J’ai failli tomber.
zhay fah-yee taw-BAY. Click below to hear this.
I almost fell.
Faillir is a very strange verb. Although it has a complete conjugation, it is hardly ever used!
The main way to use this verb, in fact, is in today’s phrase: subject + the appropriate form of avoir + an infinitive. Even though you can see the English word fail in faillir, there’s no exact English equivalent. Faillir just means to almost, which sounds very strange indeed because almost isn’t a verb.
So J’ai failli tomber doesn’t mean I failed to fall , which would imply that you made an unsuccessful attempt to fall, that falling would have been an intentional act. On the contrary: it means that you made a successful attempt not to fall. The intentional act was not falling.
Faillir does also mean to fail, or to lack. Somewhere in history, it got tangled up with falloir, which also means to be lacking. In fact, the il form is the same in both verbs: il faut. But that’s a tale for another day.
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