Yesterday my professor, Jean, prepared us for learning a small thing. He lowered his eyebrows and began speaking in a low, conspiratorial voice. He looked around the room, as if checking for hidden microphones.
He then said he had spent an evening recently with three French friends and a new acquaintance. Throughout the evening, the visitor spoke flawless French, and her companions were sure she was French. But toward the end of dinner, she made what I have come to call The Mistake. Jean said that even Jodi Foster, the American actress whose French is otherwise perfect, makes The Mistake. Even after Jean had explained how to correct The Mistake, it proved so tenacious that we continued to make it for the next 15 minutes of practice in class. So gather round, would-be French speakers. I will now reveal how to avoid The Mistake.
We will begin with the above photo, which I took yesterday between classes when I spotted the rarely seen sun bathing a spray of daisies, or “des marguerites” in French. If I asked, “What are these?” the answer in English would be “they are daisies.” An English-speaker’s natural translation into French would be “ils sont des marguerites” or “they are daisies.” Eh voilà: The Mistake!
The correct answer to the question is “Ce sont des marguerites.” “Ce” in my digital English-French dictionary is translated as “this” or “these.” So the correct phrasing is something like “These are daisies.” In English the difference between “these are daisies” and “they are daisies” would be small, and both phrases would be correct. Not so in French.
If you’ve read this far, you have shown yourself to be as obsessive about miniscule quirks of language as I am, so I will fearlessly press ahead. There is one situation when “ils sont something” would be correct. That is when the noun following the verb has no article or modifier. The most common example of this usage is stating someone’s profession or nationality, as in “they are writers” or “they are Americans.” Here, it is correct to say “ils sont écrivains” or “ils sont américains.” The same principle applies in the singular. “Il est américan” is correct, but to say “he is AN American,” you must say “c’est un américain.”
It is part of the genius of the Institut de Français method that so much attention is placed on such small matters. And it is part of the genius of a master teacher like Jean that he is able to instill memorable drama in the learning of these nuances.