Lalaire, Louis, 1998:

La variation modale dans les subordonnées à temps fini du français moderne : approche syntaxique.

Bern (Switzerland), Peter Lang, Série XXI (Linguistique) no. 195. Pp. ix+377
ISBN 3 906759 77 6, GBP31.00/FRF272.00 (paperback).

reviewed by

Richard Wakely

School of Modern Languages, French Section, University of Edinburgh, Scotland
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The term modal(e) in the title refers to mood and not to modality or modal verbs. The volume explores the use of the subjunctive and the indicative and attempts to come to some conclusion on the thorny (and hoary) question of the «signifié global du subjonctif», approaching this within a Government and Binding model.

I must say straight away that I did not find this book particularly illuminating on the subject of the Government and Binding approach. In any case, if you do not know (or, more importantly, do not wish to know) how a term can have a thêta-rôle or how a position can be saturée, then this book is not for you. Though, against that, I should stress that it is full of fascinating examples (on which more below) and discusses its subject exhaustively. It refers to many general works by authors such as Benveniste, Grevisse, Guillaume, Ruwet and Sandfeld and not only to those of scholars working within the Government and Binding model such as Chomsky or Milner. The discussion is so full that extensive use is made of footnotes, which I personally find intrusive - if it is important, put it in the main text; if it is not, leave it out! But perhaps that shows more about me than it does about this book.

The examples are mainly made-up ones (forgés). This is not a disadvantage as they are well chosen and convincing. The author's judgements appear to have been tempered by consulting other native speakers. These judgements are quite precise, ranging from acceptable to unacceptable (*) via ?, ?? and ??/*. Some examples are also quoted from the work of other writers such as Ducrot, Grevisse and Sandfeld who, in turn, sometimes quote literary authors. The work is dedicated to Alice and Louis - it would have been better to dedicate it to the 'people' whose names appear in most of the examples, namely Léa and Luc.

Apart from the introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into two major parts entitled "Les mots et les modes" and "Les modalités phrastiques".

In the first part, the major chapters concern clauses introduced by que and si, as well those with constructions such as quel que and si/ quelque/ tout/ pour ... que. And we are introduced to traits such as [+virtuel] [+reel].

In the second part, Lalaire treats propositions embedded in interrogative sub-clauses, followed by l'injonction, l'hypothèse, variation modale in negative sentences and finally what is called attraction modale in complétifs, relatifs and consécutifs. There are also a conclusion (about which more below), a bibliography (pp. 367-370) and a very complete index (pp. 371-377). The main purpose of the book is to show that there is no use of the subjunctive which cannot be explained, even if not all uses have the same referential and syntactic properties. Lalaire starts from a number of premisses. First, as stated above, he attaches great importance to native-speaker intuition; second, he views the correct use of the subjunctive as being based on simple, constant principles and thus on more than just an interminable list of valeurs; thirdly, he views the roles of lexis and of syntax as imbriqués in areas such as the use of the subjunctive. The key quotation (p. 2) states: «La logique du sens se révèle effectivement impuissante à rendre compte, à elle seule, de la variation modale». This is because analyses based purely on meaning have to treat «Qu'il l'ait fait, c'est certain» as illogical, especially if we compare (p. 7):

We can start with the traditional notion of subordination, or with its generative-transformational equivalent of embedding, but we need to go further and look at the illocutionary force of propositions, including those in subordinate position. Clearly, subordinate clauses do not have truth value in themselves, but they do contribute to the truth value of any declaratory sentence in which they are embedded. Lalaire examines the statut référentiel of embedded sentences. Unlike in examples (1) and (2), he finds, with examples such as:

that le terme gouverneur can work to left or right, so that mood variation, here, is not dependent on (surface) word order but is (p. 39) «un phénomène de dépendance hiérarchique dans un(e) projection maximale». This does not mean that Lalaire ignores semantics - quite the contrary. There is a lot of importance attached to it, for example in the sections on si or at various points where the exact sense of a verb is important or where there is a need to distinguish between the moods in sentences such as je cherche qqn qui est/ soit ... We can also refer to the passage (pp. 187-192) where Lalaire seeks to identify reasons for the difference in frequency of subjunctive use as between sentences with le seul on the one hand and those withle premie r/ le dernier on the other. Indeed, in various passages, the distinctions examined are ones of tiny differences or nuances of sense. If you like that sort of thing, as I do, this book is for you!

