Controversial French Expression
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In 1737, the French expression par contre had its first detractor: none other than Voltaire.
Conseils à un journaliste, page 395
Most literary people who work in Holland, where the most book trade takes place, are infected by another type of barbarism, which somes from the language of merchants: they’re starting to write par contre rather than "on the contrary."
The real debate began much more than 120 years later with a remarque in Littré (aka Dictionnaire de la langue française) that supported and expanded Voltaire’s criticism:
Contre : Littré (1863-1872)
Par contre is a phrase that many use, to say "in compensation, on the other hand" …. This phrase, which was particularly criticized by Voltaire and which seems to come from commercial language, can be justified grammatically … but it is hardly justified logically, since par contre is much closer to "contrarily" than "in compensation," and since it must come from some commercial ellipsis (par contre having been said in place of "by return mail); in any case, it’s advisable to follow Voltaire’s advice and to not take this phrase outside of commercial language in any style.
But Larousse had other ideas:
Loc. adv. Par contre, En revanche, par compensation : Si plusieurs essais de Buffon sont heureux, quelques autres, par contre, ne le sont pas. || Cette locution, généralement condamnée par les grammairiens, est universellement usitée. Il n’est, d’ailleurs, pas impossible de la justifier, en admettant que contre y est pris substantivement, ce que prouve surabondamment la présence de la préposition par.
Contre : Grand Larousse du XIXe siècle (1876)
Adverbial phrase. Par contre : On the other hand, in compensation. "While several of Buffons essays are happy, some others, on the other hand, aren’t." || This phrase, generally condemned by grammarians, is universally used. Moreover, it’s not impossible to justify it, assuming that contre is used nominally [like a noun] here, which the presence of the preposition par abundantly proves.
As Larousse implied, many authors continued using the phrase, though it was another 70 years before André Gide countered the criticism outright:
Attendu que… (1943)
I know that Voltaire and Littré proscribe this phrase, but "on the other hand" and "in compensation," replacement formulas proposed by Littré, do not always seem suitable to me …. Would you find it proper that a woman tells you, "Yes, my brother and husband came back safe from the war; on the other hand I lost my two sons"? or "the harvest wasn’t bad, but in compensation all the potatoes rotted"? Par contre is necessary to me and, beg pardon Littré, I’m keeping it.
These examples make it very clear that par contre is useful and unique, and French grammar bible Le Bon Usage even quoted them in its 8th edition:
Grévisse, page 994 (1964)
One shouldn’t believe that "in compensation" or "on the other hand" can, in all cases, suffice to express the idea that one would with par contre: "in compensation" and "on the other hand" add to the idea of opposition a particular idea of happily reestablished equilibrium; par contre expresses, in a completely generic way, the simple opposition and has the naked sense of "but on another note," "but on the other hand." — Gide very aptly pointed this out ….
Two years later, Belgian linguist Albert Doppagne added his two cents:
Trois aspects du français contemporain, page 193 (1966)
The success that most 20th century writers have reserved for par contre, the fact that it’s not always replaceable by the phrases that are suggested to replace it, completely legitimize the use of this phrase.
But it’s only since 1988 that Académie française has reluctantly concurred:
Elle ne peut donc être considérée comme fautive, mais l’usage s’est établi de la déconseiller, chaque fois que l’emploi d’un autre adverbe est possible.
Ce n’est pas toujours le cas [comme] Gide remarquait […]
Par contre : Questions de langue, Académie française
Condemned by Littré after a remark by Voltaire, the adverbial phrase Par contre has been used by excellent French authors, from Stendhal to Montherlant, as well as ….
It therefore cannot be considered a mistake, but it has become standard to discourage it any time the use of another adverb is possible.
This is not always the case [as] Gide remarked ….
Le Grand Robert is more enthusiastic:
Le Grand Robert
Par contre has been condemned by some purist pedagogs; however it’s not always replaceable. It introduces an advantage or disadvantage, whereas "in compensation" and "on the other hand" only introduce an advantage. While one can use them in the sentence "He may have no heart, in compensation he is intelligent," it’s impossible to substitute them for par contre in this one: "He may be is intelligent, in compensation he has no heart." "But" does not offer enough of a contrast. "On the contrary" offers too precise a contrast.
And Hanse-Blampain sums it all up perfectly:
Nouveau dictionnaire des difficultés du français moderne (2005)
Par contre, which expresses a contrast in a more nuanced way than "but," has been part of the most correct usage (of language) for a very long time, despite Voltaire and the purists, and moreover is useful and even sometimes necessary. It’s defined poorly when it is given the synonyms "in compensation, on the other hand," which also express a contrast. "In compensation," like "to make up for it," must introduce an advantage. "On the other hand" must also logically always have this mearning, linked to that of "revenge"; but we sometimes substitute it for par contre, which we don’t dare use: "He plays the violon very well; on the other hand he’s a very poor conductor (Grand Larousse de la Langue Française). We should say par contre, which is more neutral and (this is key) introduces an advantage or a disadvantage that contrasts what precedes it: "He’s a little lazy, but (at least) he’s honest" or "He’s certainly honest, but on the other hand he’s too naïve." When par contre introduces the uttering of a loss, of a disadvantage, it can’t be replaced by "in compensation" and shouldn’t be by "on the other hand." André Gide proved it ….