The question is on the grammatical aspect of a été in this passage from Camus's The Stranger.

The narrator is on trail for murder. The prosecutor (il below) has already made much of the narrator's callousness toward his mother and now returns to it in the summation.

C’est alors qu’il a parlé de mon attitude envers maman. Il a répété ce qu’il avait dit pendant les débats. Mais il a été beaucoup plus long que lorsqu’il parlait de mon crime, si long même que, finalement, je n’ai plus senti que la chaleur de cette matinée.


  1. What would be the effect of changing a été to était. Would it be simply ungrammatical? Or grammatical but different in meaning or nuance?

  2. The same question for changing a été to fut.


I suspect that the adjective long might require a complete event as a whole and therefore not allow était. At least in this respect fut might be acceptable.

  • 1
    Have you browsed the "passé composé" tag on FL? We've already had questions about the difference between "passé composé" and "imparfait". Most of them are in French but if you tackle Camus, then reading answers in French should not be a problem.
    – None
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 17:40

1 Answer 1


In complement to Von Kar's answer : I think you're misunderstanding the meaning of this sentence. Here, « a été long » means the prosecutor spent a long time talking about it. Like when you say "I won't be long", you mean that you won't take much time to do whatever you have to do, not that you will lose a few centimeters (except perhaps in some very specific contexts). As far as meaning is concerned, it's not a state or a change of state, it's not a continuous action in parallel to the sequence, it's a ponctual action in a sequence. You could replace it by « il a passé beaucoup plus de temps » or « il a développé plus longuement ».

Keeping that in mind, « était » instead of « a été » won't work. « Fut » would fit the meaning and fill the same role as « a été » in the sentence, but in this instance it would break the sequence of tenses. Here, the tense of narration is the compound past, you can't have a simple past coming out of nowhere.

  • Thank you. It's nothing important, but I did understand the sentence as commenting on time. I don't know what could have given the impression I was thinking in spatial terms (your "centimeters").
    – Catomic
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 4:36
  • Could you also tell me which is right: (a) il in il a été beaucoup plus long can only mean the prosecutor, or (b) il could also mean the event (his talking about the accused's attitude toward his mother).
    – Catomic
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 4:54
  • @Catomic giving up the context, it could have been (b), but here, there is no doubt "il" means a person and not an event. You can assume that by looking at the 2nd part of the sentence « lorsqu’ il parlait de mon crime ». Here, « il » is with no doubt a person. So if you see twice « il » in a sentence, it has to refer to the same thing. Otherwise, the author would have to explicit the difference not to confuse the reader...
    – Random
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 7:43

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