posted by Suzana on .
The non-native speaker is often confused about when to use the imperfect (imparfait) and present perfect (passé composé). The imperfect is most often used to indicate continuity, habit and repetition, in the past; keywords which help to determine the use of the imperfect are words such as: souvent, de temps en temps, quelquefois, toujours, tous les jeudis, etc. Furthermore, it is often used to describe human traits, whether physical, psychological or moral, in the past, because human traits follow you to your grave or, at the very least, are yours for an indefinite period of time.
When going from French to English, the imperfect is most often rendered in English by:
was + verb ending in -ing
used to + infinitive
would + infinitive or -ing verb (if it denotes repetitive action)
the simple past (especially in the case of description: a state mind, a state of things, etc;).
If you are going from English to French, things are a little easier:
was + -ing verb = imparfait
used to/would + infinitive = imparfait
have + past participle = passé composé
It is only when a simple past is used that you run into trouble. This is where you have to rely on connotation, especially where the verb "être" is concerned.
Generally speaking, the imperfect indicates incomplete action, in the past, -- we are not made aware of its having been completed -- , whereas the passé composé connotes a completed action, in the past -- we are made aware of its having been completed.
The passé composé is most often rendered in English by the simple past (I was) or the present perfect (I have been). Here is a good rule to remember: if you wish to put emphasis on TIME, whether it be a point in time or a specific amount of time, use the passé composé; otherwise, use l'imparfait. This does not mean that you cannot use time indicators in the imperfect; however, in spite of the use of time indicators, emphasis is not on time, but rather on DESCRIPTION (state of mind, physical appearance, physical or mental health, state of being, scenic description, weather, etc.).
Here are a few examples:
Hier, il pleuvait. = Yesterday, it was raining.
emphasis on the fact that it "rained" or "was raining", not on the
fact that it happened yesterday. One would almost expect the
speaker to add something further, because the listener gets a
sense of incompleteness of thought.
Hier, il a plu. = emphasis on time. "Yesterday" it rained.
Elle chantait. = emphasis on the fact that she was "singing", for an indeterminate
period of time, or on the fact that she would do it habitually (in the
morning, or when she was happy, etc.).
Elle a chanté pendant deux heures. = emphasis on time.
Elle a chanté. = the fact that there is no time indicator here does not change the
connotation of completed action in the past. One still gets the
sense that she sang at a given point in time, for whatever reason.
Elle mangeait. = She was eating. The use of the imperfect out of context would
prompt the listener to ask "And then what?" OR "So what?"
Elle a mangé = She ate (or: has eaten). It is an action which occurred and was
completed in the past.
Elle était belle. = She was (and possibly still is) beautiful. Emphasis is on the
fact that she was beautiful, perhaps because of something she
was wearing, or the way her hair was set, or because of an
Elle a été belle. = She was beautiful (once upon a time!!!).
Tu étais magnifique = You were magnificent! Emphasis on the fact that you were
Tu as été magnifique = You were magnificent! Emphasis on the fact that you
were magnificent because of you something you did at a
given point in time.
The passé composé and imparfait are equally important and absolutely necessary in French because of nuance. Indeed, the fact that French people are known for their subtlety is no accident. Sometimes all that is needed to convey a mood, feeling, opinion, etc. is the proper use of a tense.
Let's take a closer look at our last four examples to demonstrate what is meant by nuance achieved through the use of tense.
If someone told me "Tu étais belle" (imparfait), I would be flattered -- I was and possibly still am beautiful. But, if someone told me "Tu as été belle" (passé composé), I would be rather insulted, because of the connotation -- I was beautiful, but that is no longer the case.
However, if someone told me "Tu as été magnifique!" (passé composé), I would not be insulted, because people are not expected to always be magnificent; "magnificent" is a strong word. Perhaps, I gave a concert last night, and I was "magnifique", or I did something extraordinary last week, and I was "magnifique". It is all a question of nuance. "Tu étais magnifique", in the imperfect, puts emphasis on the action, not on the moment when it was performed: While you were doing this, you were great! "Tu as été magnifique", in the passé composé, puts emphasis on the fact that you shone for a moment in time. This particular phrase, whether it is in the imperfect or passé composé, is a compliment.
