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Use of the present when it is actually the past

Graham H.B1Kwiziq community member

Use of the present when it is actually the past

I would like to know why the last phrase is in the present "c'est avec des larmes" when the rest of the text is in the past. I have seen the present used for obituaries, but on those occasions the present is used throughout the text, not just on one occasion. Est-ce qu'il y a quelqu'un qui peut m'expliquer?

Asked 2 years ago
Alan G.C1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor Correct answer

In sentences like this, "c'est" is usually invariable in tense. It's what's known in English as a "cleft sentence", i.e. "it is/was X that ....[subordinate clause]." In English (at least British English) we use the same tense for the "it is" part as for the subordinate clause. I think you can also do that in French, but in modern French it's more normal for "c'est" to stay in the present tense.

 

Chris W.C1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor Correct answer

Also, in French one frequently makes use of "historic present tense", i.e., you use present tense to relate an event of the past. This is a stylistic element which aims to draw the reader in and get him close to the action. Here is an example of this in English:

"It is a bright summer day in 1947. My father, a fat, funny man with beautiful eyes and a subversive wit, is trying to decide which of his eight children he will take with him to the county fair."

Jim J.C1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor

Hi Graham,

"it was with tears in my eyes that I gave her a standing ovation" this is describing a past situation   --  "was" "gave" 

Sorry, but I don't understand your concern?

I haven't carried out the exercise, only read the text; so there may be an error (in the French) that I am missing?

Jim

Graham H.B1Kwiziq community member

Hi Jim. Yes, I can see that the English version is in the past, but the French sentence "c'est avec des larmes" is in the present. Why? That is my question.

Graham H.B1Kwiziq community member

Thanks Alan and Chris. I understand both your answers although I'm still a little perplexed as to why this is the only clause in the present, while the entire remainder of this exercise's text is in the past. I suppose it is just one of those grammatical peculiarities that I am going to have to accept!

Alan G.C1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor

If it's the only phrase in the present, then Chris's explanation does not apply to this particular text. My explanation only applies to cleft sentences using "c'est", so that's why it only affects that one case.

Your original question used "Est-ce que", which is effectively just an inversion of a cleft sentence. The same peculiarity is present there. Even if you're talking about an event in the past, you use "Est-ce que" in the present.

Graham H.B1Kwiziq community member

That's a great point Alan! I had never considered "est-ce que" like that, but I can totally see that it is the case. I suppose it's because we don't directly translate "est-ce que" - it's just a question marker. But if we were to do so in a question that actually related to the past, then yes, it would clearly demonstrate the same grammatical structure (e.g. "Est-ce que tu as lu le livre?" - In English this could be translated entirely into the past - "Did you read the book?".) The whole concept is quite far removed from English, in my mind, so I need to think of it as a French structure, not as an English equivalent. Thank you for all your help!

(P.s. I realise my example sentence could also be translated using the present perfect in English, but I think this just about retains the point concerning contrasting aspects existing in French but not in the English equivalent)

Use of the present when it is actually the past

I would like to know why the last phrase is in the present "c'est avec des larmes" when the rest of the text is in the past. I have seen the present used for obituaries, but on those occasions the present is used throughout the text, not just on one occasion. Est-ce qu'il y a quelqu'un qui peut m'expliquer?

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