French Mnemonic Devices: “Les ‘si’ n’aiment pas les ‘-rais'”

All English speakers are familiar with “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.” It’s part and parcel of growing up in an English-speaking country. Mnemonic devices like this one not only help us to learn faster and better, but make it easy to remember grammar rules and other tidbits of knowledge years later!

I Before E Cartoon.jpg

If mnemonic devices work so well, why aren’t we using them in foreign language courses? After all, French élèves have their own little sayings for learning spelling and grammar rules!

Each blog post in this series will showcase a different trick for learning and remembering important language rules, tricky spellings, or difficult exceptions.


– LES ‘SI’ N’AIMENT PAS LES -RAIS –

“Would” is a tricky thing in French. In English, we use I would to refer to both the past and future. “I would have gone yesterday” or “I would go tomorrow” are perfectly acceptable phrases.

Will and would are actually fixed versions of what used to be fully-functional Old English verb with past, present, and future tenses: willan (to wish, to want). Over time, the other conjugations of willan aside from ‘will’ and ‘would’ disappeared and these remaining vestiges took on their own meaning (the same thing has happened with may/might, can/could, and shall/should).

In French, the conditional tense can be applied to any verb to create a future, hypothetical situation. And only future! (When used in a past context, the conditionnel is called ‘le futur du passé’ and refers to a future from a past point-of view).

As a reminder that pas hypothetical situations use imparfait, people use the mnemonic device: les ‘si’ n’aiment pas les -rais.

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So, rather than “Si j’aurais su, je ne l’aurais pas fait” (If I would have know, I wouldn’t have done it), we must write “Si j’avais su, je ne l’aurais pas fait”.

The mnemonic means that the word ‘si’ should never be following directly by a verb with the ‘-rais’ sound ending (which is the case for conditionnel verbs conjugated for je, te, il, elle, on, and ils and elles).

In the above example, “Si j’aurais su, je ne l’aurais pas fait” is therefore wrong because it puts a verb ending in ‘-rais’ in the same clause as ‘si’.

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Example Sentences:

  • S’il faisait beau, je serais allé à la plage.
  • J’aurais complété mes devoirs si j’avais plus de temps.
  • S’il pleuvait, mon père ne sortirait pas de la maison.
  • Tu te serais endormi si tu étais fatigué.

*Note that the conditionnel is always in the non-si clause of the sentence!

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