The same cannot be said for the phrase: Tu étais belle. "Belle", unlike "magnifique", is a rather weak word; anything can be "belle": a table, chair, person, day, etc. The use of this adjective, coupled with the passé composé, to describe a person's appearance in the past, does not say much about that person's present-day appearance! In contexts such as this one, you are better off sticking with the imperfect, which does not put emphasis on time.
Instances which require the use of one tense over the other:
Some sentence structures call for the use of the imperfect in one clause and the passé composé in the other. This is the case with "when" sentences, among many others, whose main clause and subordinate clause express simultaneous action. In the following example, the "when" clause goes into the passé composé, whereas the main clause goes into the imparfait:
Je regardais la télé quand il a téléphoné. = I was watching TV when he
This simultaneousness is often (but not always) present in "because" or "since" sentences, where it is the main clause, this time, which will go into the passé composé, whereas the subordinate ("because"/"since") clause will go into the imparfait:
J'ai mis mon imperméable parce qu'il pleuvait. = I put on my raincoat because
it was raining.
Puisqu'il faisait beau, nous somes allés à la plage. = Since the weather was
nice, we went to the beach.
Very often, the meaning of the word itself will call for a specific tense. For instance, the verb "décider" (to decide) will more often than not go into the passé composé, because of its meaning. A decision is always taken at a specific point in time. This verb is rarely used in the imperfect, although it can be (Never say never!). The verb "commencer" (to begin/start) also often calls for a passé composé, because of its meaning. Things get started at a given point in time:
He started his music lessons. Il a commencé ses cours/leçons de musique.
Ils ont commencé à/de manger. They started eating.
As-tu commencé tes devoirs? Have you started your homework?
This does not mean that you can't use "commencer" in the imperfect, but its use in the imperfect is often governed by its place in a sentence. This is the case with "when" sentences (see above), such as the following:
Il commençait à pleuvoir, quand je suis sortie.
It began/was beginning to rain when I stepped out. = simultaneousness of actions
Remember, in "when" sentences, the main clause goes into the imparfait, whereas the "when" clause will often (but not always) go into the passé composé. That explains why the verb "commencer" is put into the imperfect. In most other instances, the verb "commencer", when used in the past (within a present time frame), will go into the passé composé.
The verb "être", on the other hand, will more often than not go into the imparfait, unless time is specified. Students of French should always be aware of the following: when in doubt, use the imparfait, especially when the verb "être" is involved. You cannot commit a faux pas, when using the imperfect. The same cannot be said for the passé composé, as was explained earlier.
The best way to learn when to use the imparfait versus the passé composé is to read a lot, in French. Try to figure out why an author would use one instead of the other. Go over all the rules I have pointed out and see how they operate in a text. Most of those very general rules will explain why one tense was used over another. Ask yourself: Is this a description of some sort? Is this a repetitive or habitual action? Is there an emphasis on time? ETC. If you come across a phrase which uses one tense when you thought another was called for, ask yourself why the author did this. What is the message being conveyed? Remember, the use of tense is a literary device. Albert Camus wrote his novel "L'Etranger" in the passé composé, for the most part. Why? What tone did he achieve in doing this?
LES VERBES AVEC "ETRE"
Verbs using "être" in the passé composé and other compound tenses
First of all, all pronominal verbs (reflexive, reciprocal, etc.) use "être" in the passé composé.
