Hour 10 of Alpha Teach Yourself French in 24 Hours (ATYF) reviews treatment of the passé composé seen yesterday, before moving on to the imperfect. Though the lesson goes in depth, there is actually only a limited amount of new information. But there is a lot of repetition of detail, reinforcing the concepts and going the distance to try and relate English structures to their “equivalent” French structures. Which is quite a job, since French past tenses are used very differently from the English past tenses.
The imperfect is the one of two common past tenses (we have already seen the other, the passé composé). It is used of actions in the past without definite end, of habitual actions, and of sharing past “setting” for events. Except for a singular exception, it is formed from the first person plural form of the present declarative by removing the ending -ons and adding the appropriate endings for person and number. These endings are the same as those for the present conditional mood, -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, and -aient.
The Imperfect of Être
The lone exception is être, since its first person plural form (sommes) does not end -ons. The stem, used to create the imperfect of être is ét-. The endings are regular, however. And since the imperfect is used to set the background information for telling about events in the past, this verb is common in the imperfect!
Être is not the only verb that is commonly used with the imperfect. ATYF also notes that avoir, croire, espérer, faire, penser, pouvoir, savoir, and vouloir are commonly found in the imperfect when speaking about the past.
And some of these verbs have nuance in meeting when they are found in the imperfect rather than the passé composé:
- j’ai pu / je pouvais, I was able / I could
- j’ai su / je savais, I discovered / I knew
- j’ai voulu / je voulais, I insisted upon / I wanted
As you can see, all of the forms in passé composé are much more “completed”.
As well, the following idioms we saw in the present tense (both governing an infinitive) are formed in the past using the imperfect:
- être en train de; this expression is another way of expressing a progressive present, “to be in the middle of something” or “in the process of doing”.
- venir de; this expression is like English “just finished doing…”, sort of an opposite to le futur proche. So if you want to say, “I had just finished doing x when y“, venir should be in the imperfect tense.
Past Tenses: Comparison of Usage
Going from English to French past is not exact. ATYF even suggests defaulting to the passé composé if you are uncertain. However, the following table should summarize the differences and provide some initial clues:
Use this tense:
Use this tense:
Conditionals in Si
Si is used to form conditionals, and requires certain verbs in the primary (the condition, which does not necessarily come first) and secondary clauses. When conditions are in the present or passé composé, they lead to statements in the future, imperfect or present. As noted in the past usage table, conditions in the imperfect lead to statements in the present conditional.
- si + imperfect → present-conditional: “if x had done, then y would do”
This sounds a lot like a contra-factual in Classical Greek to me: “if x had done (but x didn’t), then y would do (but y isn’t doing)”. The examples seem to back that up to a point, but I wouldn’t try to hold French to this rule. It just seems similar to me.
That’s it for Day 22. Dormez bien!