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How to use "depuis" in French

By Geoffrey Barto of

Here we go with one of those pesky, little trifles that makes mastering French difficult: the preposition, "depuis". But in this short, easy lesson, we'll make it all make sense.

The thing you have to understand is that French people and American people think about some things differently, and an ongoing activity is one of them. If you have been doing something for a while and someone asks how long you've been doing it, you'll say "I have been trimming the trees four hours" or whatever. And you'll use that little "have been" because you started in the past.

The French aren't like that. If they have been doing something and you come up and say, "How long have you been doing that?" they'll answer in the present, because they're still doing it. So here's your basic rule:

The time-spent-doing tense rule. If you're talking about the time spent on an ongoing activity, English uses the tense that describes when it first started. French uses the tense that describes the most recent time it was still happening.

You're probably wondering where "depuis" fits into all this. Quite simply, "depuis," like "since," (or sometimes "for") is a word that describes how long it's been since an activity began or when that activity started. So in English, we say, "since 1952" or "since last Tuesday." The French say, "depuis 1952" or "depuis mardi dernier." The thing to remember is that if you use "depuis," you have to use the time-spent-doing tense rule or your sentence will come out wrong. Let's look at a few examples:

How long have you been working here?
I have been working here since July / for 2 months.
"have been" because it started back then
Vous travaillez ici depuis combien de temps / depuis quand?
(You work here since how much time / since when?)
Je travaille ice depuis juillet / depuis 2 mois.
(I work here since July / since 2 months ago.)
all present tense because the person is working there even now
He had been working here 2 weeks when he quit.
"had been" (past past tense) because it started before he quit (past tense)
Il travaillait ici 2 semaines quand il a démissioné.
imperfect because it's what he was doing when he quit; i.e. until he quit

The second example may be a little harder to get your head around, but just remember, the French chose the tense that said he "was working" because that's the tense for describing the most recent time that the ongoing activity of working took place. The English, on the other hand, chose the tense that described when he started. If you follow the time-spent-doing tense rule you'll get the right tense in either language. Then you slap in "since" or "depuis" depending. So in other words, using "depuis" isn't tricky; it's figuring out what tense to use.

That last sentence did more to redefine the problem than solve it. So here's a system you can use to figure it out if you're still having trouble: Forget about the how long/since when, et cetera. Just imagine the last time the person could be seen doing the thing. How would you describe it? Would you say "He is washing the windows," because he's doing it right now? Would you say, "He was washing the windows," because while he was, he isn't any more? If it's the first, use the present. If it's the second, use the imperfect. If it's anything else, use that tense, slap a "depuis" clause on the end and the odds are you're home free and clear. Bonne chance.

And remember to say: "Je sais utiliser le mot, "depuis," depuis le jour où j'ai lu cette article à" (I know how to use the word, "depuis," since the day where I read that article at

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