Monday, August 5

I agonize over the subtleties of passé composé vs. imparfait.

I will never master the subtleties of passé composé vs. imparfait. Consoled myself with un café at Café de Flore.

In theory, imparfait is for background, scene setting. Passé composé is for actions. For example: "Il pleuvait quand tout à coup la téléphone a sonné." (It was raining when all of a sudden the telephone rang.) "It was raining" is background, in the imparfait ("il pleuvait"). "the telephone rang" is action, in the passé composé ("la téléphone a sonné"). So far so good, if you're writing movie scripts. In real writing and speaking it gets less clear-cut very quickly.

For example: "Each time he came to Chicago he called us". 2 verbs. "to come" and "to call". Imparfait or passé composé? Coming to somewhere and calling someone are both actions. But in this case, because they're habitual actions, both verbs are imparfait.

But consider "When he came to Chicago several times last month he called us". Same two verbs with same two meanings, but this time both must be in the passé composé, because the actions took place over a specific well-defined time period in the past, with a beginning and an end.

And these are the simple examples. It gets much worse. In some cases, you can used either tense, and they give the sentence completely different meanings. And you can break the rules for dramatic or literary impact, if you know what you're doing.

This ALWAYS makes sense after someone who knows what they're talking about it explains it to you, but NEVER before.

Here's a good example from yesterday's homework. Consider two sentences in English:

The earthquake only lasted a few seconds; many people left work when it struck.

The earthquake only lasted a few seconds; many people were leaving work when it struck.

Different meanings, right? In French you'd use the passé composé form of "to leave" in the first example, and the imparfait in the second. Otherwise the sentences are identical:

Le tremblement de terre n'a duré que quelques secondes; beaucoup de gens (se sont rendus, se rendaient) quand il s'est produit.

The other two verbs in the sentence are always in the passé composé, they can't be changed meaningfully in this case.

Walked down the Mouf to get some milk yesterday. Along one section there's an iron railing separating the sidewalk from the street. I was in the street. A girl of maybe 6 or 7 years on the sidewalk with her parents dropped a piece of paper on the street. I picked it up and handed it back to her. She looked up at me and said "Merci, monsieur" in the sweetest little voice, with the most perfect accent and smile. Now how sweet is that? I've noticed that French children are extremely well-behaved around adults, always polite and respectful.

Do I ever hear people here making grammatical errors? Quelle question! I'm lucky if I understand 10% of what they're saying. I have no time at all to pay attention to finer details like their grammar!

I really don't want to leave this place. Seriously - if I were rich, I'd move here permanently.