How do I spell forms of -eter and -eler verbs?

In a previous section, we saw that French verbs ending in -eler and -eter can follow one of two spelling conventions. Either they can double the consonant (j'appelle) or they can add a grave accent to the preceding e: j'achète. The basic situation reported by most accounts of French grammar is that:

  • Most verbs double the consonant, as appeler;
  • A handful of verbs, including acheter, take the accent instead.

So that leaves us with the problem of deciding, for a particular verb, whether it is one of the "handful of verbs" that is spelt with a grave accent rather than a double consonant. We'll see in a moment that this isn't as straightforward as a simple list. We'll also see that the grave accent isn't even restricted to just a "handful" of verbs.

Verbs generally spelt with è

There is pretty much a consensus among dictionaries and grammrs that the following verbs are spelt with è rather than doubling the consonant. All compounds of these verbs are implicitly spelt with the è as well. For the sake of completeness, I list what is hopefully the majority of compounds in common use (or that have been in common use), but not all of the authors surveyed list all of the compounds.

Base verbCompounds
acheterpréacheter, racheter, suracheter
celerdéceler, receler
ciseleraciseler, reciseler
écarteler-
corseter1-
crocheter-
démanteler-
haleter-
geler congeler, dégeler, décongeler, désurgeler, recongeler, regeler, resurgeler, surgeler
marteler-
modelerremodeler
peler-

Verbs on which there is less consensus

Looking up a verb's conjugation in a single grammar book or dictionary can make the issue of which spelling to use appear uncontroversial. But if we take a wider view across different sources (both over time and also sources published around the same time), and if we look at current usage, a much messier picture emerges. There are a number of -eler and -eter verbs where either (a) actual usage varies, or (b) different sources disagree on which spelling to use (so that accounts don't reflect actual usage). What is worse, most accounts do not quote which source, if any, they are basing their judgements on.

In preparing this article, I surveyed a number of dictionaries and grammars to see which spelling they proposed (further sources may be added over time). The table below shows those words where there was a lack of consensus. The sources currently included are as follows:

  • Laporte, J. (1844) A French Grammar, a didactic grammar. It appears unusual among grammars of the early 1800s in actually making direct reference to -eler and -eter verbs. It gives a suspiciously short list of such verbs which it nonetheless states are the only ones to take the e grave spelling.
  • Littré, E. (1877) Dictionnaire de la langue française. Regarded as a "classic" dictionary and still used as a point of reference for modern works (Bescherelle 2006 quotes it as one of its sources).
  • Académie (1935) Dictionnaire de L'Académie fran├žaise, 8th ed. This appears to be the first edition of the Dictionary to explicitly give spellings for the verbs in question. Later works such as Thomas (1971) Dictionnaire des difficultés de la langue française are based heavily on the judgements of this dictionary. Note too that the Oxford-Hachette and Petit Robert editions surveyed largely-- albeit not totally-- follow Académie (1935).
  • Pinchon & Wagner (1962) Grammaire du français classique et moderne.
  • Conseil Supérieur de la langue française (1990) Rectifications de l'orthographe. This was a proposed (but largely ignored or refuted) spelling reform that, among other things, proposed the e grave spelling for all -eter and -eler verbs (e.g. j'appèle).
  • Oxford-Hachette (1996) The electronic version of the French-English dictionary.
  • Petit Robert (1996) The Petit Robert monolingual dictionary is pretty much a household name. For speed, I actually used the electronic version published in 1997.
  • Hawkins, R. & Towell, R. (2001) French Grammar and Usage, 2nd ed. This is a relatively comprehensive grammar of French aimed at intermediate to advanced learners of French.
  • Price, G. (2003) A Comprehensive French Grammar, 5th ed. Arguably aimed at more advanced learners than the previous work, and commonly recommended to university students of French.
  • Bescherelle (2006) La Conjugaison pour tous One of a number of didactic guides published in French by Editions Hatier under the "Bescherelle" label. Like most of the guides, it is based on a slightly traditional model of grammar familiar to many French school students. But is comprehensive, listing over 8,000 verbs, including some not present in the Petit Robert. It also takes into account the proposed 1990 spelling reform.

