Questions about language and its teaching regularly generate media interest; we saw this again recently with the reform of the agreement of past participles. Many opinions have been expressed on social networks, which unfortunately carry their share of inaccuracies. We would like here to correct certain erroneous perceptions in order to better refocus the public debate around the real issues.

Let us first specify that it was not the teachers of Quebec who proposed the reform of the past participle. This proposal comes from the Conseil international de la langue française (CILF), a pan-francophone organization based in Paris, and it has been supported by various associations and organizations, including the International Federation of French Teachers in 2016 and the Belgian Association teachers of French in 2017. The Quebec Association of French Teachers (AQPF) joined this movement in 2021. And the debates continue, as they should, in the Francophonie.

The past participle agreement rules do not always reflect the general logic of agreements in French, as they were partly copied from the Italian language in the 16th century. They have often been criticized for 400 years, notably by famous writers such as Molière and Voltaire. Over time, they became more complex with the addition of exceptions which each time tended towards more invariability. It is now time, think the specialists, to restore consistency in these rules in order to make them more consistent with the actual functioning of French.

Thus, the reform proposed by the CILF represents a clarification that does not fundamentally distort the language. In Quebec, it corresponds to the rules already taught in elementary school, and it would remove all the “exceptions” taught in high school, which must be repeated until university. Many teachers are exasperated to teach these special cases which are most often forgotten as soon as the exams are over, since their frequency is too low in the real texts. They want to focus their efforts on regular cases to ensure control. This is why they generally support the proposed reform.

The Ministry cannot change the language, but it can control teaching priorities and examination content based on expert recommendations.

In France, the Ministry of Education has sometimes issued directives to modify the correction of essays. Thus, the Haby decree of 1976 had requested that we no longer penalize the agreement of the past participle preceded by the pronoun “en” nor the invariability of the participle “laissé” followed by an infinitive. This last tolerance was then endorsed by the French Academy in 1990.

Ideally, we would like the Ministère to be able to bring together linguists and people with teaching experience around a table when the time comes to review program requirements and exam correction criteria.

Once the facts have been rectified, the debate can continue.