Aspects of French Past Tenses
Table of Contents
- I. What Is Aspect?
- II. Functions of the Imperfect
- III. Functions of the Passé composé
- IV. Helps for Making the Difficult Choice
I. What Is Aspect?
A. Aspect in English
Linguists inform us that, in addition (or parallel, or prior) to tense, relating to the time something is or takes place, verbs also have aspect, relating to…hmm, well,…something else, not strictly temporal, about the action or event or state. Sometimes aspect relates to the intrinsic nature of what the verb refers to, sometimes to how we envisage what the verb refers to.
The same linguists have come up with names for a number of different kinds of aspects, but we need worry only about two: Perfective and Imperfective (or, Completed and Incomplete). Perfective means we envisage the action, etc., as fully done with; Imperfective means we envisage the action, etc. as going on (in the past).
Sometimes aspect is clearly shown by the form of the verb. So, in modern English, we have a whole set of tenses 1 that indicate that an activity is ongoing (hence, Imperfective):
- Present Progressive 2 : “George is reading a book.”
- Past Progressive: “George was reading a book.”
- Future Progressive: “George will be reading a book.”
–and so forth. In other cases, aspect may not be shown in the verb form at all, even though it is present. For instance, we have the same past form, shut, in the following sentences, but the aspect is not the same:
- “Fred shut down the equipment every day at 5:00 pm.” Aspect: Imperfective 3
- “On Friday June 23 Fred shut down the equipment at 6:00 pm.” Aspect: Perfective
Here is another example with the past form was (used in a passive-voice construction):
- ”The chalet was surrounded by mountains.” Aspect: Imperfective 4
- ”In a moment the chalet was surrounded by the robbers.” Aspect: Perfective
In fact, in spite of its wealth of tenses, many of which contain aspectual information, English has many cases in which aspect is not marked in the form of the verb. Most particularly is this true of the English Preterite or Simple Past:
- Imperfective (Description): “She wore a yellow ribbon.”
- Perfective: “She hit the ball.”
- Imperfective (Habitual): “We saw each other every day.”
- Perfective (?????): “There was an accident on the highway.”
B. Aspect in Past Tenses of French
In contrast to English, in French (as in other Romance languages), Perfective and Imperfective aspect are always clearly marked in the past tenses.
1. The Perfective Past Tenses in French
They are the Simple Past (passé simple OR passé défini) and the Compound Past (passé composé) –”simple” meaning “made up of a single word” and “compound” meaning “made up of more than one word,” i.e., using an auxiliary verb. Some of the functions of these two tenses differ, but the aspect of both is Perfective, and most of the time their translation in English will be the same.
- Je parlai au professeur. (I spoke to the teacher.)
- J’ai parlé au professeur. (Ditto)
For more on these two tenses, see Simple Past and Compound Past.
2. The Imperfective Past Tense in French
There is only one, and it is called: the Imperfect (l’imparfait). Strictly speaking, it is the Past Imperfect, but since a formal Perfective-Imperfective distinction occurs only in the past tenses, we can get by calling the past imperfective tense simply “the Imperfect.”
3. The Essential Difference
The passé simple and passé composé present an action, occurrence, or condition envisaged as completed, rounded off, done with in relation either to the present or to whatever happens next.
The imparfait envisages an action, etc., as it is ongoing in the past, without reference to a beginning or end. The thing referred to by the imperfect verb does not need to be fully accomplished for anything subsequent to happen.
Since our experience of the present is similar, that is, a continuing moment without beginning or ending, it may help to think of the imperfect tense as a present-in-the-past.
II. Functions of the Imperfect
The essential function of the imperfect is to envisage what the verb refers to as ongoing, without reference to beginning or end. However, this essential function now includes the following:
A. On-going Condition or Situation
B. Mental State
C. An On-going Activity
D. An Habitual or Repeated Activity
Of these, D is the strangest, since it can involve an action that is in itself punctual, and thus perfective; however, since the action is repeated, and when it first and last occurred is not important, imperfect is used.
Furthermore, C has this peculiarity, that the activity can stop, without being finished (being finished would require its being put in the passé composé).
Finally, with regard to all four (A B C and D), the imperfect does not imply that the action, condition, or state never ends (most actions, conditions, and states do, sometime or other), but merely that the time of its ending is unimportant.
A. On-going Condition or Situation
Very frequent in narrative as description or background. The English equivalent will most often be the simple past.
- Il faisait noir. (It was dark.)
