Reprise and Detachment in Dislocated Sentences of Spoken French

Grammar books teach us that pronouns replace nouns, but a very common feature of spoken French is reprise, where a noun and the pronoun that refers to it exist in the same sentence. In addition, the noun or noun phrase is moved to the beginning or end of the sentence (detachment) and the resulting sentence is called dislocated. Dislocations in spoken French can be as high as 50%, according to Rodney Ball’s Colloquial French Grammar, so anyone wanting to comprehend spoken French needs to be able to understand this frequent word order.

1. Instead of this textbook sentence:

Jean est médecin.

In spoken French, you are more likely to hear either:

Jean, il est médecin.
Il est médecin, Jean.

2. Instead of:

Où est la poubelle ?

You will probably hear:

Elle est où, la poubelle ?
or perhaps:
La poubelle, elle est où ?

3. Instead of:

Elle parle plus à son père.

You might hear:

Elle lui parle plus, à son père.
or even:
A son père, elle lui parle plus.

Ball provides some more statistics on detachment: “Subject noun phrases undergo detachment much more often than direct objects, and direct objects more often than indirect objects. Left detachment is about a third more frequent than right detachment for subjects, but right is more frequent than left for direct and indirect objects.” In the examples above, 1. is a subject, 2. is a direct object, and 3. is an indirect object. Number 1. is more likely to be left detached (at the beginning of the sentence) since it is a subject, and 2. and 3. are more likely to be right detached (at the end of the sentence) since they are objects.

I wish word order were this easy…

Joel Walz’s article on oral proficiency and French textbooks also mentions the lack of dislocations in educational materials. Traditional textbooks teach tonic pronouns, such as moi, toi, lui, etc. but not how they are used in dislocated sentences. The explanations are limited to subjects and detachment at the beginning of the sentence (or left detachment) as in Moi, je préfère le bleu. However, reprise of object pronouns is also possible as is right detachment. Therefore, common sentences in spoken French such as Lui, je l’ai pas vu or Je le connais pas, moi are not even considered.

For the nerds linguists, there’s a 320 page book all about dislocation in French!

As I’ve mentioned before thanks to reading numerous articles on grammar in language textbooks, textbook authors should be turning towards corpus linguistics so that students have a more accurate and authentic portrayal of the language, including written vs. spoken and formal vs. informal. Even the most recent studies on French textbooks (from 2009) indicate that they still do not teach enough stylistic variation and they do not represent what is most frequently used in the French language today.

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.