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La syntaxe est une faculté de l’âme.

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On a trop réduit la connaissance de la langue à la simple mémoire. Faire de l’orthographe le signe de la culture, signe des temps et de sottise.

Mais c’est la manoeuvre du langage qui importe, l’enchaînement des actes, l’acquisition de l’indépendance des mouvements de l’esprit; et déliés, la liberté de leur composition dans le discours…

La syntaxe est un système d’habitudes à prendre qu’il est bon de raviver quelquefois et de rajuster en pleine conscience. En ces matières, comme en toutes, il faut se soumettre aux règles du jeu, mais les prendre pour ce qu’elles sont, ne point y attacher une autorité excessive. Ne point tirer vanité de se rappeler une quantité d’exceptions. Ne point oublier qu’au temps des plus grands écrivains, les libertés étaient aussi bien plus grandes. Leur langue était plus complexe, mieux construite, plus «organisée» que la nôtre; mais je confesse qu’ils étaient assez divisés sur la concordance des temps, incertains quant aux accords, inconstants et parfois surprenants dans leur manière d’accommoder les participes.

Choses Tues by Paul Valéry, first published in 1932, republished in Tel Quel, Gallimard, Paris, 1941, p. 25

Here’s the English translation, available online:

Syntax is a faculty of the soul.

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Knowledge of a language has too often been regarded as merely a matter of memory. The idea of treating orthography as a sign of culture is a sign of the times―and of stupidity.

But what matters is the handling of the language, the continuity in the activity of writing, and the independence thus given to the activities of the mind. And, once these have free play, the freedom of combination in the text.

Syntax is a set of habits the be formed, habits which it is sometime well to renovate and brush up, in full awareness of what one is doing. In this field of literary action, as in all others, we must abide by the rules of the game, but accept them for what they are worth and without attaching too much authority to them. Nor should we pride ourselves on remembering a number of exceptions. It must be borne in mind that in the days of our greatest writers the liberties permitted were, also, far greater. True, their language was more complex, better built, more “organized” than ours; but I must admit that they were of several minds as to the concordance of tenses, unsure about grammatical agreements, inconsistent and sometime surprising in their handling of participles. (“Asides” published in Analects by Paul Valéry, from The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, vol. 14, edited by Jackson Mathews, translated by W. H. Auden, first published in English in 1970, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., p. 15)

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