In addition, there is a handful of non-pronominal verbs which uses "être" in the passé composé. These are verbs of displacement, i.e.verbs which involve movement from one place or state to another:
entrer, rentrer, sortir, monter, descendre, venir, revenir, partir, tomber, etc.: involve physical displacement (vertically or horizontally) in space, and these verbs may be used figuratively, with no real change in meaning.
mourir and naître: also involve displacement, in the first instance from a state of living to one of nonliving, in the second instance, from a state of non-being to one of being.
retourner: involves an on-the-spot type of displacement as well as a return to a previous place or state.
devenir: implies a transformation from one state to another.
rester: involves an absence of displacement, but the connotation of displacement is still there.
You will notice that almost all of the verbs of displacement involve a change in perspective (either through movement or change of state). Learning the verbs of displacement is not quite so difficult, if you view them as opposites. Here are five French verbs of displacement on one side with their opposites on the other side:
monter (to go up) descendre (to go down), tomber (to fall down)
sortir (to go out) entrer (to enter), rentrer (to go back home/inside)
partir (to leave, depart) arriver (to arrive), venir (to come), revenir (to come back)
rester (to stay, remain) retourner (to return), aller (to go), passer (to pass by),
devenir (to become)
mourir (to die) naître (be born)
Now, many teachers like to use mnemonic devices, such as The House of Etre verbs, the house, with doors and windows, through which you "leave", "enter", etc. (horizontal movement), and staircases, by means of which you move vertically in space. The idea is to make a house and draw a cross, a baby, a ladder, a little man falling off the ladder, stairs, and then place all the verbs in and around the house.
Other teachers prefer to use the following phrase as a mnemonic device: DR & MRS P. VANDERTRAMP. Each letter represents one of the 17 "être" verbs:
INFINITIVE PAST PARTICIPLE
(have/has + past participle)
Devenir (to become) devenu (become)
Rester (to remain, to stay) resté (remained, stayed)
Mourir (to die) mort (dead, died)
Retourner (to turn around, to return used intransitively) retourné (returned)
Sortir (to go out) sorti (come out)
Passer (to pass by/away) passé (passed by)
Venir (to come) venu (come)
Aller (to go) allé (gone)
Naître (to be born) né (born)
Descendre (to go down, descend) descendu (come down)
Entrer (to enter) entré (entered)
Revenir (to come back) revenu (come back)
Tomber (to fall) tombé (fallen)
Rentrer (to return home, to reenter) rentré (come back in)
Arriver (to arrive) arrivé (arrived)
Monter (to climb, go up, ascend) monté (come up)
Partir (to leave) parti (left)
Most students find the mnemonic devices useful but somewhat lacking. It is recommended that you use all methods at your disposal: the meanings of the verbs themselves (they are verbs of displacement), as well a mnemonic device.
It is important to note that some of the verbs of displacement may also be used transitively, that is to say, they may be followed by a direct object, in which case they will use "avoir" in the passé composé and NOT "être":
Elle est montée. = She went up. Elle a monté l'escalier. = She climbed the stairs.
Ils sont sortis. = They went out. Ils ont sorti le chat. = They took out the cat.
Tu es retourné. = You went back. Tu as retourné le livre. = You returned the book.
You will notice that when the auxiliary "être" is used, there is agreement between the past participle and the subject, whereas when the auxiliary "avoir" is used there is none.
L'ACCORD -- AGREEMENT
Like adjectives, past participles, conjugated with être agree in gender and number with the subject; this means that they may be feminine singular or plural and masculine singular or plural. Please remember that when the subject involves a list of people or things of which only one person is male or one thing is masculine, the subject is considered a masculine plural. The only way that a subject may be considered feminine plural is if it involves all female persons or all feminine things:
Example using the verb "monter":
je suis monté if you are male
je suis montée if you are female
ils sont montés if you are more than one male or if there is at least one male
elles sont montées if you are more than one female and there are NO males
Example using the verb "aller":
je suis allé (je = Robert)
je suis allée (je = Mary)
nous sommes montés (Robert and one or more males or Robert and Mary)
nous sommes montées (Mary and one or more females)
Here is a list of the "être" verbs with all possible forms of the past participle:
INFINITIF PARTICIPE PASSE (have/has + p.p.)
