Created by Jacques Léon Page design by Roberth Andersson
Whether time is the fourth dimension of the Universe - as suggested by modern physics - or a bio-physical process which makes events irreversible, it is a reality which nobody can reject ! As a matter of fact, the way people apprehend time is strongly reflected in the human languages. In the Western European languages (these are the only languages I can talk about) time is basically composed of two concepts : the instant and the duration. The languages try to address these two basic concepts with an arsenal of verb tenses. Although the main principles are the same, there are sound and subtle differencies between languages in the way they express time. First, let's talk about the common concepts.
Time can be thought as a one-dimension rule where events occur. A point, or a specific position on the rule is an instant while the space between two instants is a duration. I am sure that you are very familiar with these definitions. The time - the position on the time rule - of our conscience is the reference point : it is present time. Before it is the past and after, the future. In the Western European languages, the basic verb tenses directly reflect this partition of time : they make provision of present, past and future tenses. However, present, past and future depict only the position - the instants - of events relative to the reference point (our conscience). Expressing the duration is subtler and vary very strongly from one language to an other one.
In this lesson, we're going to focus on the past tenses. Click here now to jump to the grammar section.
Lesson plan :
Conjunctions & Adverbs
In French, there are 4 past tenses :
The passé simple won't be addressed in this lesson for it is not used in the spoken language (today, the passé simple is exclusively employed in literrary works such as novels). The three other past tenses are commonly used in both the spoken and the written language. The most popular of them is the passé composé. So, let's start with it.
The passé composé is the most popular but not the simpler past tense. As suggested by its name (passé composé means composed past), the passé composé is built up using an auxiliary verb. In French, as opposed to English and Germanic languages, there are two possible auxiliary verbs : avoir (to have) and être (to be). Basically, the passé composé is constructed following the pattern below :
auxiliary verb conjugated in the present tense + verb in past participle
manger (past participle : mangé) :
aller (past participle : allé) :
The passé composé is used to express actions which took place in the past and are completed. In addition, to some extent, there may be a link, or a relationship between this past action and the present. For instance, the past action may have consequences in the present, or the past action took place in a period which is not completed yet - though the action itself is completed - (such a period can be an hour, a day, a week, the duration of a special event, etc.). In general, the passé composé does not bear any duration information by itself : the action may have been very long or very short. The duration information - if required - must be added explicitly (see 5th example below).
Basically, past participle is fairly simple in French but there are lots of irregular verbs which make it more complicated than it seems at the first look. Remember the 3rd lesson dedicated to verbs : there are three verb groups in French.
The past participle for the 1st verb group is built by replacing the infinitive ending by -é. e.g. :
|manger (to eat)||mangé|
|chanter (to sing)||chanté|
|aller (to go)||allé|
|jouer (to play)||joué|
The past participle for the 2nd verb group is built by replacing the infinitive ending by -i. e.g. :
|finir (to finish)||fini|
|grandir (to grow)||grandi|
|choisir (to choose)||choisi|
|sortir (to go out)||sorti|
|partir (to leave)||parti|
But there some major exceptions such as :
|courir (to run)||couru|
|couvrir (to cover)||couvert|
The 3nd group verbs are strongly irregular. However, in many cases, the past participle is obtained by replacing the infinitive ending by -u. e.g. :
|vendre (to sell)||vendu|
|boire (to drink)||bu|
|prendre (to take)||pris|
|voire (to see)||vu|
|entendre (to hear)||entendu|
|vivre (to live)||vécu|
|mettre (to put)||mis|
The past participles for the verbs être and avoir are :
You'll find a list of past participles at the end of this lesson.
The past participle concordance rules are certainly one of the most complicated aspects of the written French. There are two basic rules :
Let's startwith the simplest one :
Concordance rule for the verbs which conjugate with the auxiliary être
Rule : the past participle ot the verbs which conjugate with the auxiliary être is in concordance with the gender and the number of the subject of the verb. The concordance complies with the adjective concordance rules (the feminine is formed by appending a -e and the plural by appending a -s). e.g.:
Concordance rule for the verbs which conjugate with the auxiliary avoir
Rule : the past participle of the verbs which conjugate with the auxiliary avoir is in concordance with the gender and the number of the complément d'objet if it is placed before the verb (!!!) otherwise, the past participle remains unchanged. The concordance complies with the adjective concordance rules (the feminine is formed by appending a -e and the plural by appending a -s). e.g.:
Most of the verbs conjugate in passé composé with the auxiliray avoir. However, the number of verbs which require the auxiliary être is not negligable. There is no reliable rule to determine whether a verb conjugate with the auxiliary être or avoir. Nevertheless, there are some hints which can help you use the right auxiliary. The verbs which conjugate with the auxiliary être are :
The concepts of pronominal and intransitive verbs will be discussed in detail later on this course. However, to clarify the previous rules, let's give the following definition :
|transitive verbs||conjugation example|
|manger (to eat)||je mange un bon repas (I am eating a good meal)|
|chanter (to sing)||Je chante une chanson (I am singing a song)|
|boire (to drink)||je bois un verre de vin (I'm drinking a glass of wine)|
|intransitive verbs||conjugation example|
|aller (to go)||je vais à l'école (I'm going to school)|
|voler (to fly)||l'avion vole (the airplane flies)|
|rouler (to run)||la voiture roule (the car runs)|
So, the main intranstive verbs which must be conjugated with the auxiliary être are :
The imparfait is the second most popular past tense in French. As opposed to passé composé,it is very easy to conjugate for it does not need any auxiliary verb. The imparfait conjugation pattern is similar to the present tense one with some alterations.
