Imperfect or Perfect Tense
In French, it is not always easy to decide when one should use the Passé Composé and when to employ the Imparfait.
Here is an example from chapter 6 that combines the Passé Composé and the Imparfait.
- Didier a passé une journée mémorable, Fédrigo, son coureur favori a gagné l’étape qui était la plus difficile du Tour de cette année –
Didier spent a memorable day. Fédrigo, his favourite bicycle racer, won the leg that was most difficult in the Tour this year.
A quick rule of thumb is to ask yourself if the action described is finished or not.
- Comme elle montait l’escalier, elle a entendu un bruit – As she was going up the stairs, she heard a noise.
In this case, she was still going up the stairs when she heard a noise. One action is unfinished, and the other is not.
Then, there are actions that are performed repeatedly or habitually:
- Chaque année elle voyageait en France, mais en 1999 elle a décidé de rester en Irlande, car sa mère était malade – Every year (repeated event) she went to France but in 1999 (specific time), she decided to stay in Ireland because her mother was sick (cannot decide how long mother was sick).
To practice the difference between the Passé Composé and the Imparfait, try out the following game.
Expressions of time
French differs from English when it comes to saying what you did on a particular day. In French, you do not use a preposition to express ‘on’. Also, the days of the week do not take a capital in French.
- Mardi, elle va chez sa mère, et mercredi elle rentre à Paris – On Tuesday, she goes to her mother’s house and she returns to Paris on Thursday.
- Nous partons le 7 avril – We are leaving on the 7th of April.
For dates, apart from the first day of the month, you just say the number:
- Le 7 mai, nous allons à Londres – On the 7th of May, we are going to London.
- Le premier juin; le 31 octobre, le 10 juillet.
It is also important to become aware of other expressions of time, such as ‘pendant’, ‘depuis’, ‘pour’ or ‘il y a’. We come across two of these in a sentence of chapter 6.
- Vainqueur à Gap il y a quelques années déjà, le Français a manifestement un territoire de prédilection depuis ses victoires suivantes à Tarbes, puis un an plus tard dans la cité d’Henri IV.
Now, have a look at these sentences to see in more detail how these prepositions function.
- Pendant les vacances, j’ai regardé beaucoup de films – During the holidays, I watched a lot of films.
- Il n’a pas arrêté de pleuvoir pendant quelques jours –It didn’t stop raining for a few days.
‘Pendant’ designates ‘time during which’ actions take place.
‘Pour’ also means ‘for’, it’s generally used to express the length of time of an action that will take place some time in the near or more distant future.
- Il est là pour deux mois, puis il rentre chez lui – He is there for two months and then he is going home.
Usually, when in doubt, favour ‘pendant’ over ‘pour’.
‘Depuis’ is used to express the temporal clauses of ‘for’ or ‘since’ in English. It is important because it changes the tense of verbs associated with it at times, translating ‘has been’ or ‘has been doing’ by the present tense, and ‘had been’ or ‘had been doing’ by the imperfect.
- Je travaille (present) ici depuis trois ans – I have been working here for three years. (The idea is that you are still working in the same place).
- Ils attendaient (imparfait) le bus depuis 30 minutes quand soudain il a tourné le coin – They had been waiting for the bus for 30 minutes, when suddenly it came round the corner. (They were still waiting when the bus arrived).
Il y a
One other expression of time that is useful is ‘il y a’ to capture ‘ago’. Note that the Passé Composé is normally used with “il y a”
- Il est parti il y a trois jours – He left three days ago.
Maintenant, à vous de jouer
Write out in French what you did at the weekend or during your holidays. Use as many expressions of time and verbs as you can.
The present participle is one that causes people difficulty for English speakers when translating into French. We regularly say things like ‘They are waiting’, which is translated into French as ‘Ils attendent’, with no participle.
The French are not great fans of participles, preferring to employ verbs in a particular tense. ‘Je travaillais’ can be translated as ‘I was working’, but in French you would never use the literal translation, ‘J’étais travaillant’.
To form the present participle, get the first person plural (‘nous’ form), drop the ‘ons’ and add ‘ant’.
Example: vouloir – nous voulons – voulant
In general, the present participle is used in conjunction with ‘en’. It shows two actions are taking place at the same time
Examples in chapter 6 of the story (last paragraph)
- Une femme arrive en courant et attrape le monstre par le collier – A woman arrives running and caught the monster by the collar.
- Il aboie frénétiquement tout en regardant de ses yeux globuleux le pauvre Didier – He barks frantically while looking at poor Didier’s bulging eyes.
- En voyant arriver son ami, il s’est levé – Seeing his friend arrive, he got up.
- Elle est entrée en courant – She ran in. (There is no verb for ‘run in’ in French, so they express the idea by ‘She entered running’).
Try this game!
Now take this short test on this unit!