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TNs, U73: Verbs: Pluperfect (Formation, Être Verbs, Nuances)

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In French, the pluperfect (plus-que-parfait) is a compound-tense verb conjugation used to indicate that an action, state or event preceded another action, state or event in the past. It is a prior-past tense.

Luckily, the French pluperfect is quite similar to the English past perfect, whose form combines the past-tense verb "had" with a past participle. In the French plus-que-parfait, the auxiliary (avoir or être) is conjugated in the imperfect tense and the past participle follows the same rules of agreement as the passé composé.

Formation of the Plus-que-parfait

pronoun avoir past participle English
j’ avais mangé I had eaten
tu avais fini you had finished
il/elle/on avait dormi they had slept
nous avions pris we had taken
vous aviez su you had known
ils/elles avaient chanté they had sung
pronoun être past participle English
j’ étais allé(e) I had gone
tu étais tombé(e) you had fallen
il/elle était mort(e) he/she had died
nous étions venu(e)s we had come
vous étiez sorti(e)(s) you had gone out
ils/elles étaient entré(e)s they had entered

In a sentence that describes some past time frame, any verb conjugated in the pluperfect expresses an action, process or event that has occurred even earlier in the past.

  • Elle avait commencé le travail quand vous l’avez appelée. — She had started the work when you called her.
  • Je n’ai pas cuisiné ce soir parce que je n’avais pas fait les courses dans l’après midi. — I didn’t cook tonight because I hadn’t done the shopping in the afternoon.

Reflexive and Passive Verbs

Recall that there are three situations where verbs take être as an auxiliary: when the verb is naturally an être verb; pronominal verbs; and passive verbs. Refer to the previous units for more information.

In the pluperfect, pronominal and reflexive verbs still take être as an auxiliary, and the reflexive pronoun always precede the auxiliary. Consider these examples:

  • Nous nous étions rencontré(e)s à la gare. – We had met at the station.
  • C’étaient les robes que je m'étais achetées. — Those were the dresses that I had bought (myself).
  • Les filles s'étaient tues. — The girls had kept quiet.
  • Un chat s'était assis sur la chaise. — A cat had sat on the chair.

In passive constructions, the rules of agreement in the past participle remain the same as in the passé composé.

  • Est-ce que les règles avaient été respectées ? — Had the rules been respected?
  • Elle avait été touchée par ces changements. – She had been affected by these changes.
  • C’étaient ces hommes qui avaient été arrêtés par la police. — They were those men who had been arrested by the police.

Nuances

On Duolingo, be sure to translate the plus-que-parfait to the English past perfect and not to the preterit (simple past). The distinction between verb tenses in proper French is much stricter than it is in English, so Duolingo is correspondingly strict about verb tense inexactness.

  • Oui, on avait remarqué. — Yes, we had noticed. (Not just "we noticed.")
  • J'avais appelé le docteur. — I had called the doctor. (Not just "I called".)

The pluperfect can be used to express wishes about the past with si seulement ("if only").

  • Si seulement j'avais vu la troupe originale ! — If only I had seen the original cast!
  • Si seulement il n'était pas parti ! — If only he hadn't left!

Déjà

When the adverb déjà is used with the pluperfect, it must come immediately after the auxiliary. Its English counterpart, "already", can be positioned more flexibly.

  • On était déjà parti(e)s. — We had already left. / We already had left. / We had left already.

Negations surround the auxiliary in the pluperfect. Also, the negative form of déjà is usually ne pas encore ("not yet").

  • Il n'avait jamais vu ce film auparavant. — He had never seen that film before.
  • Elles n'avaient pas encore commencé. — They had not yet begun.

Often the pluperfect in English and French overlap but there are two exceptions to this. Depuis in French is usually paired with the imparfait to describe an event that preceded another past event, but the English translation is in the pluperfect, “had + past participle”. Likewise, venir de conjugated in the imparfait means “had just done something”.

Depuis

The preposition depuis can mean either "since" or "for" and it is most often used in conjunction with the imparfait rather than the pluperfect.

  • J’habitais dans cette maison depuis 2008. — I had lived in that house since 2008.
  • Depuis son mariage, il se sentait équilibré. — Since his marriage, he had felt well-rounded.
  • Il pleuvait depuis deux heures. — It had been raining for two hours.
  • Nous attendions depuis trente minutes l’arrivée du bus quand nous avons enfin appelé un taxi. — We had been waiting for thirty minutes for the bus to arrive when we finally called a taxi.

Venir de

You learned earlier in Near Time that the present tense of venir + de means “just did something”. When venir de is conjugated in the imparfait it means “had just done something”.

  • Ma mère venait d’avoir dix-huit ans sur cette photo. — My mother had just turned eighteen in this photo.
  • Je venais de m’allonger quand on a sonné à la porte. — I had just lain down when the doorbell rang.

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