However, despite the considerable importance attached to semantic questions, the general approach, as the title suggests, is syntactic. A few quotations will show Lalaire's overall attitude.

La thèse que nous soutenons permet d'expliquer ce que les grammairiens présentent comme un subjonctif «illogique». (p. 47)
Il n'y a pas de subjonctif «illogique» comme le dit Brunot. C'est seulement la syntaxe qui l'emporte sur la logique du sens. (p. 350)
Puisque la logique du sens se révèle insuffisante pour rendre compte du fonctionnement de la variation modale dans les structures que nous venons d'étudier, pouvons-nous nous fonder sur la syntaxe [...]? Oui, probablement. (p. 354)
To see an example of a section where the facts seem to justify a syntactic approach, since the subjunctive is more or less acceptable in ways which are independent of sense, a good passage to read would be that from p. 264 to p. 273.

Other problems which concern those of us who are language teachers are also dealt with along the way, as part of more general arguments. Lalaire discusses (p. 26) why bien que is sometimes followed by the future. There are some ingenious explanations (pp. 62-3) for the widespread use of the subjunctive after après que in modern French. And later (p. 306ff.) we find discussion of the contrast between pas un and pas de.

I have not yet spoken of the book's conclusion. This is very clear and the author takes the opportunity to sum up the results of his work in a way critical of the traditional approach. In the course of this, however, Lalaire (p. 357ff.) is led to posit the existence of two subjunctives. More interestingly, in that section and right at the end (p. 363-5), he raises the whole question of tense and mood, pointing out that traditional analysis has identified 'modal' uses of tenses and also that temporal distinctions are present with at least some uses of his subjunctive type 2. This is not the first time that I have read through a long book only to find some of the most illuminating points made at the very end, in this case ones which raise questions of tense and modality (and not simply of mood).

When I was reaching the end of my work on Lalaire's book, I happened upon another review, namely BCLF (1999). This describes the work as an «un brillant exercice d'école», which I take to mean an object-lesson in how to apply a theoretical approach (Government and Binding in this case). This is a fair comment and perhaps fairer than my rather grudging assessment above.

More seriously, and despite many positive comments, the author of the BCLF review criticises Lalaire for being too one-sided in taking an explicitly syntactic approach:

Mais, reversant presque uniquement du côté de la syntaxe la raison de ces faits, au détriment d'une morphologie et plus encore de la sémantique - et c'est là un des effets de la méthodologie adoptée -, il n'est pas sûr que L. Lalaire échappe au reproche de ne favoriser qu'un des aspects d'un phénomène plus global, et peut-être même doté d'une fonction holistique. Et l'on pourra légitimement déplorer que l'auteur - même faisant épisodiquement référence à Berrendonner et à Ducrot - se soit privé des ressources complémentaires de la pragmatique.

I think that this is a little unfair. It is true that the references to Berrendonner and Ducrot are restricted to a few places in the book, but I did not feel that the limited use of pragmatics was a failing. And, as stated above, my impression is that semantics, in the general sense of 'systematic linguistic meaning', is made constant use of (for example, Lalaire speaks (p. 42) of lexical items «partageant leurs sèmes fondamentaux»); the author points out clearly which are the points where sense has some effect and those where (in his view) syntax plays the determining role. This all justifies the presence of approche syntaxique in the title.

The book has been carefully edited and there are few misprints. While I was preparing this review, there was some discussion amongst members of a web list as to whether Peter Lang was a 'good' publisher from the point of view of the (British) Research Assessment Exercise. Opinions were divided, but the overall impression was that the quality of works was variable, which is also my impression. But this work by Lalaire is good both from the point of view of content and from that of physical presentation (though it seems to have taken some time either to complete or to print, if one notes that the only reference later than 1992 is to the 1995 edition of Grevisse's Précis de grammaire française). I certainly think it should be a part of any collection of modern linguistic works on (and in) French.


BCLF, 1999 = Compte rendu (unsigned) of the above book by Lalaire, item 177688, p. 74 in: Bulletin Critique du Livre Français no.604, janvier 1999.
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