FR: ai-je cru comprendre - inversion sujet-verbe


"Il habite.... dans une maison moins modeste que je ne l'aurais supposé, mais qu'il partage, ai-je cru comprendre, avec tois de ses frères et leurs familles." (Périple de Baldassare par Amin Maalouf). This is a sentence from a diary of the main character, talking about events occuring during the day. Why is the inversion? Why is the mixing of the present with the "passé composé"? I tried to look up inversion in the "Le bon usage", but I got lost. I also know about the usage of the present, talking about past event, yet here the narrator, strangely (for me) falls back to past tense as well. Thanks for any help.
  • jann

    English - USA
    The inversion is a stylistic choice and not grammatically required. :)
    EDIT: I'm sorry, that statement was horribly ambiguous. Inserting "ai-je cru comprendre" as an incise is the optional stylistic choice, but once you have chosen to use the incise, the inversion is required (just as if you were relating dialog, compare to §437 of Bescherelle-Grammaire). However, you can simply reformulate without the incise if you want to avoid the inversion.

    As for the usage of the past tense in the inverted clause: it refers to an event, specifically, the event when someone told the author something that implied the house is shared between four brothers. The author admits that there was something ambiguous about the statement. The statement, and more relevantly the author's interpretation/understanding of it, happened at a precise moment in the past, and so he uses passé composé to relate it. In short, the tenses in the passage reflect the relative timing of the events as viewed from the moment when the author writes his diary entry. The man lives in the house (present), the author would have guessed (past conditional) that the house was less humble, the author understood (past) that the man shares (present) the dwelling with his brothers...

    Does that help? :)
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    Senior Member
    1. inversion : see this thread
    This is the case of an "incise", a clause added between two commas or at the end of a sentence, to mention who is speaking or to make a remark which interrupt the story.
    "J'ai faim, dit-il, en se dirigeant vers la cuisine".
    "C'est moi qui ai mangé le chocolat, avoua-t-il".
    "Il exagère, pensais-je, il n'est pas tout seul !"
    The inversion is mandatory, here.

    2. tenses :
    I assume you're speaking about : ai-je cru comprendre
    The author chose the passé composé. The story is told in present, as you saw, to make the narration more vivid, but when he makes his own remark, this one is not in the story and he reports it in the true tense when he made it : the past.

    Another example : when he says "moins modeste que je ne l'aurais supposé" he uses the "conditionnel passé".
    - conditionnel, because he expresses an hypothesis,
    - passé, because, obviously, as in the first case, this personal comment takes place in the past, not at the moment when he tells the story. It's only a retrospective hypothesis. At the moment, he knows the house is larger than he thought.
    "J'aurais supposé que sa maison était plus modeste, mais elle ne l'était pas, elle était moins modeste" = I would have assumed that... but it was not.

    Does it help ?

    Jann was quicker than me ! She tells the inversion is a choice... I don't think so, imo, it's mandatory here.
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    English - USA
    Hello itka, :)

    Actually, I think we agree... I just wasn't very clear. :eek: I will edit my post above...

    The decision to use une incise is the stylistic choice, and it is not mandatory. The author could have written something like je crois avoir compris (que) or j'ai cru comprendre que... without inversion instead. But having chosen the incise, the inversion is required. :)
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