chanter (to sing)
parler (to speak, to talk)
écouter (to listen to)
You can clearly see the conjugation pattern applying to the the termination of the 1st group verbs.
Now, let's try " aller " which irregular in present tense :
In the imparfait, " aller " is no longer irregular. That's a good news !
finir (to finish)
venir (to come)
vouloir (to want)
Once again, the conjugation of 2nd group verbs respect some kind of termination pattern, however, less obvious than in the 1st group. Some of the 2nd group verbs conjugate like " finir " (termination pattern : -ssais, -ssais, -ssait, -ssions, -ssiez, -ssaient) and others, like " venir "conjugate as the 1st group verbs. Once again, you may have noticed that the imparfait conjugation is less irregular than the present tense.
boire (to drink)
vendre (to sell)
vivre (to live)
The 3rd group is still a mess but less than in the present tense.They respect the same termination pattern as the 1st group verbs (-ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient) but might be subject to some alteration. However, in most cases, the alteration is very simple : the infinitive termination -re is dropped and replaced by the conjugation termination.
The auxiliary verbs être and avoir are as irregular in imparfait as in the present tense. Let's take a close look at them.
être (to be)
avoir (to have)
Basically, the imparfait tense is used to express actions which were in progress in a past portion of time, whithout specifying with precision when they began and when they completed. In general, the imparfait is used when the action has taken a certain amount of time, i.e. it was not an instant action. Examples :
Most of the time, the imparfait is employed in French in place of the progressive past (progressive preterit) in English. This rule works very well.
The common way to ask for the time in French is :
Quelle heure est-il ? (What time is it ? literally : what hour is it)
The answer is :
Il est deux heures (it is two o'clock)
Il est trois heures (it is three o'clock)
Il est trois heures cinq (it is five past three)
Il est trois heures dix (it is ten past three)
Il est trois heures et quart (it is a quarter past three)
Il est trois heures vingt (it is twenty past three)
Il est trois heures vingt-cinq (it is twenty five past three)
Il est trois heures et demi (it is half past three)
Il est quatre heures moins vingt-cinq (it is twenty five to four)
Il est quatre heures moins vingt (it is twenty to four)
Il est quatre heures moins le quart (it is a quarter to four)
Il est quatre heures moins dix (it is ten to four)
Il est quatre heures moins cinq (it is five to four)
Il est midi (it is noon, 12:00 am) or
Il est minuit (it is midnight, 12:00 pm)
As you see, French people express the time in a way similar to English people. There are some - minor differencies however :
The French counterparts of quarter and half are respectively quart and demi.
To distinguish the time in the morning and in the afternoon, English people use the abbreviations a.m. (ante meridiem) and p.m.(post meridiem). French people don't use these abbreviations. In French, the time in the morning and in the afternoon are specified by respectively adding du matin (in the morning) or de l'après-midi (in the afternoon) after the time. Examples :
In addition, there is a more formal way to make this distinction
which works like this :
|Time on the clock||French time|
|1:00 am||une heure|
|1:00 pm||treize heures (13:00)|
|2:00 am||deux heures|
|2:00 pm||quatorze heures (14:00)|
|2:15 am||deux heures quinze|
|2:15 pm||quatorze heures quinze (14:15)|
|2:30 am||deux heures trente|
|2:30 pm||quatorze heures trente (14:30)|
|2:45 am||deux heures quarante cinq|
|2:45 pm||quatorze heures quarante cinq (14:45)|
|2:50 am||deux heures cinquante|
|2:50 pm||quatorze heures cinquante (14:50)|
|12:00 am||douze heures or midi|
This way of expressing the time is utilized in the train stations, the airports, at work, in any sort of time-tables. But in the day-to-day life, people prefer to say trois heures de l'après-midi rather than quinze heures.
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