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il écoutait chanter les oiseaux - he was listening to the birds singing

I am not entirely clear about the use and the position of chanter in this sentence.

In the English sentence I think the word singing is being used as a gerund (noun form of a verb). Furthermore, I understand that to translate an English gerund into French you use an infinitive. If this is correct, why is the infinitive form of the verb chanter placed before les oiseaux ?

Any help would be much appreciated.

August 24, 2017



I think it's an artistic inversion that doesn't work in English, I find it a bit weird too because it's hard to translate it directly, the closest may be "he was listening to the singing birds".


Not exactly artistic, but more refined than 'il écoutait les oiseaux chanter'. I mean 'Il écoutait chanter les oiseaux' is literary, without sounding overly poetic. 'Il écoutait le chant des oiseaux' is possibly more suited for poetry.


Thanks Marc, your help is always very useful!



In English writers sometimes reverse the word order to make a sentence more descriptive. For example instead of saying:

The tall grey ships ...

you can write

The ships tall and grey


It depends, you can say "il écoutait chanter les oiseaux", but saying "il écoutait les oiseaux chanter" sounds more proper. It is not really a big deal in fact.

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