In this post I want to look at common mistake that English-speaking learners of French must avoid. Most readers know that the common translation of the English preposition ‘for’ in French is pour, as in :
L’appel est pour vous.
The call is for you.
J’en ai pour deux heures.
This should take two hours.
Merci pour tous vos efforts
Thanks for all your efforts
Pour toute facture impayée, n’hésitez pas à relancer le client.
For any unpaid invoice, don’t hesitate to remind the customer.
Overuse of pour, a common mistake of English-speakers in French
This apparent equivalence of ‘for’ and pour leads to a widespread mistake that I hear even in advanced English-speaking learners of French. Here are some recent examples :
*J’ai fait du ski pour quinze ans.
I skied for 15 years.
*On a étudié le français pour quatre heures chaque jour tout l’été.
We studied French for four hours every day of the summer.
* J’attendais pour deux heures.
I was waiting for three hours.
*Elle compte parler pour vingt minutes.
She intends to speak for twenty minutes.
* Il habite Montréal pour deux ans.
He’s been living in Montreal for two years.
Here are the correct forms :
J’ai fait du ski pendant quinze ans.
On a étudié le français pendant quatre heures chaque jour tout l’été.
Elle compte parler pendant vingt minutes
J’attendais depuis deux heures.
Il habite Montréal depuis deux ans.
Using pendant and depuis instead of pour
As we see, the prepositions pendant and depuis are used instead of pour when referring to the duration of time. Grammar books often call these words ‘temporal prepositions’ because they are used when talking about time. Let’s look at pendant and depuis.
Pendant is the real workhorse here. It is used to talk about the duration of an action or event, especially in the past. It can also be used with other tenses. Here are some examples :
J’ai travaillé pendant dix heures hier.
I worked for ten hours yesterday.
Elle joue du piano tous les jours pendant une heure.
She plays the piano for an hour every day
When in doubt about describing the duration of an action, try pendant. Most of the time it should work. It is also often the equivalent of the English prepositions ‘while’ or ‘during’.
Depuis is also often used when speaking of an action that started in the past but continues to the present moment. For example, you will see it in typical questions like:
Depuis combien de temps habitez-vous Montréal ?
How long have you been living in Montréal ?
Vous attendez depuis longtemps ?
Have you been waiting long ?
The answers will of course take depuis.
I should point out that in spoken French, especially in Québécois, you might hear :
Ça fait combien de temps que vous habitez Montréal ?
Ça fait longtemps que vous attendez ?
In this case, your answer could use the Ça fait… que construction.
A special use of depuis
There is also a rather formal and somewhat rare use of depuis that you’ll hear particularly in newscasts. Because the very common preposition de can mean both ‘about’, ‘of’ and ‘from’, there can be some ambiguity in a sentence like :
La journaliste nous parle de Paris.
The reporter is speaking about Paris / The reporter is speaking from Paris.
To avoid any confusion, a radio announcer will use depuis, as in :
La journaliste nous parle depuis Paris.
A classic case of overgeneralization
The confusion of pour and ‘for’ is a perfect example of what language teachers call overgeneralization.The two words have some but not all uses in common. Because of these common uses, we tend to assume that the French word behaves the same way as the English word. This is very often not the case and the initial resemblances inevitably lead to mistakes in French.
For example, my favourite dictionary, the Grand Larousse de la langue française, identifies seven distinct uses of pour plus some subtle nuances. Of these seven uses, two or three resemble somewhat the uses of ‘for’ in English. At the same time, ‘for’ in English has many uses that do not coincide with uses of pour. This is a recipe for linguistic confusion.
The solution is to see things from the perspective of French and not in terms of translation from English. I highly recommend that you have a look at pour in a big dictionary and try to forget any comparison with ‘for’. You simply have to get used to the logic underlying its use. And while you’re at it, look up pendant and depuis.
When to use pour?
With all this talk about avoiding the overuse of pour, it should be pointed out that this word is widely used and has all sorts of interesting and sophisticated uses that I don’t have space to detail here. Even when speaking about duration of time, it can can be used in certain situations that I’ll look at in another blog post. In the meantime, here are two little examples of contrasting uses of ‘for’ and pour:
Je n’y suis pour rien dans cette histoire.
I have nothing to do with this affair.
Son mari est un bon à rien.
Her husband is a good-for-nothing.
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.