In my self-teaching book it is written that if in the main sentence the verb is in the "passé composé", in the subordinate clause the verb should be in the "imparfait"; here is an example (the book is in russian, but never mind):

He said, that she has a diner

Il a dit qu'elle déjeunait

But all translators translates "have a diner" in the present tense as well, i.e. "Il a dit qu'elle déjeune.".

What's correct in all of that and why?


2 Answers 2


Both are correct depending on the context and intended meaning. Such sentences involve multiple distinct points in time. The tense you use is determined by how these times are arranged relative to each other.

« Il a dit » is in the passé composé. Relatively speaking, he spoke before you wrote this sentence.

However, the dinner can be relative to the sentence, or it can be relative to « il a dit ».

  1. If the dinner is relative to the sentence, use the present tense.

    Il a dit qu'elle déjeune.
    This means she is still eating at the time you report his speech.

  2. If the dinner is relative to his speech and concurrent with his speech, use the imparfait.

    Il a dit qu'elle déjeunait.
    This means she was eating at the time he spoke.

  3. If the dinner is relative to his speech and prior to his speech, use the plus-que-parfait.

    Il a dit qu'elle avait déjeuné.
    This means she finished eating before the time he spoke.

These are just a few possibilities. There are more possible configurations. For example, he might have said she would eat after he spoke but before you heard about it (elle allait déjeuner), or he might have said she would eat after he spoke and after you heard about it (elle va déjeuner). The tense can also be affected by whether or not you know when she ate / is eating / will eat.

  • It's actually a bit more difficult than that. Imparfait can be used if you take the reported statement as a context rather than a fact, even in situations when the action is (possibly/allegedly) still ongoing at the time you speak. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 13:54
  • @Stéphane Agreed. That would be a good point to add to my caveats at the end.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 13:59

There is an ajustment needed first; you translate the English "diner" by "diner"; "déjeuner " is either "to have breakfast" or "to have lunch". Then the grammar is not correct: the progressive form is necessary and no comma is ever used in that context : "He said that she is having diner.". The translation can be either of the two sentences below;

Il a dit qu'elle dinait. or
Il a dit qu'elle dine.

In the first case le tense "imparfait" has a modal value; it is used to relate a fact that is only possible or plain fiction (BDL); the speaker hasn't verified that the fact is true and the "imparfait" denotes that (it is very likely that she is having diner but there might still be an error as the truth of that fact); the action can be situated either at the time when the sentence is enunciated or at a time before that; this depends on the context.
In the second case the speaker is not adding any nuance of doubtfulness to his/her utterance and so he/she uses the present tense; in that case the action can only be taking place while the speaker is talking (it must have begun a short while before).

Example of unreal fact; in this case a speaker uses rather the "imparfait".

Il a dit qu'elle dinait, mais je ne le crois pas, il semble qu'elle soit partie, sa voiture n'est plus là.

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