brother; I’m only responsible for myself.
The most common form in use, by far, is répondre à. That’s the one you really have to have down pat, especially with the relevant pronoun forms that tend to trip up learners. Répondre de is much less used in the spoken language, but it is good to know when you want to impress your audience.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.