French si is the heir of two different Latin forms, the adverb sic (so), the source of functions III-V below, and the conjunction si (if), the source of functions I, II, and VI. In the Middle Ages the conjunction developed as se, so that for a while there was a distinction in the forms, but since that time se has gone back to being si, and hence (alas!) identically similar to the adverb si.
Table of Contents
- I. The Conjunction Si = “If” in Conditions
- II. The Conjunction Si = “If/Whether” Introducing Indirect Yes/No Questions
- III. The Intensifying Adverb Si = “So, Such”
- IV. The Adverb Si = Aussi (in Negative Comparisons)
- V. The Adverb Si = “However” in an Indefinite Expression with Subjunctive
- VI. Adverbial Si = “Yes!” in Response to a Negative Question or Statement
I. The Conjunction Si = “If” in Conditions
- Si tu veux, je t’accompagnerai. (If you wish, I will go with you.)
II. The Conjunction Si = “If/Whether” Introducing Indirect Yes/No Questions
- On ne sait pas s’il pleuvra ou non. (We don’t know whether [or: if] it will rain or not.)
- « …Je ne sais si le style / Pourra vous en paraître assez net et facile, / Et si du choix des mots vous vous contenterez. » (“I don’t know if the style / May seem to you clear and simple enough, / And if the choice of words will please you.”) – Molière, Le Misanthrope
III. The Intensifying Adverb Si = “So, Such”
- Il y a de si belles scènes, des morceaux si grands et si terribles… (There are such beautiful scenes, passages so great and so terrible…)
- Vous êtes si belle, si belle! (You are so beautiful, so beautiful!)
- Il est si stupide qu’il croit tout ce qu’on lui dit. (He is so stupid he believes everything you tell him.)
IV. The Adverb Si = Aussi (in Negative Comparisons)
|Gérard est aussi intelligent que Patrick.
(Gerard is as intelligent as Patrick.)
|Gerard n’est pas si intelligent que Patrick.
(Gerard is not as intelligent as Patrick.)
On n’est jamais si heureux ni si malheureux qu’on s’imagine.
One is never as happy or as unhappy as one thinks one is. – La Rochefoucauld
V. The Adverb Si = “However” in an Indefinite Expression with Subjunctive
- Si représentatifs que soient les personnages de Dostoïevsky… (However representative Dostoyevsky’s characters may be…)
- Si fortes que soient vos objections… (However strong your objections may be…)
For more on this construction (in which aussi, tout, pour, or quelque may be substituted for si), see the Language Files Aussi, the Many Meanings of, Part V, and French Concessions, IV. “However” Expressions.
VI. Adverbial Si = “Yes!” in Response to a Negative Question or Statement
Modern French has two words for “yes.” The ordinary, bland one is oui; but when you want to contradict a negative expectation with a robust countering affirmation, you use si. This tiny form thus combines a vigorous assertion with an equally vigorous negation.
- Vous n’êtes pas contre les jeunes? —Si! j’aime les vieux. (“You’re not against young people, are you?” “Oh, yes, I am! I only like old people.”) –Jean-Luc Godard, À bout de souffle
- Elle n’a pas d’enfants? –Oh! si. Elle en a une douzaine. (“She doesn’t have any children?” “Oh, yes! She has about twelve of them.”)
- Il n’est pas français. —Oh! mais si, et de vieille souche. (“He isn’t French.” “Oh yes he is, and he comes from a very old French family.”)
Si is used for “yes” even when the preceding negative is not seriously meant.
- N’as-tu pas honte? —Si, j’en ai. (“Aren’t you ashamed?” “Yes, I am.”)