aller, to go allé - allée - allés - allées (gone)
venir, to come venu - venue - venus - venues (come)
arriver, to arrive arrivé - arrivée - arrivés - arrivées (arrived)
partir, to leave, go away parti - partie - partis - parties (left)
entrer, to enter, go (come) in entré - entrée - entrés - entrées (entered)
sortir, to go out, leave sorti - sortie - sortis - sorties (gone out)
monter, to go (come) up monté - montée - montés - montées (come up)
descendre, to go (come) down descendu - descendue - descendus -
descendues (come down)
revenir, to come back, return revenu - revenue - revenus - revenues (come back)
retourner, to go back, return retourné - retournée - retournés - retournées (returned)
rentrer, to go in again, return home rentré - rentrée - rentrés - rentrées (come back in)
tomber, to fall tombé - tombée - tombés - tombées (fallen)
rester, to remain, stay resté - restée - restés - restées (stayed, remained)
devenir, to become devenu- devenue- devenus - devenues (become)
naître, to be born né - née - nés - nées (born)
mourir, to die mort - morte - morts - mortes (dead, died)
passer, to go by, pass by passé - passée - passés - passées (passed by)
Elle est montée. = She went up. Ils sont partis. = They left.
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V V V V
subject past part. = fem. sing. subject past part. = masc. pl.
Since the pronouns je, tu, nous, and vous may be masculine or feminine, and vous may be singular or plural, the past participles used with them vary in ending:
Nous (Marie et moi, Diane) sommes rentrées. = We (Mary & I, Diane) came back in.
Subject: nous = Marie et moi (Diane) past part. agrees with nous = fem. pl.
N'êtes-vous pas montée, Mme Viger? = Didn't you come up, Mrs. Viger?
subject past part. = agrees with vous (Mme Viger) = fem. sing.
Let us note, finally, that your book and all books which teach French geared to the nonnative speaker, give an incomplete list of the verbs of displacement, which is fine. Please be aware that there are other verbs of displacement (décéder, échoir, éclore, parvenir, survenir, etc.), which take "être" in the passé composé, but students of French are rarely asked to learn them.
L'ACCORD DES PARTICIPES PASSES:
The rules of agreement in the passé composé for both "être" and "avoir" are as follows:
1) there is ALWAYS agreement between the SUBJECT and the PAST PARTICIPLE, with one exception, which I will explain below. For the moment, let us take a look at the cases where there is agreement:
Jeanne est allée au restaurant. Jeanne went to the restaurant.
Nous sommes sortis tard. We went out late.
Elles sont descendues. They came down.
Marc est parti. Mark left (is gone).
Ce sont eux qui sont venus. It is we who came.
In the last example, the relative pronoun "qui", which refers back to the accented pronoun "eux", a masculine plural, is the subject of the verb "venir", hence the agreement between it and the past participle (venus).
2) In the case of pronominal verbs (reflexives, reciprocals, etc.), which ALWAYS use "être" in the passé composé, agreement actually occurs between the past participle and the direct object reflexive pronoun, which generally refers back to the subject:
Marie s'est regardée dans la glace. Mary looked at herself in the mirror.
Elle s’est lavée. She washed herself.
In the above examples, "se" (s') is the direct object, but it refers back to the subject; so, although, from a purely grammatical point of view, agreement occurs between "se" and the past participle, agreement actually occurs between the SUBJECT and the PAST PARTICIPLE. In the first example, "se" refers back to "Marie", whereas in the second example, it refers back to the subject "elle": she washed whom? herself (se).
These rules of agreement are true for ALL pronominal verbs whose reflexive pronouns are the direct object. However, it may be that a normally transitive pronominal verb has a direct object other than the reflexive pronoun, which is normally the case for French verbs used idiomatically. In such cases, there would be NO agreement between the reflexive pronoun and the past participle, as in the following example, which is a purely idiomatic expression (cannot be translated literally into English and other non-Romance languages):
Elle s’est lavé les mains. She washed her hands.
