C’est gentil d’être important…?

C’est gentil d’être important, mais c’est plus important d’être gentil.

say zhah-tee det-raa-pore-tah, may say plew zaa-pore-tah det-ruh zhah-TEE. Click below to hear this.

It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.

Let me specify at the outset that I have no argument with the sentiment. My argument is with the French.

What’s wrong with it? you may ask. The comparison is correctly done, the words look right, and even with my first-year French, I can make out what it means.

Not so fast. Years ago, my sister gave me a tea mug with this inscription, though she expressed some doubts about the French. She was right to do so!

The problem is that two big mistakes were made in the French:

1. C’est should be Il est, in both places. One of the goofy rules of French is that you say c’est + adjective if the gender of the thing is uncertain, or if if you’re not even sure what it is. But if you want to say it is + adjective + infinitive (It’s fun to dance), you have to say il est + adjective + de + infinitive (Il est agréable de danser).

2. Gentil means nice when describing a person, but not when describing a thing, a situation, or a condition. For that, you need synonyms.

The first gentil should be a word like agréable, which also means pleasant. It is pleasant to be important. If a painting is nice without a lot of enthusiasm, it might be jolie.

Bottom line: the sentence ought to read Il est agrêable d’être important, mais il est plus important d’être gentil. What it loses in symmetry, it gains in correctness. My ears don’t hurt anymore!

I still like my mug, though. It performs its double duty quite adequately: it keeps my tea warm, and it reminds me not to get wrapped up in self-importance. Thank you, Jean!

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