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Context:

A man just died from a poison-induced heart attack after drinking a cup of tea that his wife served.

1 : Il a dû être empoisonné. Il venait de boire du thé, non ? Son épouse vient tout juste de nous servir du thé ! Le voilà, votre poison !

His wife first served tea, and then the husband drinked it. Despite the order in which the two events occurred, the present tense {vient tout juste de} is used for the more previous act of his wife having served tea, whereas the Imparfait {venait de} is used for the more recent act of the husband having drunk it.

At least in theory, the two tenses should be swapped around:

2 : Il a dû être empoisonné. Il vient de boire du thé, non ? Son épouse venait tout juste de nous servir du thé ! Le voilà, votre poison !

I wonder why this apparently contradictory usage of tense happens here.

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    Imo, the imperfect was used w/the man to pinpoint what he was doing just before dying, w/“juste avant de mourir” being omitted (“Il venait de boire du thé [juste avant de mourir], non?). Even if he hadn’t died, but had only fallen ill/shown signs of poisoning, I think the imperfect would still be appropriate w/“juste avant de tomber malade/de montrer des signes d’empoisonnement” being omitted. For the later use of the present, maybe it's referring to a 2nd service to those there to investigate (the use of “nous”(=the investigators) instead of “lui”(=the husband) makes this a possibility, imo). – Papa Poule Dec 5 '16 at 15:17
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I believe you are incorrect in your interpretation in the order of events. The spouse served tea twice : once for the alleged murder in the past, and once for the narrator in the more recent past (narrated as present).

Il a dû être empoisonné.

"He must have been poisoned." : the man is currently dead, but it happened before. The narrator makes an hypothesis about the cause : poison.

Il venait de boire du thé, non ?

"He had just been drinking tea, hadn't he?" : just before dying, the man had drunk tea. The "past before past" (passé antérieur) explicits this. The stress in the final ", non?" creates a tension with the next sentence : the narrator implies that there will be a second part (a conclusion maybe) to this sentence.

Son épouse vient tout juste de nous servir du thé !

"His spouse has just served us some tea!". The narrator now exposes the expected second part of the previous sentence. The narrator ("nous") has been served tea very recently, during an event separate from the murder story, and correlates it with the hypothesis of poisonning. The use of the Present is appropriate because the event of the narrator being served tea is still very close in time, and it also clearly shows that this is in a separate time from the murder story.

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I think the past is used for the man simply because he's dead. You can't say "Il vient de boire du thé" talking about a dead man...

You've got to use the past tense for dead people.

  • Hi. I thought of that possibility. too. This question would not have occurred to me if it were not for the two consecutive uses of "venir de" (due to which I felt compelled to consider the timeline of the two events). – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Dec 5 '16 at 1:20
  • Your answer now makes me wonder how things would be different if the husband were still alive, though in critical condition. Should I just use the present tense {vient de} twice in a row? Merci. – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Dec 5 '16 at 1:26
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    There is no distinct time separation between the two events, if the husband was alive, the present would be used for both. – Teleporting Goat Dec 5 '16 at 8:43

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