Table of Contents
- I. One Tense Does the Work of Three
- II. The French Present Used for Future
- III. A French Continuous Construction
- IV. The Historical Present
- V. Essential Idioms Using the Present Tense
- VI. The Above Three Constructions Using the Imperfect
I. One Tense Does the Work of Three
English has more than one present tense. One of them is “simple,” meaning only one word is used; the others use an auxiliary verb in addition to the meaning verb.
- Simple Present: “I think”
- Emphatic Present: “I do think”1
- Continuous or Progressive Present: “I am speaking”
French has only one, simple, tense serving for the above three.
|Type of English Present||English Sentence||French Sentence|
|English Simple||“I think, therefore I am.”||Je pense, donc je suis.|
|“Do you think he is coming?”||Penses-tu qu’il vienne?|
|“I don’t think so.”||Je ne pense pas.|
|English Progressive||‘Is he thinking the same thing we are?||Est-ce qu’il pense la même chose que nous?|
General or Particular
As the Author says, when the verb denotes an activity, the key to translating depends on whether the statement is about a general truth (or a recurring activity), or about a particular activity at a particular time:
- Il fait le ménage le samedi matin. (He does the housework on Saturday mornings.)
- Il fait le ménage maintenant. (He is doing the housework now.)
II. The French Present Used for Future
In English, we often use the present progressive or continuous in place of a near future:
- “I am flying out tomorrow.”
French does not have a present progressive, only a present, and it is this simple present that gets used for this purpose. As in English, an adverbial phrase makes the meaning clear.
Qu’est-ce que tu fais cette après-midi? (What are you doing this afternoon?)
—Je fais mes devoirs de français, évidemment. (I’m doing my French homework, of course.)
III. A French Continuous Construction
The French do have a special construction when they feel a need to insist on the ongoing character of an activity:
Formation: the verb être + en train de + an infinitive
which is the equivalent of “to be + in the process of + doing something.”
- Il est en train de faire le ménage. (He is in the process of doing the housework.)
The verb être in this construction can be in other tenses than the present.
- Il était en train de faire le ménage. (He was in the process of doing the housework.)
- Il sera en train de faire le ménage. (He will be in the process of doing the housework.)
and so forth.
IV. The Historical Present
Historical present is used in English mainly in two situations:
1. In summarizing the action of a fictional work:
At the beginning of the Song of Roland, Marsile, the king of Saragossa, summons a council to decide what to do about Charlemagne and his army who have been toppling Muslim kingdoms in Spain for the past seven years. They discuss various options, but eventually decide to send a legation promising, falsely, they are ready to receive Baptism and swear fealty to the Christian Emperor.–The Professor
2. When a character (or the narrator as character) is relating past events as if they were presently occurring to him:
Let me tell you what happened Saturday night. I’m sitting in the saloon, and Joe comes in holding a gun. “Where’s Marilena?” he says. Without waiting for an answer he runs up the stairs and starts shooting through all the closed doors. …–The Professor
French writers, in contrast, are fond of using the historical present in straight-out historiography, a practice that would seem odd in English. They also feel quite easy moving back and forth between historical present and the French past tenses; an English writer doing the same would be faulted for unwarranted tense shifts.
V. Essential Idioms Using the Present Tense
1. Le Futur proche (the Near Future)
Formation: the verb aller in the present + an infinitive
Here aller is the equivalent of the English “to be going to.”
- Je vais faire le ménage. (I am going to do the housework.)
- Elle va provoquer un accident. (She is going to cause an accident.)
- Nous allons nous bien amuser. (We are going to have a good time.)
2. Le Passé récent (The Recent Past)
Formation: the verb venir in the present + de + an infinitive
The literal translation is “to come from doing something,” but the meaning is “to have just done something.”
- Tu viens d’outrager le président de notre société. (You have just insulted the president of our company.)
- Nous venons de poser des fleurs sur son tombeau. (We have just placed some flowers on her tomb.)
- Il vient de gagner le Tour de France. (He has just won the Tour de France.)
3. An Action Begun in the Past & Continuing in the Present
Formation: a verb in the present + depuis + a time expression (length of time or point in time)
The English equivalent of the above, when an action verb in involved, is “has been doing2 a thing for” or “since.”
- Il regarde la télé depuis 6 heures. (He has been watching the TV for six hours.)
- Il regarde la télé depuis ce matin. (He has been watching the TV since this morning.)
For the verb indicates a mental state, a mere present perfect will do, but the idea is the same.
- Il aime cette femme depuis des années. (He has loved this woman for years.)
- Il aime cette femme depuis 1970. (He has loved this woman since 1970.)
For more on this construction, see the file Temporal Expressions & Their Tenses.
VI. The Above Three Constructions Using the Imperfect
1. The Near Future in the Past
The English equivalent: “was going to” plus an infinitive.
- J’allais dire la même chose. (I was going to say the same thing.)
- Elle allait faire une grosse gaffe. (She was going to make a big blunder.)
2. The Recent Past Taken a Step Further Back
The English equivalent: “had just done something”
- Nous venions de l’échapper belle. (We had just escaped by the skin of our teeth.)
- Il venait de marcher sur mes pieds. (He had just stepped on my feet.)
3. An Action Begun at a Point in the Past & Continuing at a Later Point in the Past
The English equivalent: “had been doing” (for an action verb) or “had done” (for a mental-state verb)
- Il travaillait aux réparations depuis 3 heures. (He had been working on the repairs for three hours.)
- Ils s’aimaient depuis leur première rencontre. (They had loved each other since their first encounter.)
- The emphatic present is required in questions: “Do you think…?” and in negative statements: “I don’t think…”
- This kind of verb is called the “present perfect progressive” in English.