June 23rd, 2020

parsing

I've been making my way through Cuvier's La regne animal, one of the very first books on comparative anatomy and its implications for taxonomy, in the original, as there doesn't seem to be a really trustworthy English translation. Having gotten through the premise and into the introduction, I ran into a real poser of a sentence:

Mais il s'en faut de beaucoup qu'elle la puisse toujours.

This comes after a sentence saying that natural history occasionally uses the rigorous methods of the physical sciences, and I could figure out that en (="of that") referred back to that sentence. So I got as far as Mais il s'en faut de beaucoup = "But it lacks [se faut] of that much." But what was the following clause saying?

I guessed, and was able to check, that puisse was a subjunctive form of pouvoir = "to be able." So that led me to looking up an explanation of the subjunctive, which my courses in French hadn't really taught me, and which is a tricky form in any language that has it. And I found that it's used often to describe something that is unlikely to happen, or that is wished for but not expected. If the thing actually happened, the indicative would be used.

So okay, I said, let's change it to the indicative: elle la peut toujours = "it can always [do] it." And then the subjunctive seems to be "[that] it could always [do] it." The "it" [la] seems to refer back to en and thus to the previous sentence again. And at that point it came together for me that "que" was a subordinating conjunction in this case, and thus that the whole clause was part of the syntax of the preceding clause. Literally, "But it lacks of that much that it could always do it." Turning that into idiomatic English, I come up with "But it falls far short of always being able to do so," which seems to make sense in that context, as contrasting with the previous sentence: Sometimes it does X/But it can't always do X.

Whew! But I feel as if I'm partly getting my French back and partly gaining a better feel for its syntactic peculiarities.