Literature Masterclass: Time & Tense

Approaching a text in a foreign language for the first time can be both exciting and daunting at once. How do we begin to analyse the way the text works? What should we pay attention to in terms of linguistic features and the structure of the text?

One of the simplest but also most important aspects of a text we can analyse is the tense in which it is written. Tenses are something we are aware of from day one when we are learning a foreign language: indeed, as non-native speakers we are perhaps more aware of different tenses in a foreign language than we are in our mother tongues. But sometimes, when we are focussing intently on an unfamiliar grammatical system, it can be easy to lose sight of how that grammar can be used for literary effect.

In the presentation below, Dr Simon Kemp, Tutor in French at Somerville College, gives an introduction to Time and Tense in French literature. Focussing on a few extracts from texts on the A Level syllabus, he takes us through some of the various effects the use of different tenses can produce.

2 thoughts on “Literature Masterclass: Time & Tense”

  1. Thank you for this very interesting talk. Can I just ask you about the comment on the tense of the last passage from Grimbert’s ‘Un Secret’? I think I heard you say the tense was the passé surcomposé, but in actual fact I would have called the tense used the plusque-parfait. Is there a difference between the two, or are they interchangeable?

    1. Sorry, I misspoke. I was indeed referring to the plus-que-parfait (pluperfect) tense. ‘Surcomposé’ refers to (rarely used) tenses with two auxiliaries, e.g., the passé surcomposé, ‘j’ai eu dit’.

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