Je lisais un passage qui parlait des événements et des gens du passé, mais en ce qui concerne les verbes, il y avait quelques-uns conjugués au passé composé, quelques-uns au présent, quelques-uns a l'imparfait, et quelques-uns au futur. Comment sait-on quel temps il faut utiliser?


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This is such a difficult question to answer! But I have one imput that may interest you, although it won’t answer your question fully.

Just bear in mind that there are a lot of ways to mention past events in French; imparfait and passé simple, with their derived plus que parfait etc, are the classical way to write history and past events. other tricks were occasionally allowed for effect (present, future)

But there is a problem: the French people have dropped the passé simple in spoken language. Completely. If someone uses it, people go: “oooooo look at you! Speaking like a book!” Everyone uses the passé composé instead of the passé simple for everyday stuff: “il est parti en 1998” instead of “il partit en 1998”. “Il est né en 1960”, instead of “il naquit en 1960” (mind you, that is French from France: some countries like Haiti have an unbelievable command of tenses that the metropolitan French have completely lost their grip on)

And yet, every kid, every body knows that tense: fairy tales end with “ils vécurent heureux et eurent beaucoup d’enfants” (they lived happily ever after). They just never use it themselves. (The Passé simple)

History books, novels, all use the passé simple for the main tense along with the imperfect, to relate past events. But there is a problem now: with the internet, if you write an entry in Wikipedia using the passé simple, you sound snob and old fashioned. Yet, the passé composé doesn’t sound quite right either: you can’t say: “ Napeoleon Bonaparte a perdu la bataille de Waterloo” because it sounds weird, as in “come on, it wasn’t last week, it was ages ago”. So on internet you can’t use either for history without sounding odd.

So what do you do? You use a stylistic trick that used to be occasional and for the purpose of “feeling in the moment” effect : present tense “présent dans le passé” :” Et ce jour là, Napoléon perd la bataille de Waterloo.” (The passé simple would be: perdit.

When I was a student (previous millennium!), we were told off for using that trick.

Then there’s more! Using the future tense! It is called: le ”futur dans le passé”. It used to also be a turn of style to delve in the moment, in the middle of a biography, and was to be used in extreme moderation. “Après plusieurs semaines de combat, le 13 mai 1765, le général capitule (présent dans le passé); il sera arrêté le lendemain (futur dans le passé). The normal way to say it would have been: le général capitula (passé simple)and Il fut arrêté le lendemain (passé simple again). We were also told off for using the future tense for the past in our essays. But now it is normal.

The reason is that sadly the French people have dropped a tense they actually really needed to keep, the passé simple, and now they have to jump through those strange hoops of present and future to convey a sense of the past without sounding pompous.

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