- Francine avait 20 ans à cette époque. (Francine was 20 years old at that time.)
- À côté de chez nous habitait une famille de saltimbanques. (Next door to our house there lived a family of acrobats.)
- La femme de Bobby Smith s’appelait, elle aussi, Bobby Smith, ce qui causait des malentendus sans nombre. (Bobby Smith’s wife was also called Bobby Smith, which caused countless misunderstandings.)
- Dans les ténèbres, on devinait des formes qui s’agitaient, s’entre-croisaient et passaient outre. (In the darkness one barely made out forms that stirred, crossed each other’s paths, and passed beyond.)
- Christelle était assise sous un grand vieux chêne dont les branchages couvraient presque la place entière. (Christelle was seated beneath a large old oak tree whose branches covered almost the entire square.)
B. Mental State
As a rule, when an interior attitude or emotion is referred to, the imperfect will be used. (However, see IV.B below.) As with III.A, the English equivalent will most often be the simple past.
- Je pensais, comme tous mes semblables, que les insurgés avaient tort. (I thought, like all my fellows, that the insurrectionists were wrong.)
- Elle adorait les chauves-souris; par contre, elle avait horreur des arraignées. (She loved bats; on the other hand, she was horrified of spiders.)
- Nous voulions vous dire la vérité, mais nous ne pouvions pas. (We wanted to tell you the truth, but we were unable to.)
- Elle comprenait ce qu’il tentait de dire. (She understood what he was trying to say.)
C. An On-going Activity
Most often an imperfect verb expressing an on-going activity will be contrasted with a verb in the passé composé.
1. An Interrupted Activity
The interrupted activity is in the imperfect; the interrupting action is in the passé composé. Note that although the first activity may cease, this is not because it is satisfactorily completed.
The English equivalent of the imperfect verb will be the past progressive.
- Je chantais mon numéro quand le toit de l’église s’est effondré. (I was singing my number when the church roof collapsed.)
- Elle prenait son repas quand le téléphone a sonné. (She was having her meal when the telephone rang.)
- Nous pique-niquions sur l’herbe quand une tempête s’est déchaînée et a versé sur nos têtes une grande quantité d’eau. (We were picnicking on the grass when a storm was unleashed and poured on our heads a great quantity of water.)
- Elle plaçait le cadavre de son mari dans le coffre de sa voiture quand une voisine l’a surprise. (She was placing her husband’s body in the trunk of her car when a neighbor lady came upon her unexpectedly.)
2. A Condition That Motivates an Action
The motivating condition is in the imperfect; the action motivated by it is in the passé composé. As in 1 above, the action may put an end, sooner or later, to the condition; however, the condition does not and cannot end before the action; hence, the imperfect is called for.
The English equivalent of the imperfect verb will be the simple past.
- J’avais faim, donc j’ai mangé un sandwich au jambon. (I was hungry, so I ate a ham sandwich.)
- La pensée de tant d’âmes vouées à la destruction l’obsédait; c’est pourquoi il s’est fait missionnaire. (The thought of so many souls destined for destruction obsessed him; that is why he became a missionary.)
- Il faisait un temps tellement froid que nous avons décidé de terminer notre promenade et de rentrer tout de suite. (It was so cold that we decided to end our walk and return home immediately.)
It may help (or it may not!) to picture situations 1 and 2 as if the action or condition of the imperfect verb enveloping, so to say, the action that puts an end to it:
D. Repeated Activity
Taking as our starting point Il buvait trop, the equivalent English could be:
- the simple past: “He drank too much.” (implicit Aspect: Habitual)
- the “used-to” construction: “He used to drink too much.”
- the “would” construction: “He would drink too much.”
- Le samedi soir, René accompagnait toujours Madame Lafitte à l’opéra. (On Saturday evenings René / always accompanied / would always accompany / Mme Lafitte to the opera.)
- Il parlait de chose et d’autre pendant que le cabriolet les conduisait lentement à leur destination. (He / spoke / would speak / of this and that while the cabriolet brought them slowly to their destination.)
- Elle faisait mine de ne pas prêter attention à ce qu’il disait. (She / acted / would act / as though she were paying no attention to what he was saying.)
- De son côte, il l’observait du coin de l’œil pour jauger l’effet de ses propos. (For his part, he observed / would observe / her indirectly to assess the effect of his words.)
