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« On ne s'était pas rendu compte que ce n'était qu'une épée d'apparat. »

or « On ne s'est pas rendu compte que ce n'était qu'une épée d'apparat. »

Two adults are looking back on their childhood. Given this context, I wonder if you should say:

"we hadn't realised that it was just a ceremonial sword"

or "we didn't realise that it was just a ceremonial sword".

How do the two versions differ in meaning in French?  

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The difference is exactly the same as in English : it is a matter of sequence of tenses. If you are narrating something, using a past tense, and you want to indicate that an action took place before the rest of your narrative, you need to use pluperfect. If it took place at the same time as, or in sequence with, the rest of your narrative, you'll use either present perfect (in French, most cases) or simple past (in French, literature only). In English, you'd use simple past and not present perfect, but the role of the pluperfect remains the same : it's a "past-in-the-past" tense.

S'est means that mistaking the sword for a real one took place in sequence with the rest of the narrative, s'était means it took place before all the rest.

For a clearer example :

Je suis allé chercher du pain, et quand je suis rentré je me suis aperçu que j'avais oublié mes clés.

I went to buy bread, and when I came home I realised I had forgotten my keys.

Going for bread, coming home and realising are a sequence of actions, so all these verbs use the same past tense. Forgetting your keys took place before this sequence, so you need to use the "past-in-the-past" / pluperfect tense.

  • +1 for an excellent explanation, but I would disagree that it is exactly the same as in English -- it is slightly more common in French. For instance, the most natural English way to say the first sentence in @cram2208's answer is "They remembered the first time that they talked to each other," although "...that they had talked to each other" is also acceptable. In general, the pluperfect seems to be used in French whenever it makes logical sense to use it, whereas in English, the simple past is sometimes preferable if context makes it clear that the situation is "pluperfect." – hunter Mar 29 '16 at 7:26
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S'était

On parle d'une action qui s'est produite dans le passé, sans rapporter de faits apparentés.

Ils se rappelaient de la première fois qu'ils s'étaient parlés.

S'est

On parle de ce qui se produit également dans le passé, mais en rapportant les événements qui se sont produits, dans le même contexte.

La première fois qu'ils se sont parlés, la gêne était palpable.

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It's the pluperfect tense.

The pluperfect is in this sequence.

Subject + Imperfect + Passe Compose

Elles m'en avaient bu beaucoup avant qu'elles m'aient emmenené au match football.

It's just conjugated into the pluperfect tense. The pluperfect is basically, an action that had happened already in the past (Je t'avais vu quand t'as arrivé ici)


I do agree with the above, it's all about the sequencing of the events. Saying that you had not realized before the rest of the events, or during the same sequence.

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that will depend on the answer to the following question:

"When didn't they realise?"

If the answer is back then when they were kids, then you should use "s'était". If the answer is when they remembered it, then you should use "s'est".

Hope that helps.

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