Friday’s French – the subtleties of si

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I’ve already talked about the fact that you don’t say oui merci in French but oui, je veux bien, but I didn’t think to mention si.

An Australian friend living in France and attending French lessons asked me the following question:

If someone repeats my order and says pas de lait (no milk) and that is correct I should answer with si not oui. Is this correct? I hope so. It would mean another consolidated learning.

I’m afraid I had to disappoint her. If she answered si it would mean that she DID want milk. She should answer “oui, c’est ça”.

Si, which is not Spanish as I thought the first time I heard it, is used in French to mean “yes” when refuting a negative that has just been used.

I think the best way to explain is by giving examples.

Tu n’en veux plus? (you don’t want any more?). If you say si it means, yes, I do want some more.

Finalement tu ne viens pas? (you’re not coming after all?). If you want to answer “Yes I am”, then you say si ou si je viens. However, if you say “oui je viens” you’d still be understood.

Il n’y a plus personne? (there’s no one left?). If there is someone left, you’d say si but if there is no one, you’d say, “non“.

Tu ne sortiras pas ce soir ! (you’re not going out tonight!). If you want to protest vehemently, you’d reply Si (oh, yes I am!).

You’re standing on a street corner. “Je ne vois pas de restaurant” (I can’t see a restaurant). Your friend says “Si, si, c’est de l’autre côté de la rue“. The si, si used here doesn’t have a literal translation. It’s refuting the fact that you’ve said you can see the restaurant but we’d hardly say “yes, it’s on the other side of the street”.

The rest of the time, si means “if” except when it means “while”, or “whether”. I’ve often noticed that the more subtle “while” is often misunderstood by Anglosaxons.

During the recent Hollande/Triereviller break-up, the Président said the following at his annual new year press conference:

Ce n’est donc ni le lieu, ni le moment de le faire [i.e. discussing his private life). Mais si je ne répondrai à aucune question aujourd’hui sur le sujet, je le ferai avant le rendez-vous que vous avez fixé. 

When I read the same quote in English in the New York Times (among others), I was somewhat surprised:

“This is neither the time nor the place to do so. If I do not go into detail about this today, then I will do so before the meeting which you refer to.”

That is not what he was saying. The “si” in this case does not mean “if”. He had absolutely no intention of speaking about the matter during the press conference. He was saying “While I will not answer any questions about this day, I will do so before the meeting which you refer to”. Not exactly the same, is it!

I agree that it’s very subtle in French which is not the diplomatic language par excellence for nothing. The meaning is probably easier to understand in the following example:

Si lui est aimable, sa femme est arrogante. That does not mean “If he is pleasant, his wife is arrogant” which would express the idea that his wife is only arrogant when he is being pleasant. The sentence actually means “while (ou whereas) he is very pleasant his wife (on the other hand) is arrogant”.

Do you have any other examples?

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9 thoughts on “Friday’s French – the subtleties of si”

  1. Love your Friday French posts, Rosemary – thanks for yet another interesting and helpful look into the language.

    I’m still working on ‘oui, je veux bien’ vs. ‘oui, merci’ 🙂


  2. Ah yes, the Spanish confusion went even further for me. My first home in France was in the Pyrenees. I had never heard the southern accent before and it took me a while to realise they couldn’t all be Spanish immigrants!

  3. *puts hand up* I know another one!
    Sometimes, “si” can be used to indicate emphasis. For example, “Il est si mignon” means “he is so cute”. Squeak the kitten hears me say it French friends all the time (because he really is so cute).

  4. Hi Rosemary! Very good explanation, you are spot on!

    One small addition: “si” can be used to oppose strongly (this is in the case you call ‘refuting a negative’) as in:
    -Tu ne sortiras pas ce soir ! (you won’t go out tonight!)
    – Si ! (oh yes I will!)
    and one small “rectification” about “Si lui est aimable, sa femme est arrogante” you are correct in your translation/explanation but this is coming from the “lui” used in the sentence… I don’t think this form we use (quite often!) is correct. Take the femine form it will be “si elle est aimable” so the masculine has to be “(si il) s’il est aimable” not “lui”.
    So if you say “si elle est aimable, son mari est arrogant” you have absolutely no way to know unless “par contre” is added. “”si elle est aimable, son mari, par contre, est arrogant” then there is no ambiguity….
    Another way to say the same thing will be “il est aimable (tandis que/alors que) sa femme est arrogante”.
    I’m not sure my english is very clear…. but I am sure you understand, so if you want to rephrase it for your readers…

    To add to Wendy’s “si” meaning “so” I will suggest “si” in “except that…”
    “je serai bien venu si ce n’est que je suis en vacances”
    (I would have come, except that I am on holiday”)
    Bon oui-quinde 🙂

    1. Hi Ago, and thanks for your two suggestions.

      I checked with my French translators’ list (tlsfrm) and there is a general consensus that Si lui est aimable, sa femmes est arrogante is correct, attested by the Grand Robert and Racine.

      « Mais lui, voyant en moi la fille de son frère,

      Me tint lieu, chère Élise, et de père, et de mère. »

      (Racine, Esther, Acte I, scène 1)

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