I warn you I'm rather bad at French, only doing it at GCSE level.

I was going through my coursework with my friend from Quebec, my first sentence was:

Quand j'étais né, j'étais assez gros, je pense que je mangeais beaucoup et je n'aimais pas les légumes et je refusais d'en manger.

She said I should change it to: 'Quand je suis né'

Literal translations in my head would be:

  • When I was born
  • When I am born

The former sounds more accurate in English, but 'Quand je suis né' better in French apparently. I just don't understand. Please help and explain, I like explanation.

  • "I was born" is an anomaly, almost every other languages use a different tense. There is no reason to use "was", it's an action that happens once, not on a duration. For a French speaker (and many other languages), it would make sense to say "I borned" or something like that but it doesn't exist. The verb is "to be born" which probably comes from the past participle of "to bear (bear/bore/born). You have to realise the English peculiarity in order to understand how other languages say it I think. – Teleporting Goat Nov 26 '16 at 18:17
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    off topic: would make more sense to write « quand j'étais petit » or « quand j'étais enfant », because at the time of birth (« quand je suis né »), you wouldn't order your 'legumes'... so this sentence is somewhat confusing. – PatrickT Oct 20 '17 at 16:24

Quand j'étais né is impossible in French.

The root cause of the confusion many English speakers have with être né is the fact that there is no verb for naître in English.

"Born" doesn't translate with because "born" (from "to bear") really means enfanté/accouché. "I was born" actually means j'ai été enfanté.

Être né is an event providing a status you gain at birth. Either that event never took place:

Il n'est pas né. (Il n'est pas encore né.)

or did happen (passé composé):

Il est né. (Il est né hier. Il est né le 15 août 1769.)

and when someone was born, it can't be undone.

The passé composé has superseded the passé simple in most current French usages, outside a literary context. Historically, passé simple would have been used when the birth didn't happen in the recent past:

Il naquît le 23 août 1754.

Using the plus-que-parfait like in quand j'étais né would mean you used to be born in the past but you are not born anymore which definitely makes no sense (unless maybe if this happens in a sci-fi novel about time travel and/or parallel worlds).

French uses the same form with verbs referring to the birth and death of people:

Il est né un lundi - Il est mort un mardi.

Il naquît en France - Il mourût à l'étranger.

while English is not symmetrical, lacking a verb for naître:

He was born on a Monday - He was dead on a Tuesday

He bore? on a Monday - He died on a Tuesday

PS: a newborn doesn't eat vegetables yet.


You're translating it too word-for-word. You should get into the habit of translating by what constructions mean (well, I guess the ideal is to think in French and not have to translate at all, but you don't need to be at that level if you're just doing coursework). English and (formal written) French actually do have a lot of similarities in overall clause structure, but the tenses are not constructed the same ways word-for-word and equivalent verbs don't always have the same syntax.

Remember that naître in French means "to be born." It's a different structure from the English expression. In English we have this weird kind of passive-voice verb; in French, it's simply an active verb that uses être as the auxiliary for the compound tenses such as the passé composé.

The equivalent to English present-tense "I am born" in French is simply "Je nais".

The equivalent to English past-tense "I was born" in French is passé composé "je suis né". The "suis" is just the auxiliary for the passé composé past-tense construction. Don't translate it into English "am".

You don't want étais né because that is the plus-que-parfait tense, which generally translates into the English pluperfect/past perfect tense. For "to be born," that would be "I had been born". You wouldn't normally say "When I had been born" in English: you would say "When I was born". Likewise, after "quand" in French, you want to use the passé composé in this context, which gives us "Quand je suis né".


Using the imparfait, whether for your main verb or for your auxiliary verb like in your example phrase, implies a notion of continuity, meaning that the action you are referring to was not yet complete at the time you are talking about. On the other hand, using the passé composé states that the action was resolved.

As such, what you are saying by "quand j'étais né" is much more akin to "while I was being born" than "when I was born". Keep in mind that as I said "je suis né" is passé composé, an absolute past tense, and not the present tense followed by an adjective.

You could say

Quand j'étais enfant (or petit)

and you would have the correct continuity aspect of imparfait because you are talking about when you were still a (young) child.


on the subject of plus que parfait - could you use the pqp along with another structure to denote chronological order

J'étais né avant que je suis allé en France.

For the OP, I've always been taught that we use imparfait for actions that repeat, habits, descriptions. In this case, you're only born once, unless you believe in being born again (Christian) or reincarnation (Hindu).

If the action is precise, happens a specific number of times, one uses the passé composé, donc “Je suis né”.

  • J'étais né avant mon arrivée (ma venue), en France – Personne Feb 11 at 14:16

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