Temporal Expressions & Their Tenses
Table of Contents
Depuis + a temporal expression can be used with the present or the imperfect. The construction with the present refers to an action that began at a point in the past and is still going on in the present.
A. Depuis Meaning “Since”
When what follows depuis is a point in time, depuis is translated “since.”
An “action” verb will be translated as a present perfect progressive:
- Je vous téléphone depuis lundi. = “I have been telephoning you since Monday.”
- Elle enseigne le français depuis 1984. = “She has been teaching French since 1984.”
- Nous essayons de le contacter depuis ce matin. = “We have been trying to contact him since this morning.”
A “state” verb will be translated as a present perfect:
- Ils se détestent depuis leur première rencontre. = “They have hated each other since their first encounter.”
- Ils se connaissent depuis l’an 2000. = “They have known each other since the year 2000.”
- Elle sait l’alphabet depuis l’âge de deux ans. = “She has known the alphabet since two years of age.”
In the following example we do not have the preposition depuis, but the conjunction depuis que introducing a clause that refers to a point in the past.
- Je déteste cet homme depuis que je l’ai connu. = “I have hated that man since I first met him.” 1
B. Depuis Meaning “For”
When what follows depuis is a length of time, depuis is translated “for.”
With an “action” verb:
- Je vous téléphone depuis des heures. = “I’ve been calling you for hours.”
- Elle enseigne le français depuis vingt ans. = “She has been teaching French for twenty years.”
- Nous essayons de le contacter depuis un jour et demi. = “We have been trying to contact him for a day and a half.”
With a “state” verb:
- Je déteste cet homme depuis très longtemps. = “I have hated that man for a very long time.”
- Elle le connaît depuis une éternité. = “She has known him for an eternity.”
- Nous sommes amis depuis quelques jours. = “We have been friends for a few days.”
C. Substitutes for Depuis Meaning “For”
For depuis meaning “since” with a length of time, one can substitute the following constructions. Note that, whereas depuis usually at the end of the sentence, these constructions usually come at the beginning.
- Il y a…que: Il y a cinq heures que je vous téléphone. 2 = “I have been calling you for five hours.”
- Voici…que: Voici cinq heures que je vous téléphone. 3 = Ditto.
- Voilà…que: Voilà cinq heures que je vous téléphone. 3 = Ditto.
- Cela fait…que: Cela (Ça) fait cinq heures que je vous téléphone. 4 = Ditto.
The above four are all the equivalent of:
- Je vous téléphone depuis cinq heures.
D. Negative Verb & Depuis
Only when a thing didn’t take place (beginning at a point in the past and continuing through the present) does French allow the passé composé:
- Je ne lui ai pas parlé depuis janvier. = “I haven’t spoken to him since January.”
However, you may also find, with the same meaning:
- Je ne lui parle pas depuis janvier.
E. The Imperfect & Depuis
Depuis with either meaning can also be used with the imperfect, in which case the action or state begins at one point in time, and is still going on at a later, but still past, point in time.
With an “action” verb, the equivalent English tense is the pluperfect progressive:
- Il marchait depuis le matin. = “He had been walking since the morning.”
- Je vous téléphonais depuis cinq heures. = “I had been telephoning you for five hours.”
With a “state” verb, the equivalent English tense is the pluperfect:
- Nous nous connaissions depuis quelque temps. = “We had known each other for some time.”
- Elle le haïssait depuis le début. = “She had hated him from the beginning.
When you use il y a…que in place of depuis meaning “for,” note that, if the main verb is in the imperfect, the verb avoir will also be in the imperfect:
- Il y avait cinq ans qu’il essayait d’apprendre le latin. 5 = “He had been trying to learn Latin for five years.”
II. The Passé Composé and Pendant
The preposition pendant has the basic meaning of “during” or “while.” 6 It can be used with a variety of tenses, but here we are interested in its use with the passé composé. With a verb in this tense, and followed by a length of time, pendant is the equivalent of English “for”; i.e., it is used for an activity that took a certain amount of time to accomplish and is now done with.
- J’ai regardé la télé pendant trois heures. = “I watched TV for three hours.”
- Elle a travaillé sur l’article pendant une semaine. = “She worked on the article for a week.”
The preposition pendant can be omitted when the expression of time comes directly after the verb.
- Elle a bavardé [pendant] une heure entière. = “She chattered on for a whole hour.”
III. The Passé Composé and Il y a
In addition to il y a…que with the present or imperfect to mean “for (an amount of time),” il y a with the passé composé can mean “ago.” The expression il y a usually comes at the end of the sentence (and without the que).
- Je me suis marié il y a un an. 7 = “I got married a year ago.”
However, see section V below.
IV. The Trouble with “For”
Our single English preposition “for” does a lot of work, even just with regard to temporal expressions. We say:
- “I’ve felt like saying that for a long time.”
- “I exercised for an hour.”
- “I’m going to the Bahamas for a month.”
But French uses pour only for the last of these three:
- J’ai envie de dire cela depuis longtemps.
- J’ai fait de l’exercice pendant une heure.
- Je vais aux Bahamas pour un mois.
V. The Trouble with Il y a
Il y a gets used in two quite different time expressions, one of which is used with the present or imperfect, and means “for”:
- Il y trois mois que la police recherche ce criminel. 8 = “The police have been looking for this criminal for three months.”
–the other of which is used with the passé composé, and means “ago”:
- Le criminel a disparu il y a trois mois. = “The criminal disappeared three months ago.”
The first il y a, meaning “for,” typically comes at the beginning of the sentence and is followed by que. The second il y a, meaning “ago,” typically comes at the end of the sentence, and with no que. These are certainly the usual patterns in spoken French, and the ones that the French-learner should practise. But the essential difference lies in the tense of the verb, whether simple (present or imperfect) or compound (passé composé). Hence, you may encounter sentences like the following:
- Il y a plus de 400 ans que Cristophe Colomb a découvert le Nouveau Monde.
Which means neither more nor less than:
- Christophe Colomb a découvert le Nouveau Monde il y a plus de 400 ans.
That is to say:
- ”Christopher Colombus discovered the New World more than 400 years ago.”
It is important to relate the time preposition with the tense or tenses it is used with. Hence this table.
|Present (or Imperfect)||depuis||“since, for”|
|Il y a…que||“for”|
|il y a||“ago”|
- Also possible: “Je déteste [present] cet homme depuis que je le connais [present]” = “I have hated that man / since I have known him / as long as I have known him.”↩
- Literally, something like: “There are five hours that I am telephoning you.”↩
- Literally, something like: “Behold five hours that I am telephoning you.”↩↩
- Literally, something like: “That makes five hours that I am telephoning you.”↩
- Literally, something like: “There were five years that he was trying to learn Latin.”↩
- “Pendant” is in fact the present participle of the verb pendre “to hang” and hence literally means “hanging = pending.”↩
- Literally, something like: “I got married there is a year.”↩
- = La police recherche ce criminel depuis trois mois.↩
Leave a Comment