Today’s blog post is about what I thought was a curious feature of French grammar. The funny thing was that when I began researching the topic, I suddenly started noticing it in spoken French and in the media.
It all started when I recently came across the following sentence in a newspaper article about organized crime groups using children in Europe:
En Europe, de très jeunes enfants sont littéralement forcés de jouer les voleurs à la tire.
In Europe, some very young children are literally forced to act as pickpockets.
The grammar here seems very straightforward. (Note that French says de jeunes enfants and not des jeunes enfant where English says “some very young children.”).
But if we were speaking about only one child, we would use the following form:
En Europe, un très jeune enfant est littéralement forcé de jouer les voleurs à la tire.
In Europe, a very young child is literally forced to act as a pickpocket.
What is unusual here is that the singular subject un très jeune enfant still uses the plural complement les voleurs à la tire. But the English translation replaces “pickpockets” with “pickpocket.”
On the other hand, if we change the verb jouer les to faire or jouer au, we would use the singular complement, as in:
En Europe, un très jeune enfant est littéralement forcé de faire le voleur à la tire.
En Europe, un très jeune enfant est littéralement forcé de jouer au voleur à la tire.
Frankly, this business of using the plural complement with a singular subject and jouer les must be one of the quirkiest rules of French grammar.
Thus, if you wanted to say “play the victim” in French, you would say jouer les victimes. You could also say: faire la victime or jouer à la victime.
In passing, note that the word la victime applies to both male and female victims. A typical example would be:
Il aime jouer les victimes mais personne ne le prend au sérieux.
He likes to play the victim but no one takes him seriously.
Here are some of the constructions that you will hear or see:
jouer les abrutis (play the idiot)
jouer les apprentis sorciers (play God)
jouer les trouble-fête (to be a partypooper)
jouer les innocents (to pretend to be innocent)
jouer les fous (to act crazy)
jouer les indignés (to sound indignant)
jouer les cassandre (to be very pessimistic)
jouer les seconds couteaux (to plays second fiddle, to be a bit part player)
jouer les vierges offensées (to pretend to be shocked or to display righteous indignation)
jouer les gros bras (to act like a thug)
In Quebec, you will hear jouer les seconds violons that purists consider an anglicism or a direct translation of the English expression “to play second fiddle.” It doesn’t bother me, but you may want to avoid it.
As you can see, most of these forms have a negative connotation. Be aware of course that in addition to its use in these expressions as a way of describing people, the verb jouer has other uses that are very different from what we are looking at here. But that’s another story.
Conclusion: make this part of your spoken French
I’ll be the first to admit that this sort of grammatical detail is of relatively minor importance in the grand scheme of French grammar. If you were to use the singular instead of the plural, most native speakers of French would not notice the difference.
Still, this construction is commonly used, and you might as well use it properly. Indeed, this is a splendid example of what I call idiomatic spoken French. This is the way native speakers talk.
The real significance of this sort of thing is that it is a sign of impeccable French. Spoken French is full of these details that, in my opinion, are there basically to allow people to demonstrate their level of sophistication and mastery of the language rather than to convey any real nuance of meaning. You can do the same.
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.