"Non Obélix. Tu n'auras pas de potion magique. Je t'ai dit mille fois que tu étais tombé dedans étant petit."

Sorry if this is a stupid question, but please can someone explain to me this usage of the imperfect tense. Assuming obelix falling into the potion was a one-off event, why is it not "Tu es tombé dedans"?

I asked a French person and they said it seems natural but they couldn't explain why.

  • This is not "imparfait" tense with « étais », this is "plus-que-parfait" with « étais tombé »
    – Random
    Sep 1, 2016 at 14:05

2 Answers 2


It's not the imparfait, it's the plus-que-parfait of the verb tomber. It's close to the passé composé in its uses, it's for one-off events too.

The reason of using it, is that it's in the past compared to another event.

Présent and passé composé

J'entre dans le salon. Je constate qu'il a laissé la télé allumée.

Passé composé and plus-que-parfait

Je suis entré dans le salon. J'ai constaté qu'il avait laissé la télé allumée.

Passé simple and plus-que-parfait

J'entrai dans le salon. Je constatai qu'il avait laissé la télé allumée.

Imparfait and plus-que-parfait

J'entrais dans le salon. Je constatais qu'il avait laissé la télé allumée.

It's an event in the past compared to the narrative time. So it's like even more in the past if the narrative time is already in the past.

But there is more to say about the tenses, they have many uses so it's hard to explain everything (you can tell a past event with futur antérieur for example, yeah).

But the reason in your example is that it's a past event compared to je t'ai dit which is already a past event (past events in this case, one thousand it seems).

Would Je t'ai dit mille fois que tu es tombé dedans étant petit be wrong? Not at all. I even prefer this one.

Ah, tenses...

  • I think I understand. I've heard of plus-que-parfait but I've not studied it properly. Thanks very much :-)
    – debrucey
    Sep 1, 2016 at 14:53

I agree with @Simon Déchamps about the fact that the tens is "plus-que-parfait" and is used to show an anteriority with respect to a past tense (the event (falling) happened before I told you). This is called "concordance des temps" in French if you want more information.

However, don't quite agree with 'Je t'ai dit mille fois que tu es tombé dedans étant petit' being better. IMHO, if the first sentence is in the past, it is better to use plus-que-parfait for anteriority.

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