How to speak about the past in French–Part 1

In this blog post, I want to look at a problem I regularly see in intermediate and even relatively advanced students : how to talk about things past in French. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, English-speaking students have a particularly difficult time with this topic.

If you ever have to pass an examination in spoken French, you will surely be asked to describe or narrate some past events. It could be something like describe what you did last weekend, a vacation or maybe your day yesterday. The examiner might say something like :

Parlez-moi un peu de votre journée d’hier.
Racontez-moi vos dernières vacances.
Comment avez-vous appris le français ?

The examiner is looking for two things here. First, can you conjugate the verb forms correctly? Second, can you combine these forms correctly and produce the appropriate meaning?

When I give a workshop on this topic, I usually do a little warm-up exercise where I ask everybody to tell the group how they came to the workshop that day. To show what I’m looking for, I go first. Here is what I said recently:

Comme il faisait beau et j’étais un peu en retard, je me suis dit : tiens, pourquoi pas aller à l’atelier à vélo ? J’ai donc décidé de prendre ma bicyclette au lieu du bus.  Et je voulais aussi étrenner un nouveau cadenas que j’avais acheté cette semaine. J’ai mis le casque et je suis descendu au sous-sol de l’immeuble chercher ma bécane.Je suis parti de l’immeuble vers midi quarante-cinq (12 h 45) pour me rendre au café. Je suis donc venu avec le vélo que j’ai attaché à un poteau tout près d’ici. Le reste, je l’ai fait à pied.

Since the weather was great and I was running a bit late, I said to myself: why not take the bike to the workshop? So I decided to go by bike instead of the bus. I also wanted to try out a new lock that I had bought earlier that week, I put on my helmet and went down to the basement of the building to get my bicycle. I left the building around 12:45 and headed for the café. I arrived I locked my bike to a pole close to here. I walked the rest of the way.

Everybody then takes their turn telling their story of how they came to the workshop. The results vary considerably and tend to be rather disastrous in terms of the verb conjugations.

The workhorses for narrating the past in French

You will have certainly noticed in my little speech that the two most common verb forms are the passé composé and the imparfait de l’indicatif. These are what I call the two workhorses of French narration of the past. These are the two forms that you have to know inside out. And I’m sure most readers are somewhat familiar with them.

The more common passé composé or compound past is made up of the auxiliary verb avoir in the present tense plus the past participle of the main verb. In my text, I say : J’ai décidé ‘I decided’.

You also probably know that in French there are around 17 verbs that take the auxiliary être instead of avoir. The verb partir is one of them and in my text I use the form : je suis parti de l’immeuble. In the workshop I would point out that partir requires the preposition de when used with l’immeuble whereas the alternative verb quitter does not require this preposition, i.e. J’ai quitté l’immeuble. This is a small but very important distinction.

Note that all pronominal verbs conjugate their passé composé with the auxiliary être. For example, je me suis dit ‘I said to myself ‘.

The other very important verb form is the imparfait de l’indicatif or simply the indicatif. This is a simple verb form with the endings –ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient. Examples from my text include il faisait beau ‘The weather was great’ and j’étais en retard ‘I was running late’.

Other verb forms used when narrating the past in French

Although the passé composé and the imparfait are by far the most important verb forms for talking about the past, it is important to remember that in the course of a narration, other forms will be used for various reasons. Here for example is a breakdown of the verb forms from a short newspaper article with 59 verbs forms:

passé composé 20 34%
infinitif 18 31%
imparfait 9 15%
gérondif 4 7%
plus-que-parfait 3 5%
présent 2 3%
subjonctif 1 2%
conditionnel passé 1 2%
conditionnel 1 2%

Now, if we eliminate all the verb forms that do not explicitly refer to past events, we get the following breakdown :

passé composé 20 61%
imparfait 9 27%
plus-que-parfait 3 9%
conditionnel passé 1 3%

These figures confirm what we have already experienced. The passé composé and the imparfait make up the vast majority – close to 90% of the verb forms referring to the past.

Why is this so difficult for speakers of English?

Although the French system is rather straightforward since there are basically only two verb forms to worry about, it is very challenging for speakers of English. The problem of course is the interference of the English verb system.

The heart of the problem lies in the fact that English uses the simple past form (I decided, I put, I came, I was, etc.) for most of the uses of the passé composé and the imparfait. French has a passé simple that is a literary form hardly used in the modern spoken language. I’ll soon do a blog post on the history of the passé simple.

The French passé composé bears some resemblance to the English present perfect (I have decided, I have put, I have come), but the uses of the two forms are very different.

The French imparfait (e.g. je vivais) , as we have seen, can be translated in English by the simple perfect (I lived) but also by other forms such as the past continuous (e.g. I was living) or with the auxiliary “used to” (e.g. I used to live).

Part of the problem lies in the fact that English verb forms or inflections are very simple. Aside for the irregular simple past forms, the English verbs hardly varies inside a given tense. Compare I lived, you lived, he/she lived, we lived, you lived, they lived with j’ai vécu, tu as vécu, il/elle/on a vécu, nous avons vécu, vous avez vécu, ils/elles ont vécu.

To make things more complicated there are all sorts of complex issues of gender agreement when the être auxiliary is used.

All of this can seem very confusing when in fact the situation is quite simple. The solution is to forget completely about how English works and concentrate on the passé composé and the imparfait.

Conclusion : drill the passé composé and the imparfait to death

You can’t avoid it : the past composé is the most important form. This is what you will use to describe things that happened at specific moments in the past.

I won’t discuss the details of conjugating the passé composé. All that can be found in any grammar book or on the web. The auxiliary verb forms are not the problem. It’s the past participles that you can be tricky.

The imparfait is used when describing the state of something, e.g. the weather, or for emphasizing duration. Although the endings of the imparfait form are straightforward, the difficulty lies in the verb root form to which the endings are attached. Again you’ll just have to drill that from some grammar book or website.

When you want to show off or demonstrate some serious mastery of French verbs, you will want to learn the other verb forms such as the plus-que-parfait and the conditionnel passé. And to really go far out, I’ll show in the next blog post how to use the present and future forms to talk or write about the past.

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