III. Functions of the Passé composé
The essential function of the passé composé, as said above, is to designate that the referent of the verb (action, occurrence, or state) is completed with regard to what comes after. As a result, one of its main particular functions is to denote:
A. Actions in a Series
When the story cannot proceed unless a particular action is completed, you need the passé composé (or passé simple). Consider:
Here is a text using the passé simple for actions that must be completed so that subsequent actions may occur:
|L’homme arrêta son cheval tout près de la porte et, sans descendre, frappa. Aussitôt une voix sonore et décidée demanda de l’intérieur: « Qu’est-ce que c’est? — Je suis le nouveau gérant du domaine de Saint-Apôtre. Ma femme accouche. J’ai besoin d’aide. » Personne ne répondit. Au bout d’un moment, des verrous furent tirés, des barres ôtées, puis traînées, et la porte s’entrouvrit.||The man stopped his horse very close to the door and, without getting down, knocked. At once a sonorous and decisive voice asked from inside: “Who is it?” “I am the new manager of the St-Apôtre property. My wife is having a baby. I need help.” No one answered. After a moment, bolts were drawn, bars were raised, then dragged, and the door opened slightly.–Albert Camus, Le premier homme|
Here is a text with passé composé:
|« Ton nom », a dit l’agent. Raymond a répondu. « Enlève ta cigarette de la bouche quand tu me parles », a dit l’agent. Raymond a hésité, m’a regardé et a tiré sur sa cigarette. À ce moment, l’agent l’a giflé à toute volée d’une claque épaisse et lourde, en pleine joue. La cigarette est tombée quelques mètres plus loin. Raymond a changé de visage, mais il n’a rien dit sur le moment et puis il a demandé d’une voix humble s’il pouvait ramasser son mégot. L’agent a déclaré qu’il  le pouvait et il a ajouté : « Mais la prochaine fois, tu sauras qu’un agent n’est pas un guignol. »||“What’s your name?” the policeman asked. Raymond answered. “Take your cigarette out of your mouth when you speak to me.” Raymond hesitated, looked at me, and drew on his cigarette. At that moment, the policeman hauled back and slapped him hard, right on the cheek. The cigarette fell several yards away. Raymond changed expressions, but didn’t say anything right away, and then asked in a humble voice if he could pick up his cigarette butt. The policeman declared that he could, and added: ‘But the next time you’ll realize that a policeman isn’t a clown.’” –Albert Camus, l’Etranger|
An Action Can Take a Long Time to Complete and Still Require the Passé composé
- Nous avons peiné pendant de longues années avant d’atteindre le sommet où nous sommes actuellement. (We struggled for many years before reaching the summit we currently occupy.)
- Il a regardé la télévision pendant trois heures avant de se coucher. (He watched TV for three hours before going to bed.)
B. The Beginning or Ending of a Condition or State
A verb indicating a past condition or mental state will normally be in the imperfect tense; but in the passé composé, if you wish to emphasize the point at which the condition or state began (the moment of change from not having it, to having it), its momentariness, or its being over with.
See Compound Past and the Poet for some examples. See also: Verbs & the Past Tenses They Use.Lastly, see: Temporal Expressions & Their Tenses and To & Fro Between French & English Pasts.
IV. Helps for Making the Difficult Choice
As noted above in What Is Aspect, in French you always have to decide on the aspect of a past verb, even though in English often you don’t have to. In my younger days I found the following rule helpful:
Use the passé composé If You Answer Yes to One of These Questions
- Does the thing referred to by the verb need to be finished, in order for the next thing to happen? Or:
- Is the moment when the thing begins or the moment when the thing ends important?
(See, once again [you have already looked at it]: Functions of the passé composé.)
If the above two questions didn’t settle the issue for me, I would turn to the following one:
Use the imparfait If Neither the Beginning Point Nor the Ending Point of the Thing Referred to by the Verb Is Important.
The above covers all the possible uses of the imperfect: stable elements in the past, whether physical or mental; ongoing or interrupted (but not finished!) activity; habitual or repeated actions. (See, once again: Functions of the Imperfect.)
- These are however “periphrastic” tenses, that is, tenses that use helping verbs. Of tenses in the strict sense, English has a grand total of two (present and past); French makes a better showing, with a total of seven: four in the indicative mood, one in the conditional, and two in the subjunctive.↩
- Or Continuous↩
- More specifically, Habitual, but we can consider Habitual as a sub-category of Imperfective.↩
- Perhaps also this subcategory: Durative, or Continuous↩
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