Standardized Test Preparation: The French SAT Subject Test II

Posted by Manoah Finston on 7/26/13 8:30 AM

Bonjour again, my dear readers! I’m back with the next installment of my posts about the SAT II French subject test.

As with our last discussion, we’re going to focus today on the sentence completion component of the test. We’ll again be looking at sentences that involve temporality, but in today’s example we will focus on markers of time—that is, words that convey time-based information, instead of the verb forms that we looked at in the previous post.

Let’s dive right in:

1. Notre professeur est ___________ en France, mais il reviendra la semaine prochaine.

(A)  actuellement

(B)  avant

(C)  présent

(D)  autrefois

A quick scan of the answer choices reveals that we’re dealing exclusively with time-markers. There are no verbs among the choices, so we can immediately see that what we’re asked to do in this question is find the time-marker that works the best within the temporal logic of the sentence. What do I mean by temporal logic? Well, when there’s smoke, there’s fire, and so when there are time-markers in a sentence, we are necessarily dealing with a sequence of events, with actions that happen in an order. The time-markers are meant to make that order clear, to illustrate what is happening in the past, present, and future relative to the sentence. So the temporal logic of the sentence is, at base, the time-order that the sentence is pointing to: the order in which the things being written about have happened/are happening/will happen.

With this in mind, let’s take a quick peek at the mechanics of the sentence.

We’ve got one subject throughout the whole sentence, although the subject is referred to in two ways. In the first clause, the subject is referred to as “Notre professeur” while in the second clause, this is shortened to the third person singular il. There is no doubt that the two clauses are talking about the same person. We also note that the two clauses have an identical construction that is very straightforward: Subject + verb + information. The clauses are separated by mais, and we note that a further distinction is provided by the difference in tense. This is important! Now we’re really entering into the time-order of the sentence. In the first clause, we see that the verb être has been conjugated in the present tense: “Our professor IS...” In the second clause, by contrast, we’ve got the verb revenir, to return or come back, in the futur simple: “He WILL return.”

The temporal logic of the sentence should now be clearer. We have a sentence that is talking about two actions, one taking place in the present, and one that will be taking place in the future. 

More, we know that they are in relation to one another, because the mais as a connecting word is meant to establish that relation. Because the word is mais, the equivalent of “but,” we also know that the relationship is oppositional—it is a contrast. So our sentence has a logic of something like “action in the present, happening now, BUT action in the future, happening next week.” How can we fill this in and complete the sentence, in accordance with this logic? 

Since the blank is asking for a time-marker in the first clause, we see that what we’re being asked for is a word that will synch up with the present tense—that is, a word that has something to do with the present moment. There’s no past tense in the sentence, and there’s no blank in the clause that has the verb in the future, so the time-marker that we need to fill in must be one that is related to the present, or even to the state of the present, to present-ness.

With this in mind, we can very quickly map the sentence before we start considering answer choices:

Our professor is [ marker related to the present ] in France, but he will return next week.  

Our instincts tell us that the word we seek should be the French equivalent of something like “presently,” “right now,” or “currently.” So let’s look for that equivalent among the answer choices below. Let’s work from the bottom up. The answer choice « autrefois » translates literally to “other times,” and that is more or less what it means. The word signifies a different time than the present, a time that is usually but not always in the past. Would the word make sense in the present context, then? Since we know that we’re looking explicitly for a marker about the present, it can’t make sense to be talking about a time that is by definition not the present. We can chuck this one immediately.

Moving up, what about « présent » ? We need a word that means “in the present,” and we can clearly see that the French and the English are very close here. This ought to be an open and shut case, right? Well, pas exactement. What kind of word is « présent » ? We note that we need an adverb in order to make the sentence work. We either need something with a –ly in it (presently, currently) or something with a preposition built in (at the moment, right now…). Does the French « présent » meet that requirement? We know that currently as written, the word is a masculine adjective, and that with an added article, it could become a noun, as in le présent, to mean the present time. As written, however, can it be an adverb? If we did a literal translation using présent just as an adjective, we would get “Our professor is present in France, but he will return next week.” This is technically grammatically correct, but does it mean what we want it to? We might say that a condition or a phenomenon is present in a country—“economic inequality is present…” for example—but a person? This sentence conveys that the professor is there, but it doesn’t get the temporal information of his being there right now. So unless the word can also be an adverb, this choice won’t work. If we’re unsure about that, we can always circle back.

If we move on to the next option, we’re looking at « avant », which we know means “before.” We can immediately think about time logic. Does it make logical sense to be talking about something before the present when we’ve already determined that we need a time-marker that denotes just the present? Nope! So this can go. 

The remaining choice is « actuellement ». This is an unbelievably handy word if you know its meaning, but it is a tricky one if you don’t. Like many other words in French, « actuellement » is a false cognate or false-friend: that is, a word that looks very much like an English word, but that actually means something else. And how fitting to have used “actually” in my definition, because that is the English word we’re talking about! The French resembles the English “actually,” but this is not the meaning of « actuellement ». In reality, the French word means currently, happening now. It is the adverbial form of the adjective actuel(le), meaning current or contemporaneous. The French word for the news, les actualités, is formed from this, the idea being that “the things that are current” are indeed news-worthy. 

We should always be on the lookout for false cognates, because they are extremely misleading. Another classic example concerns the French verbs attendre and assister. We might think at first glance that attendre means to attend and assister means to assist. But attendre actually means to wait, and assister means to attend! For the French equivalent of assist, we use the verb aider. So false cognates are definitely important to keep track of!

In the present example, we see that « actuellement » is the perfect fit for the temporal logic of the sentence, and there’s no doubt that it is in an adverb form: the –ment suffix achieves this. So we will go with (A) actuellement.

But what would we have done if we didn’t know the meaning of the word « actuellement »? 

We recall that we handily eliminated two choices, but some ambiguity remained about whether présent could be an adverb. Even if we didn’t know the exact meaning of actuellement, we would still have recognized it as an adverb from the –ment ending, something that présent very conspicuously lacks. With just this tiny piece of information, we could have concluded that actuellement was correct, because we knew all along that we needed an adverb to go in the blank in order for the sentence to work. While some of this simply boils down to memorizing vocabulary words and avoiding false-friends, a lot of it also comes from careful thinking and process of elimination.

No matter how we arrive at the answer, however, it is important to remember the initial steps we took to isolate the problem.

1. We scanned the answers for similarities, noting that they are all time-marker words.

2. Then we examined the structure of the sentence, separating the clauses and considering the verbs and tenses.

3. From there, we were able to see that the sentence was all about time order. And with that in mind, we were able to work through the answer choices critically and methodically.

This might seem like a complicated, time-consuming approach, but as I mentioned in the previous post, our brains do this kind of pattern-analysis constantly in the presence of language. The more we practice it for the additional languages we speak, the more “native” we become – the faster we accomplish this processing and the more natural it becomes for us.

Stay tuned for more insights from different parts of the SAT II French subject test in the coming weeks. Until then, as always, enjoy!

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Tags: French, french sat subject test