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“J'ai compris” is in past tense while “je comprends” is the present tense. Why do people always use the past tense form? Is it just how it is?

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  • A similar question to ask English speakers might be "Why do more and more English speakers use "I hear you" in the present tense when referring to something they just heard said to them in the past?" Anyway, that was an off-topic, tongue-in-cheek observation because I realize that "I hear you" has a figurative meaning (more like "I'm with you, man" or "I feel your pain"), but there might be some relevance to the extent that in English, using the past tense could come across (aggressively) as meaning "[OK, OK] I heard you/I understood (you) [and you don't have to repeat it again]!.
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 15:34
  • Isn't it a good idea to deal with one thing at a time/
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 14:18

6 Answers 6

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  1. /Je comprends [ce que vous dites là.]/= /I understand what you are saying [now]/ or: /I understand what you say [in general]/. It's useful to bear in mind that the French simple present can be translated as simple present OR continuous in English, depending on the specific situation.

  2. /J'ai compris [ce que vous venez de dire]/. J'ai compris is used in response to the actual or implied question: Avez-vous compris ce que je viens de dire? or: As-tu compris [ce que je viens de dire] or: T'as compris [ce que je viens de dire].

I'm trying to explain this in terms of the French without too much translation. Bear in mind, however, that French does not have a present prefect, which in situations like these, might be used for a situation in English that would be: /Have you understood what I am saying to you?/ Present perfect is a past tense also.

So, "Have you understood [what I just said]?" becomes a simple past in French: « Avez-vous compris [ce que je viens de dire?]. » « Oui, j'ai compris. »

[Please note: French has two simple past forms. The passé composé and the passé simple: They both translate as simple past in English. The first is what is normally used today; the second is formal and generally only used in writing and I don't go into it here as it is irrelevant.]

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    This might be anecdotal, but when someone is explaining something to you, je comprends means "I understand your explanation, continue", whereas j'ai compris can sometimes be used to interrupt: "I already know what you are saying, please move on". Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 9:52
  • @ Alexandre d'Entraigues What you are saying is not relevant to my explanation. I am not giving a discourse-level or discourse-marker explanation. Je comprends meaning I understand [your explanation] is exactly the same thing in both languages.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 14:16
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    Mon but était d'offrir un peu plus d'informations à l'OP sur les circonstances dans lesquelles utiliser l'une ou l'autre forme, et c'est ce que je pense avoir fait dans mon commentaire, trop court et pas assez complet ni sourcé pour justifier une réponse à part entière. Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 14:25
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Quand je dis j'ai compris, cela signifie que le processus de réflexion par lequel j'assimile les faits qui me sont présentés est terminé, donc passé.

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You can use both... Je comprends or J'ai compris.

The former is more like 'I hear you'(I accept your opinion - because you respect the other persons right to their own opinion and freedom of expression and speech - even though you may or may not agree with it)

while the later is more factual like 'Ok, got it'(my brain processed it efficiently and your explanation made sense)

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  • In English, Do you understand me? can be answered just like in French: Yes, I did. Or: Yes, I do. Or long form: Yes, I understand you. versus Yes, I understood you.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 15:17
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We use both, but "J'ai compris" is more like "I get it" and "Je comprends" more like "I understand"

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    J'aurais dit que «J'ai compris» se traduit plutôt par «I got it» ... Qu'en penses-tu ?
    – Thibault
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 8:09
  • @Thibault oui tu as raison.
    – Kosmoz
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 9:07
  • J'ai compris peut dans certaines situations se dire I got it, voire, I get it mais I got it est plutôt, J'ai pigé [ce que tu as dit].
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 16:19
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J'ai compris is the passé composé (compound past, one of five past tense verb forms/aspects). People don't always use this instead of the present je comprends and you haven't explained what makes you say that.

For instance when I talk on the phone, I might use je comprends multiple times throughout to acknowledge what the speaker is saying and j'ai compris wouldn't work here. When someone is finished explaining something, I might use one or the other. J'ai compris makes me think of j'ai bien compris (...correctly, entirely), while the present tense je comprends might be somewhat more open-ended. When using j'ai compris, I might be alluding to my ability to understand what was said or hinting at some annoyance for being explained something further, so I could use it to bluntly cut through the chase (ça va, j'ai compris !).

I believe some of these ideas and use cases of "understanding something" can also be found to some extent with other languages in some different phrases, which might suggest these are somewhat common features for some of these verb tenses. The past/present dichotomy can help identify some, but I believe it's more about usage than a perfect match with what is happening now and what has happened before.

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Je comprends ... I understand something; usually something tangible as in Je comprends les regles ... I understand the rules

Je compris (or J'ai compris) ... I understand or understood something less tangible as in after a discussion like "they've turned brexit into a disaster" someone might respond "tell me about it" ... and in French Je compris ... I believe what you're saying

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  • "Je compris" is a mistake and does not exist. Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 5:19
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    @ON5MFJurgen: c'est le passé simple, ce n'est pas une erreur.
    – Toto
    Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 6:19
  • @Toto exact! Je n'étais pas encore entièrement réveillé apparemment :-) Et le passé simplement est si peu utilisé... Sorry, my mistake! Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 8:13

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