She washed what? Her hands. Since "hands" (mains) is the direct object, the reflexive pronoun can NOT be the direct object; hence, there is NO agreement. If the direct object "hands" were to take the form of a direct object pronoun, which always precedes the verb, then there would be agreement between the direct object pronoun and the past participle, as in the second part of the following example:
Elle s'est lavé les mains; elle se les est lavées.
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V V V V
verb direct object direct object verb
All of the above examples have taken into consideration only pronominal verbs which take a direct object. But not all pronominal verbs take a direct object; a handful of them take an indirect object. This brings us to our THIRD rule of agreement, where the auxiliary "être" is concerned:
3) NO AGREEMENT: there is ONE very important exception to the rule of agreement, when using "être" in the passé composé: in the case of certain pronominal verbs, where the reflexive pronoun is an INDIRECT object, there is NO agreement, even though the action reflects back on the subject:
Linda et Denise se sont parlé. Linda and Denise spoke to each other.
In the above example, because the verb "parler" (and "se parler") usually take an indirect object, there can be NO agreement between "se" and the past participle, because "se" is NOT a DIRECT object. Here are a couple more examples of pronominal verbs which take ONLY an INDIRECT object:
Ils se sont téléphoné. They telephoned each other.
Les événements se sont succédé. Events followed one another.
It is important to understand the rule of agreement where a direct and indirect object are concerned, because this rule also comes into play when dealing with the auxiliary "avoir" in the passé composé. Here are the rules of agreement when "avoir" is used as an auxiliary in the passé composé:
1) When using the auxiliary "avoir" in the passé composé, there is NEVER agreement between the SUBJECT and PAST PARTICIPLE.
Marie a pleuré. Mary cried.
Ils ont fini leur travail. They (have) finished their work.
2) HOWEVER, there IS agreement between the DIRECT OBJECT and PAST PARTICIPLE, IF and only IF the DIRECT object PRECEDES the verb; this means that the DIRECT object, in order for it to come BEFORE the noun, must be in the form of a direct object pronoun (le, la, l', les) or a direct object relative pronoun (que):
1. Jean a vendu sa voiture; il l'a vendue (he sold it).
2. Marie a donné sa clef à Marc; elle l'a donnée à Marc (she gave it to Mark).
3. La robe que j'ai achetée est rouge. = The dress that I bought is red.
Notice, in the above examples, that there is agreement ONLY between the direct object which PRECEDES the verb and the past participle. If you look at the first part of the first two examples, you will notice that there is NO agreement between the direct object (voiture, clef) and the past participle (vendu, donné), because that direct object comes AFTER the verb; however, in the second part of the first two examples, there IS agreement between the DIRECT object (l') and the past participle (vendue, donnée), because the DIRECT object, which refers back to the "car" (and to the "key") comes BEFORE the verb. Here is a diagram of example 1:
1st part 2nd part
Jean a vendu sa voiture; il l'a vendue (he sold it).
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V V V V
verb direct object direct object verb
If the object pronoun is anything other than a DIRECT object, there is NO agreement, as in the following examples:
indirect object pronoun: J'ai téléphoné à Marie; je lui ai téléphoné.
adverbial pronoun: Elle a bu de la limonade; elle en a bu.
"Lui" and "en" are not direct objects; there is therefore no agreement with the past participle.
In example 3, the relative pronoun (que), which comes BEFORE the verb of the relative clause (all relative pronouns do), is a direct object; that is why there is agreement between it and the past participle:
La robe que j'ai achetée est rouge. = The dress that I bought is red.
direct object verb of relative clause
I bought what? The dress (la robe). Since the relative pronoun represents the word "robe", a feminine singular, and since it is a direct object relative pronoun of the verb "acheter", and it precedes the verb of the relative clause, there will be agreement between it and the past participle.
Let us note, finally, that when the past participle does agree, whether it be with the subject or direct object, it always agrees in gender and number:
Elle est partie.