Here, then, are the opinions of these various sources on the conjugation of some -eler and -eter verbs:

Verb Laporte
(1844)
Littré
(1877)
Acad.
(1935)
Pinchon/
Wagner
(1962)
ConsSup
(1990)
Oxford-
Hachette
(1996)
Le Petit Robert
(1996)
Hawkins & Towell
(2001)
Perrez et al
(2002)
Price
(2003)
Bescherelle
(2006)
Current Internet usage
becqueter (tt) - tt è è tt tt2 (tt) - either tt tt (90%)
bourreler è è ll - (è) - ll - - - ll N/A
breveter (tt) tt tt è è tt tt (tt) - either tt either3
(se) caleter - - - (tt) è - tt - - - è Always calter
colleter è è tt (tt) è tt tt - - - tt N/A
coqueter è tt tt - (è) - tt - - - tt N/A
étiqueter è è tt (tt) è tt tt tt è - tt tt (> 98%)
fileter (tt) è (tt) - è è è - - - è è (> 99%)
fureter (tt) either è (tt) è è è è è either è è (94%)
griveler (ll) è ll è è - - - - - ll N/A
harceler è è è è è è è (ll) è either either è (92.7%)
trompeter è either tt - (è) - tt - - - tt N/A

A couple of points need mentioning to allow this table to be interpreted correctly:

  • The forms in brackets are not actually given by the respective author, but are implied because they are not present in a list that is intended by that author to be exhaustive.
  • A dash means that the author does not say either way, and their view cannot be implied. In the case of a dictionary, that means that the word does not figure in the dictionary! In the case of the grammars, that means that either: (a) the author's list was not intended to be exhaustive; or (b) it would be unreasonable to expect the author to consider the verb in questioon, either because at the time of writing it is/was archaic or slang4.
  • The Current Internet Usage column contains approximate percentages derived from Google searches for alternate terms (e.g. ils harcellent vs. ils harcèlent).
  • An N/A in the latter column means that the verb in question is nowadays archaic or obsolete.

Discussion

Our underlying question was: how do I spell forms of -eter and -eler verbs?. The table above shows that for some verbs, the answer is basically "how knows...?". The situation is a bit of a mess to say the least.

Widely-used contemporary grammars such as Price (2003) and Hawkins & Towell (2001) state a particular spelling for a verb. But they often do not quote the source behind their opinion, which can differ from actual usage or from the opinion of other grammars and dictionaries. Where a source is quoted, a typical root for an author's opinion is one of the "classic" dictionaries, namely Acad (1935) or Littré (1877). Quite apart from the issue of why a century-old dictionary should drive the opinion on current orthography, these two "authorities" actually disagree with one another in several cases. (And in any case, their decision is basically arbitrary.)

The Académie's proposed 1990 spelling reform throws a further spanner in the works. If it were ever adopted to any significant degree, then for some verbs (becqueter, étiqueter plus "normal" of -eler and -eter verbs such as jeter) this reform would actually encourage a profusion of different forms in cases where current usage is fairly well sided in favour of one form (but not, unfortunately, the form that the Académie has opted for!).

Where possible, this dictionary gives those spellings that appear to be more common in current Internet usage. Where such data isn't available (for archaic verbs), the dictionary attempts to follow the majority opinion of other sources that give an opinion (even though that "majority" is not always much above 50%).

Some other verbs...

Finally, Bescherelle (2006) lists these verbs as taking the e grave spelling. The Petit Robert concords with the e grave spelling for bégueter. Apart from that, none of the other sources surveyed give information about these verbs, of which I believe some are obsolete:

babeler, bégueter, embreler, émoucheter, s'encasteler, épinceler, handeler6, moueter, rapiéceter, sukkeler6.

The verbs moucheter, rameter6 and tûteler6 are said to conjugate like jeter.


Notes:
1. Neither Laporte nor Pinchon & Wagner have corseter but the other authors surveyed have it as taking è.
2. becter is listed as a separate verb.
3. Google reported 180 instances of ils brevettent vs 175 of ils brevètent.
4. Nowadays, slang words are commonly considered to be part of the language just like any other word and we would expect a modern comprehensive grammar or dictionary to inlcude them; but this is a relatively recent stance.
5. These figures may be slightly skewed, for example, by web pages that contain quotations from non-contemporary literature, or indeed from web pages about French grammar. Skimming down the results returned suggested that this was not a significant enough problem to mask the general trend that these percentages show.
6. Belgicism.


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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.