French prepositions "à" and "de" in infinitival complements : A pragma-semantic analysis

Abstract : We take the position, represented by some other linguists, which is opposed to the idea that the French prepositions "à" and "de", in the expressions like "hésiter à faire" and "envisager de faire", are "empty" or devoid of any meaning and that they only fulfill a syntactic role. However, it is not really the "meaning" of these prepositions that we are trying to describe, but their pragmatic function. By "pragmatic function" we understand compatibility with some communicative intention of the speaker. This follows the general claim of J. Cervoni (1991) that the study of the prepositions should be placed within the frame of what he calls "pragmatics of the intentional". A pragmatic approach has also been adopted by P. Cadiot (1997), who relates the preposition "de" to a value of "factivity" of the event, expressing that the event is "taken for granted", whereas the opposite is considered to be true for the preposition "à". But, as the author admits himself, this explanation does not account for all the cases. Informed by the ideas of P. Cadiot, as well as those of F. Lebas (1999), we formulate a pragmatic hypothesis attributing a "marked" status to the preposition "à" instead of "de", and according to which à appears when the speaker's intention is to introduce a "not taking for granted" presentation of the event, or a point of view according to which the event is somehow "problematic". The value of the preposition "de", on the contrary, consists in a "not problematic" view of the fact, without, however, meaning that the fact is necessarily "taken for granted" or presupposed (Fraczak, 2003). In this contribution, we undertake to develop these ideas, using some elements of the theory of polyphony of O. Ducrot (1984). We will try to show that the preposition "à" is compatible with marking a real or a potential confrontation of points of view concerning a fact or an event (thus making it problematic in some way). Apart from the constructions "verb + à/de + infinitive", we include in our analysis expressions with an adjective (eg. "apte à faire" / "capable de faire") and with a noun (eg. "capacité à faire" / "capacité de faire").
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Contributor : Lidia Lebas-Fraczak <>
Submitted on : Thursday, November 28, 2013 - 11:44:20 AM
Last modification on : Wednesday, November 29, 2017 - 3:16:02 PM

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Lidia Lebas-Fraczak. French prepositions "à" and "de" in infinitival complements : A pragma-semantic analysis. Typological Studies in Language ( Adpositions : Pragmatic, semantic and syntactic perspectives), 2008, 74, pp.171-190. ⟨hal-00910810⟩

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