This is a question about what is sometimes called 'backshifting' in English grammar. Please see the following sentence from L'Étranger by Camus.

(C1') Il y avait longtemps que j’étais allé à la campagne et je sentais{-1} quel plaisir j’aurais pris{-1} à me promener s’il n’y avait pas eu{-1 or -2} maman.

The context is Meursault, the first person narrator, having kept a vigil for his poor maman. Seeing that it was a fine morning, he expresses the regret as above.

I marked some verbs for their time of occurrence, where '-1' means the past. That is:

  • The "feeling" ("sentir") occurred in the past (relative to the act of narrating).
  • The "taking" of a walk couldn't occur, but its supposed time of occurrence is, I believe, the same as that of "feeling." I.e., Meursault was thinking, "I now want to go on a walk but can't."
  • Maman's condition of being dead (represented as "maman") is also contemporaneous with the "feeling" and "taking." ("Mother's now being dead prevents me.") But if we equate "maman" with "maman's act of dying" then it is a more remote past, i.e. -2. ("Mother's dying yesterday now prevents my walk.") In what follows, I will ignore this second possibility.

Now in English, counterfactuals (or unreals or irreals) (usually) don't backshift. Consider the following examples.

(A) I wish{0} I were{0} in Hawaii.

(A') I wished{-1} I were{-1} in Hawaii. (Last winter I wished I were in Hawaii, but now I am glad I stayed in New York. The snow kept me indoors, and I got a lot of studying done.)

(B) I wish{0} I had been{-1} more careful.

(B') I wished{-1} I had been{-2} more careful. (Last week I wished I had been more careful the week before, but it turns out it wouldn't have mattered anyway.)

You will note that:

  • In (A), "wish" and "were" refer to the present. (You can characterize "were" as timeless, but still the speaker is wishing it for the present.)
  • In (A'), "wished" and "were" refer to the same point in the past. I.e. (A') expresses the same thing as (A), only the act of expressing takes place at a later time.
  • When (A) became (A'), "were" stayed the same, i.e. did not backshift.
  • We can make similar observations about (B) and (B'), namely that, "had been" referred to a time before "wish"/"wished" and did not backshift.
  • Indicatives, in contrast, backshift. E.g. "I believe I am in the right" becomes "I believed I was in the right" (i.e. "am" backshifts to "was").

If we thought that French worked just like these examples (i.e. that French counterfactuals did not backshift), then we would read the quoted Camus on the model of (B'), not (A'), i.e. we read that Meursault, looking at the beautiful day at e.g. 10 a.m., had a view on what he had or had not done at e.g. 8 a.m. If so, the time coding should have been:

(C2') je sentais{-1} quel plaisir j’aurais pris{-2} à me promener s’il n’y avait pas eu{-2} maman

If we could travel back in time to 10 a.m. of that day, we'd hear him say:

(C2) Je sens{0} quel plaisir j’aurais pris{-1} à me promener s’il n’y avait pas eu{-1} maman.

And not:

(C1) Je sens{0} quel plaisir je prendrais{0} à me promener s’il n’y avait{0} pas maman.

But I don't believe (C2) and (C2') are what is intended. I believe we should understand (C1) and (C1').

My questions are:

Question 1: Am I right to think that the quote from Camus is time-coded like (C1'), not (C2')? (I.e. am I right to think that the quote reports on what Meursault once thought that he might or might not do right then, not what he might or might not have done at some more remote past?)

Question 2: If I am right to think Camus is time-coded like (C1') and therefore Meursault would have said (C1) (not (C2)), you will note that backshifts occurred (i.e. "prendrais" to "aurais pris" and "avait" to "avait eu"). Is this normal? I.e. do French counterfactuals usually backshift like that?

Question 3: If, on the other hand, French counterfactuals do not usually backshift, then what accounts for the deviation from this rule found in the quoted Camus?

(I asked a similar question for German. If anybody can answer that also, please go and see.)

1 Answer 1


Dealing with conditional sentences can cause a few headaches to both native speakers and learners. As far as I'm concerned, you are right in your assumptions: the time code is C1, and its past form is C1'. This is my assessment as a native French speaker, but I will try to explain myself.

The first thing you might want to avoid is to strictly compare how both languages deal with a situation. In French, the conditional mood is used for conditional statements, whether the time of occurrence is present, future or past. As a mood, it has several tenses (present and two forms of past), as in this Camus-like example:

S'il n'y avait pas maman, je prendrais plaisir à me promener. (present conditional)

S'il n'y avait pas eu maman, j'aurais pris plaisir à me promener. (past conditional)

We could try to find an English equivalent, minus the style:

If it was not for Mom, I would enjoy a walk. (present)

If it had not been for Mom, I would have enjoyed a walk. (past)

The irreal statement here did backshift both in French and English, which contradicts what you are saying in your question. I am no English specialist, but isn't backshifting only ignored in the "I wish I were..." form? I think it is, because that form is often seen as obeying a special rule.

Let us focus on Camus again, this time with the actual line from the book:

Il y avait longtemps que j’étais allé à la campagne et je sentais quel plaisir j’aurais pris à me promener s’il n’y avait pas eu maman.

I put the second half of the sentence in italic, because it is the same proposition as the one in my past conditional example. Which means that if Meursault were telling his story in the present tense, we would read:

Il y a longtemps que je suis allé à la campagne et je sens quel plaisir je prendrais à me promener s'il n'y avait pas maman.

And we are back to the past conditional example.

In a nutshell, here are the answers to your questions :

  1. The time code you assumed is right. I would add that there is indeed a doubt on what Meursault means by "Maman" : the act of her dying (-2), or her condition of being dead (-1). I guess only Camus can answer that.

  2. Backshifts happen in French... but I do think they happen in English too ;-)

  3. Well, no deviation then! Unless for "Il y avait longtemps que j'étais allé...", which looks odd in 2015. We would rather say now "Il y avait longtemps que je n'étais pas...".

I hope I was helpful!

  • Thanks, very helpful. Just a note on English. There, I think the idea "counterfactuals don't backshift" is not limited to the "wish" context. For example, imagine a novel that began, "One afternoon, Meursault was thinking{-1} how much better things could have been{-2} if not for his mother." This is Meusault reflecting on what he did/did not achieve/enjoy in the past. For someone reflecting on the current state of his life, you would say, "Meusault was thinking{-1} how much better things could be{-1}."
    – Catomic
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 14:40
  • 2
    I agree, these sentences express two different things. However, in French, you would use the first form (was thinking... could have been) for expressing both. If you don't get more answers, could you mark mine as accepted? :-)
    – Kyrio
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 15:00
  • One more question. If someone said, "Je sentais{-1} quel plaisir je prendrais{-1} à me promener s’il n’y avait{-1} pas maman," to mean the thing as time-coded (i.e. what he felt was he wanted a walk right then and there), would that be grammatically wrong?
    – Catomic
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 8:17
  • 1
    Yes, it would be. "Prendrais" is not a past form, it is the present conditional, so it is incompatible with "sentais", which is Imperfect (past). The same goes for "avait", which should be Pluperfect : "avait eu".
    – Kyrio
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 9:18
  • An answer antithetical to this one would (a) state that French conditionals do not backshift in standard contexts and (b) try to reconcile the Camus sentence, i.e. C1', as an exception. For a discussion tending in that direciton, please see this other post: french.stackexchange.com/questions/16137/…
    – Catomic
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 11:10

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