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"I do not know how to define him."

Translation:Je ne sais pas comment le définir.

February 23, 2013



Can you say: Je ne sais pas le définir. (without "comment")?


Usually the 'how' is implied when using savoir, so I don't know why it's necessary to use it here, anyone know why?

Why is "Je ne sais pas le définir." wrong?


Since "savoir + infinitive" = "to know how to + verb", I am puzzled about the use of comment here. I would say, "Je ne sais pas le définir" though I see that it's not "elegant" with the "pas". :-(


"Elegant" French would be more likely used in conditional: "je ne saurais le définir"

"Je ne sais pas le définir" is standard and massively used.


Thank you n6zs, Sitesurf and chrystaenerys for answering my question about omitting "comment."

Sitesurf, as always, I am grateful that you are willing to share your language intuition and tell us how a construction or word sounds to an educated native speaker. How lucky we students of French are to have your generous help!


ditto on that one, I am so happy to have Sitesurf!!


In English, we rarely speak of "defining" a person in this context. We would more likely say, "I don't know how to describe him."



Diana, you are right. Furthermore, in English define and describe have completely different meanings. Apparently in French they are close enuf to be interchangeable. Certainly not in English. DL should consider dropping this questionable question.


In French, "décrire" and "définir" are different as well.

What you find in a dictionary are definitions, not descriptions. For descriptions, you may use an encyclopedia.

If I am asked to define something, I will explain what it is, what it does, what it represents.
If I am asked to describe an object, I will use a few adjectives expressing what I see.

When it comes to people, there might be a bit of an overlap between what describes and what defines someone.

To describe a man, I can say he is tall and strong, dark-eyed and a few other things that will give you a full picture of what he is like.
To define a man, I can say he is top achiever or a shy dreamer or any other phrase that will give a full picture of who he is.


What you describe for the French distinction sounds fairly similar to the one in English. However, it doesn't help me understand why "décrire" is a required option to translate the English sentence. To my understanding, it doesn't really translate it well at all.


Both "définir" and "décrire" are accepted.

So, what's the problem?


Your first sentence above: "In French, "décrire" and "définir" are different as well" was in reply to a comment that included this statement: "in English define and describe have completely different meanings." Your extended explication shows how they are different, not interchangeable. That being the case, I think only "définir" should be accepted to translate "define."

The French meanings of the two words are very close to the English meanings. In English, certainly, they are not interchangeable.


I'm not convinced "décrire" should be.


DianaM mentioned above that "describe" would be preferred in English and that "define" was less natural when it comes to people.

My earlier comments stressed the fact that describing someone and defining someone are different notions and both possible in French.

To keep Francophones and Anglophones happy, we therefore decided to accept both verbs from En to Fr, remembering that the original sentence was written in French with "le" that can be a male human being or a masculine thing.

The word taught here is "définir", so what I can do is to change the Best En translation to "define it", so that the reverse translation from En to French remains straight.

However, if I do so, this discussion thread will disappear.


This seems to be one of those rocky places in translation. "Describe/décrire" is fairly straightforward, and in many cases so is "define/définir". But when it comes to talking about people, we seem to veer apart on the second pair.

I am quite interested in Sitesurf's explication of the meaning of the two French words in this situation. If I am correctly understanding her, "décrire" refers to outward characteristics, while "définir" refers more to inward traits of personality.

Unfortunately, these two words diverge rather more in English. As I said, it would be odd to be asked to "define" some person. If someone asked me that, I'd be inclined to enquire into what exactly they wanted to know. But the word can apply to people - for example, I might observe that somebody's behaviour in a particular situation "really defines him, doesn't it?" That is, it really sums up his character. So there is a connection between the French and the English meanings, but it's a bit....stretched.


I was asked by Duolingo to translate "I do not know how to define him." The word "define" in English is rarely used in this way and I would suggest dropping this exercise altogether.


Why is "Je ne sais pas comment le définir" wrong?


it is not wrong, it is more "plain", while skipping "pas" sounds more elegant. that is the only difference.


I thought people often skipped the ne in everyday speech? Is this the only situation in which skipping pas is acceptable, and even, as you say, elegant? (Note, I am not talking about the situations in which pas is replaced with plus or rien.)


In speech, French people often skip "ne".

In proper and written French, "ne" is always present with "plus", "jamais", "rien", "personne", "aucun/aucune".

Only "pas" may be skipped in very formal French and with some verbs (pouvoir, vouloir, savoir...)


How about "Je ne sais pas comment lui definir"..??...Right or Wrong?


Wrong, because "lui" means "to him" and "definir" is like "define": they are transitive (direct object, no preposition).

The direct object form of "he" is "le" (him)


"Je ne sais comment le définir" That's missing a "pas" so why is that OK?


A bunch of verbs can live in negative without "pas": pouvoir, savoir, cesser...

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