Sentence Structures In English And French Are Often Quite Different
If you have had occasion to listen to a beginner or intermediate French person speaking English you may have heard them say something like, “I live in the United States since four months,” instead of, “I have lived in the United States for four months.” Sound familiar? Today you will learn why this is such a common mistake for French speakers, and you will learn why YOU make exactly the reverse error when you are trying to speak French!
Try translating this English sentence into French: “I have lived in Paris for four months.”
Tick, tock, tick, tock. Time’s up.
Did you say, “J’ai habité à Paris pour quatre mois.” ? Yes? That sounds like a proper literal translation, but sorry, that’s an incorrect translation. You get a goose egg. This is the reverse error I told you that you would make.
If you said, “J’habite à Paris depuis quatre mois”, then you’re brilliant! Correct! That earns you a gold star! But you may still find something a little tricky at the end of this blog.
A Different Sentence Structure Than In English―
Using The Present Tense With Depuis In Affirmative Sentences
Because in English we say, “I have lived…”, when trying to speak French, we naturally want to use the same sentence structure. We try to translate “I have lived” directly into French and say, “J’ai habité…” (passé composé).
But that’s not the way the French express an action that started in the past and continues into the present when they are using depuis. They use the present tense followed by depuis (since, or for) plus the duration of time because the action continues into the present. So, you see, there is some logic to using the present tense.
J’habite à Paris depuis quatre mois. I have lived in Paris for four months. (A literal translation, of course, would be, “I live in Paris since four months.” Sounds strange to the English ear, but this is how the French say it.)
Here are some more examples:
Je suis avocat depuis 2015. I have been a lawyer since 2015.
Je joue au tennis depuis dix ans. I have played tennis for ten years.
Vous travaillez chez Renault depuis longtemps ? You have worked at Renault for a long time?
Il est ingénieur depuis de nombreuses années. He has been an engineer for many years.
Note that all the verbs are present tense (présent de l’indicatif) and that we never use pour (for) in this context of an action that started in the past and continues to the present.
...use the present tense followed by depuis (since, or for) plus the duration of time
Using Passé Composé With Depuis In Negative Sentences
Notice that none of the sentences above are negative (ne…pas) sentences. They are all affirmative sentences.
But things change when we create negative sentences using depuis. When creating negative sentences we DO use the passé composé tense (like you wanted to in the first place!), not the présent as in affirmative sentences. Here, perhaps, could be one reason why the language evolved this way: unlike affirmative statements, negative statements no longer continue to the present. Look at these examples:
Je n’ai pas habité à Paris depuis quatre mois. I have not lived in Paris for four months.
Je ne t’ai pas vu depuis longtemps ! I have not seen you for a long time!
On n’a pas voyagé en France depuis dix ans. We have not traveled to France in ten years.
Tu n’as pas fumé depuis cinq ans ? You haven’t smoked in ten years?
An exception (there's ALWAYS an exception in French!) to this rule of using the passé composé with negative sentences is the use of ne...plus (no more, or any more). In this instance we keep the présent tense.
Je ne fume plus depuis cinq ans. I haven’t smoked any more for ten years?
Je ne vis plus à Paris depuis 2 ans. I haven’t lived in Paris any more for two years.
So there you have it. Use the présent tense with depuis for affirmative sentences, and use the passé composé tense with depuis for negative sentences. Easy, for sure, but sometimes hard to remember when you are speaking and constructing sentences on the fly.
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