Ils sont venus.
Ce sont elles qui sont passées. (qui = subject; auxiliary = être)
Ce n'est pas l'homme que j'ai connu. (que = direct object; auxiliary = avoir)
LES TEMPS COMPOSES:
The compound tenses, called in French "les temps composés", are composed of two verbs: an auxiliary (être/avoir), which may be in the present, imperfect, future, conditional, in both the indicative or subjunctive, and a past participle, which may or may not be subject to agreement.
example of two verbs in the compound tenses:
j'ai parlé = I have spoken je suis arrivé(e) = I have arrived
j'avais parlé = I had spoken j'étais arrivé(e) = I had arrived
j'aurai parlé = I will have spoken je serai arrivé(e) = I will have arrived
j'aurais parlé = I would have spoken je serais arrivé(e) = I would have arrived
que j'aie parlé = that I had spoken que je sois arrivé(e) = that I had arrived**
**Please note: Since the English language no longer really uses the past subjunctive (perhaps I'm wrong on this one), it is quite difficult to give you an accurate English translation of the French past tense subjunctive; I have chosen to use the pluperfect, although other tenses may be, in fact, probably are, possible.
Compound tenses conjugated with "avoir/être"
avoir parlé = to have spoken (Perfect Participle: ayant parlé)
être entré = to have come in, entered (Perfect Participle: étant entré)
Passé Composé = Present Perfect Indicative
j'ai parlé I have spoken
tu as parlé you have spoken
il/elle/on a parlé he/she/one has spoken
nous avons parlé we have spoken
vous avez parlé you have spoken
ils/elles ont parlé they have spoken
je suis entré(e) I have entered, come in
tu es entré(e) you have entered, come in
il (on) est entré he (one) has entered, come in
elle est entrée she has entered, come in
nous sommes entré(e)s we have entered, come in
vous êtes entré(e)(s) you have entered, come in
ils sont entrés they have entered, come in
elles sont entrées they have entered, come in
Plus-que-parfait = Pluperfect Indicative
j'avais parlé I had spoken
tu avais parlé you had spoken
il/elle/on avait parlé he/she/one had spoken
nous avions parlé we had spoken
vous aviez parlé you had spoken
ils/elles avaient parlé they had spoken
j'êtais entré(e) I had entered, come in
tu êtais entré(e) you had entered, come in
il (on) êtait entré he (one) had entered, come in
elle êtait entrée she had entered, come in
nous étions entré(e)s we had entered, come in
vous êtiez entré(e)(s) you had entered, come in
ils êtaient entrés they had entered, come in
elles étaient entrées they had entered, come in
Futur Antérieur = Future Perfect
j'aurai parlé I will have (shall have) spoken
tu auras parlé you will have spoken
il/elle/on aura parlé he/she/one will have spoken
nous aurons parlé we will have spoken
vous aurez parlé you will have spoken
ils/elles auront parlé they will have spoken
je serai entré(e) I will have entered, come in
tu seras entré(e) you will have entered, come in
il (on) sera entré he (one) will have entered, come in
elle sera entrée she will have entered, come in
nous serons entré(e)s we will have entered, come in
vous serez entré(e)(s) you will have entered, come in
ils seront entrés they will have entered, come in
elles seront entrées they will have entered, come in
Conditionnel passé = Conditional Perfect
j'aurais parlé I would have spoken
tu aurais parlé you would have spoken
il/elle/on aurait parlé he/she/one would have spoken
nous aurions parlé we would have spoken
vous auriez parlé you would have spoken
ils/elles auraient parlé they would have spoken
je serais entré(e) I would have entered, come in
tu serais entré(e) you would have entered, come in
il (on) serait entré he (one) would have entered, come in
elle serait entrée she would have entered, come in
nous serions entré(e)s we would have entered, come in
vous seriez entré(e)(s) you would have entered, come in
ils seraient entrés they would have entered, come in
elles seraient entrées they would have entered, come in