In a previous post, we looked at a common mistake in the use of pour in French, instead of pendant or depuis, as a translation of the English preposition ‘for’. Here are some examples:
1. The suspect was interrogated by the police for six hours.
Wrong: *Le suspect a été interrogé par la police pour six heures.
Right: Le suspect a été interrogé par la police pendant six heures.
2. We haven’t seen him for a while.
Wrong: *On ne l’a pas vu pour longtemps.
Right: On ne l’a pas vu depuis longtemps.
The key idea here is that when we are emphasizing duration of time, we should think of using pendant – for a specific duration in the past or the future – or depuis for an duration lasting up to the present moment.
Although all this was covered in the other post, the distinction between right and wrong is not as clear cut as it may seem. In fact, it could be argued that the so-called wrong forms above are not really that wrong; it’s just that they convey a different meaning from the English original.
In this post, I want to revisit the use of pour and ‘for’and look at some of the subtleties and details that can make for sophisticated uses and demonstrate a good mastery of French.
A detail: the two meanings of pour six heures
Let’s clear up a minor detail in the interpretation of Le suspect a été interrogé par la police pour six heures. You should remember here that six heures in French can also mean six o’clock as well as six hours. Depending on the context, the above sentence could be interpreted by a native speaker to mean:
The police finished interrogating the suspect by six o’clock.
A different interpretation of ‘for’
Let’s make a small change to the original English sentence.
The suspect was not interrogated by the police for six hours.
Here two interpretations are possible. Firstly, it could be a simple negation of the six-hour duration. The French equivalent is simply:
Le suspect n’a pas été interrogé par la police pendant six heures.
Mind you, to be really clear, it would be preferable to use something like:
L’interrogation du suspect n’a pas duré six heures.
The other interpretation would be: the police waited six hours before interrogating the suspect. In the right context, the French equivalent with pendant could work here just like its English counterpart. But to be absolutely clear, it would be better to say something like:
La police a attendu six heures avant d’interroger le suspect.
A good solution could also be to re-arrange the sentences:
For six hours, the police did not interrogate the suspect.
Pendant six heures, la police n’a pas interrogé le suspect.
Using pour for intention
Part of the complication in the use of pour is the fact that in French there is this idea of ‘intention, purpose, goal’ in addition to ‘duration’, whereas ‘for’ in English really emphasizes duration. In French, it is the accompanying verb that tells us whether we are talking about experiencing a duration of time or whether it is more the intention of spending a certain time. Here are some examples where pour is perfectly correct:
Je pars pour le weekend / la fin de semaine.
I’m off for the weekend.
Il est allé à Paris pour quatre jours.
He went to Paris for four days.
Elle est venue pour six heures seulement.
She only came for six hours.
Notice how these verbs of movement, partir, aller and venir work well with the idea of ‘for the purpose of staying…’. Look at the following examples:
La police l’ont arrêté pour cinq heures mais ils l’ont gardé pendant deux jours.
The police arrested him for only five hours but they kept him for two days.
Il est arrivé à Paris pour dix jours mais il n’est resté que pendant cinq jours.
He came with the intention of staying ten days but only stayed five days.
Je suis allé à Paris pour un an mais finalement j’y ai séjourné pendant cinq ans.
I went to Paris for a year but I ended up staying for five years.
(I should also point out that with many verbs, like garder, rester and séjourner here, one can simplify the whole problem by not using anything, as in …ils l’ont gardé deux jours, …il n’est resté que cinq jours and …j’y ai séjourné cinq ans.)
As we can see, the choice of pour or pendant depends much on the preceding verb. Verbs like voyager, rester, habiter, étudier, être, vivre, parler, dormir, manger, lire, and many others can be associated with an action lasting a certain time. Here you would use pendant.
Other verbs like partir, aller, venir, réserver, arriver, s’absenter, s’envoler, etc. are associated with goals, destinations or intentions, in which case pour would be more appropriate.
Playing with the rules of pour
Given this distinction between duration and intention and the attendant verbs, we can manipulate it to render certain subtleties. Here are some examples:
Il part pour la semaine.
He’s leaving for the coming week.
Il part pendant la semaine.
He’s leaving some time this week.
Je serai à Paris pour deux semaines à partir du 4.
I will be in Paris for two weeks starting the 4th.
Je serai pendant toute cette semaine à Paris.
I’ll be in Paris all this week.
Il s’est engagé pendant un an à trouver de nouveaux défis.
He committed to looking for new challenges over a year.
Il s’est engagé pour un an dans un nouveau travail.
He committed to a new job for a year.
Conclusion: after the basics take your French higher
I’ll be the first to admit that in real-life conversations a lot of the subtleties and distinctions I’ve discussed here go out the window. Most of the time, the general context and the words you use before and after a particular sentence will convey what you mean in spite of your wrong grammar. As long as you avoid those basic mistakes with pour, you should be alright.
That said, this is what sophisticated French is all about. Educated native speakers will make these fine distinctions when necessary. Once you have the basics out of the way, this sort of stuff will take your French higher.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician, language coach in French, English and Spanish, language workshop facilitator and organizer of French-English conversation meetups in Montreal, Canada. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Essential French Wall Chart Calendar. Reach him at email@example.com.