Comparison between The French Perfect tense and the French Definite Past.

Comparing The Perfect tense and the Past definite or Historic Past Copyright :Annie XXXXXX 02/09/2015.


The Perfect tense is for written and spoken French. It describes an action completed in the past. It can be a recent past (ce matin, aujourd'hui) or something further in the past (1936 etc).


The Past Historic or Past Definite is for Literature, articles in newspapers and other printed matter to describe completed actions in the past. It is not commonly used in spoken French at all unless you are listening to or watching an History programme but not nessarily so. It is used in formal French narratives. Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo etc used it very happily.


I suggest we compare some sentences in the perfect and some in the Past Definite :


a) Je vous ai écrit la semaine dernière. The perfect suits well here. It can either be for a spoken sentence or a written sentence.


If we use the Past Definite, it would be : Je vous écrivis la semaine dernière. It is best to avoid this unless you are convinced you are someone from past centuries or you are writing a novel using mostly past tenses …

Another way of putting it could be by using the Pluperfect ( Plus-que-Parfait) : « Je vous avais écrit la semaine dernière. » This can be used for written and spoken French today.


b) Je vous ai écrit deux fois .


The perfect suits well this sentence, it can be spoken or written.

In a novel, the sentence «  je vous écrivis deux fois » can be used. We can imagine a character writing yet another letter to someone.


c) Aujourd'hui, j'ai écrit des lettres .

The perfect here describes a recent past and the sentence can either be said or written.

The Past Definite would not be used because of aujourd'hui.


d) Il est mort il y a dix ans / en 1978. It can either be a written or a spoken sentence.

Il mourut en 1978 is correct but il mourut il y a dix ans is not.


e) Ce matin, j'ai pris mon petit déjeuner au lit = a spoken or/and written statement

ce matin, je pris mon petit déjeuner au lit would not work well but :


« Ce matin-là, je pris mon petit déjeuner au lit » would work well in a novel. This « matin-là » gives the idea of a past action which is really completed. You could translate as «  On that particular morning or on that morning ».


f) Elle est allée au Japon trois fois : it can be a spoken or a written sentence

Elle alla au Japon trois fois : would work well in a novel, an article or biography.


g) Il a gagné le Grand Prix quatre fois en dix ans. It is either written or spoken so the use of the perfect tense works well.

Il gagna le tour de France quatre fois en cinq ans.

This sentence would work well in an article, novel or biography.


h) Elle a été secrétaire pendant cinq ans, de 1980 à 1985.

Elle fut secrétaire pendant cinq ans, de 1980 à 1985. This sentence would work well in a biography, novel or article. Copyright :Annie Cole 2/09/2015.









Filed Under: Comparison Between French Perfect Tense And Past Definite

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Author Information

User Type: Tutor  Verified
Name: Annie
Uploaded Date: Sep 02,2015

About The Author

I am a native French speaker. I graduated from Brest University ( Brittany) where I passed a degree (Deug) in English and American Literature, English Grammar,linguistics,Phonetics,Translation from English into French and vice-versa. The degree also included.... Read More