Friday’s French – Important, importance, substantial, substantiel

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Unlike English, important in French can indicate quantity where in English, it only means “of great import or significance”.

e.g. Il y avait un nombre important de demandes : there were a large number of applications.

Il y a un nombre important d'églises en France

Il y a un nombre important d’églises en France – There are a large number of churches in France

In English, we have to choose among a whole range of words such as large, considerable, substantial, big and extensive!

You sometimes see substantiel in French but it is often a loan translation or calque. Substantiel is used more restrictively in French.

Nourriture substantielle = nourishing food

Exposé très substantiel = An essay with a lot of substance

Only in sentences such as il a obtenu des advantages substantiels = he obtained a substantial number of advantages  is it used in the typical English meaning of the word.

My Chambers dictionary gives SIXTEEN different meanings for substantial :

  1. Of or having substance
  2. Being a substance
  3. Essential
  4. Actually existing
  5. Real
  6. Corporeal, material
  7. Solid
  8. Stable
  9. Solidly based
  10. Durable
  11. Enduring
  12. Firm, stout, strong
  13. Considerable in amount
  14. Bulk
  15. Well-to-do, wealth, influential
  16. Of firm, solid or sound value.

WOW! What a useful word. Unfortunately it doesn’t give examples but I’ll try and find some. You can see that the solution in French is different every time.

He sustained a substantial loss = Il a subi une perte considérable.

My father was a very substantial man in his heyday = Mon père était un homme imposant dans la force de l’âge.

That is a very substantial argument = C’est un argument de poids.

The house has a substantial structure = La maison a une structure solide.

He offered substantial proof of his innocence = Il avait des preuves convaincantes de son innocence.

They run a substantial business = Ils ont une grosse affaire.

They are in substantial agreement = Ils sont d’accord sur l’essentiel.

His objections were substantial = Ses objections étaient bien fondées.

She comes from a substantial Scottish family = Elle vient d’une famille prospère écossaise

Une modification substantielle d’un contrat  concerns the substance of an agreement i.e. an essential component such as remuneration or qualification. This is called a substantial amendment in English but un élément substantiel d’un contrat is an essential part of a contract and not a substantial part.

Substantial completion is a term widely used  in construction and applies when the contractor has substantially but not completely performed the contract requirements. In French this is known simply as achèvement but we’re getting into legal subtleties here!

Do you know any other examples in which important/important and substantial/substantiel have different meanings in English and French?

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3 Responses to Friday’s French – Important, importance, substantial, substantiel

  1. William Kendall says:

    Not off hand- I think you cover it quite well.

  2. Susan Walter says:

    I tend to translate important as ‘significant’.

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