45 Days of French – Day 22

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
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!

Common Structures
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:

passé composé imperfect

Use this tense:

  • in general to relate past events.
  • when past events are sequential
  • when past events have a fixed time-frame

Use this tense:

  • to record the background, the setting – the décor – for relating sequences of past events.
  • when relating an ongoing past action/state during which other event(s) occur.
  • when past events are not viewed with a fixed endpoint, or are repeated or habitual, often in English, “used to”
  • conditional expressions with si that lead to secondary clauses in the present conditional mood

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!

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About George

I'm interested in theology, languages, translation and various sorts of fermentation.
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4 Responses to 45 Days of French – Day 22

  1. Siobhan says:

    How is this working out for you? Can you feel yourself making rapid progress? I always prefer to learn languages in classes as I don’t think I have the discipline to stick to a regime like this, but I’m always interested in how well they work for others.

    • George says:

      It’s working out pretty well. And blogging through it, though time-consuming, is very motivating. It keeps a constant goal/pressure before me, which is very important. I will say that the Essential French text, though less specific and detailed, gives me more confidence in my ability to converse. Conversation is always the issue with teach-yourself courses! But the work in Alpha’s text has already showed itself to help with my reading comprehension. We’ll see how it sticks.

      I’d love to take classes, but funds and time are always an issue. I did take 2 years of French in high school, but it wasn’t until I was out of college and in a day-to-day job that I realized my love for language-learning. Hindsight, and all…

  2. Pingback: 45 Days of French | σφόδρα – exceedingly

  3. Pingback: 45 Days of French – Day 32 | σφόδρα – exceedingly

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