Celui-ci est plus important que celui-là.

Celui-ci est plus important que celui-là.

Suh-lwee-SEE ay plew zaa-por-tah kuh suh-lwee-LAH. Click below to hear this!

This one is more important than that one.

Talk about ways to confuse learners! This is surely one of them. Let’s start with celui: it means the one, referring to something previously mentioned or indicated: a book (un livre), for example, or a movie (un film). The thing has to be of the masculine gender. A feminine thing would be celle. The masculine and feminine plurals of these two words are, respectively, ceux and celles.

These words don’t stand alone. They need a prop. One such prop is the little suffixes tacked on to the end: -ci and -là. If ici means here, then -ci is an abbreviation of the same word. Likewise, means there.

Put them together, and you have a way to say this one and that one. In English, of course, you need different words to express this concept. The interesting thing is that it’s a spatial concept, in either language: celui-ci, this one, is the one closer to you. Celui-là, that one, is the one farther away from you.

Now think about this alternate English translation of the very same French sentence: The latter is more important than the former. This is remarkable in more ways than one! For one thing, in English we usually mention the former before the latter. French has a tendency to do the opposite.

For another thing, we have just transformed a spatial concept into a temporal one. Yes, this has to do with time. (I can hear some of you saying, “Uh-oh! What’s she talking about?”)

The former is the first thing that you (or someone else) mentioned. It comes before the latter, which is just another form of later. That’s the thing that was said later.

In French, it’s easier if you picture the sentence written in your mind:

This one is more important than that one.
The latter is more important than the former.
Celui-ci est plus important que celui-là.

Do you see how that works? Time (first, later) is combined with space (farther from me, closer to me).

To avoid getting tangled and expressing the opposite of your opinion, imagine the words of the sentence as objects in your mind: old-fashioned wooden building blocks, if you wish. Then place yourself in the position of the period at the end of the sentence, and look back along the row. It will become obvious to you which is celui-ci and which is celui-là.

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