When to use the pluperfect tense in French (2)

In our overview of when to use the pluperfect tense in French, we mentioned that the pluperfect in French is still partly "imperfect", and therefore cannot always be used where had ... would be used in English. To understand what we mean, consider the following sentences:

(1) I had eaten earlier. I left the house at 6pm.
(2) When(ever) I had eaten dinner early, I had/used to have a midnight snack.
(3) That evening, once I had eaten dinner, I left the house.

It turns out that in French, you can use the pluperfect in cases (1) and (2). However, French speakers would generally not use the pluperfect in case (3), despite the fact that to an English speaker, it perhaps looks as much like a case for the pluperfect as sentences (1-2). So what's going on?

It has to do with the way in which the action is being portrayed:

  • in case (1), the relationship between the first action and the second is "vague" in some way, and the event described in the pluperfect describes a general background;
  • in case (2), a habitual event is represented, without focussing on any individual occurrence of that event;
  • in case (3), on the other hand, the event (eating dinner) is described as being specific and completed.

In other words, in cases (1-2), the pluperfect in English ("had eaten") describes the kind of event ("background" or "habitual") that would tend to be described using the imperfect tense in French. On the other hand, case (3) is different. Case (3) describes an event in a way that is not compatible with the imperfect tense. It describes an event as being a one-off, completed event, and rather than describing the "background" to the following event, its purpose is to "move the narrative along", describing the condition (having finished dinner) for the following event (leaving the house) to occur.

When an event is described in a way that is not compatible with the imperfect tense in French (mainly because it is not described as "general background" or "habitual"), the pluperfect is not usually used either in French.

Or put more simply, the pluperfect is not used in sentences of the type when X had happened, Y happened unless the sentence describes a general pattern of events.

Tenses used instead of the pluperfect tense

Now, this raises the question: if French speakers don't use the pluperfect in case (3), then what do they use?

The most common answer for most French speakers is simply that the would phrase the sentence in some other way. Occasionally, a form know as the passé surcomposé is used, which we look at on the next page.

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.