There is a notion totally lost in translation: the progressive constructions in English. I am watching TV, they were dancing, she will be arriving soon… All these progressive constructions (to be + verb in ING) which come naturally to an English speaker often lead to mistakes when they translate them into French. Quite understandable since these constructions simply don’t exist in French!
1 – What is a Progressive/Continuous Construction in English?
- Present progressive: I am watching TV
- Past progressive: I was watching TV
- Future progressive: I will be watching TV
You get the idea… English uses progressive (also called continuous) constructions all the time.
They are called “progressive or continuous” in opposition to “simple” tenses: I watch/ watched/ will watch TV.
In English, you use a progressive construction to indicate you are in the middle of this activity. You are doing it right now.
On the contrary, you use the simple tenses to show habits, what you usually do in certain circumstances, but not right now.
- What are you doing now? I’m watching TV.
- What were you doing yesterday at 8PM? I was watching TV.
- What will you be doing tomorrow at 8PM? I will be watching TV.
- What do you usually do in the evening? I watch TV.
- Yesterday, I watched TV and then I went to bed.
- Tomorrow, I will watch TV and then I’ll go to bed.
2 – How do you Conjugate a Verb in a Progressive Tense?
In English, to conjugate a verb in a progressive tense:
- you use the auxiliary verb “to be” in the appropriate tense,
- and then you put your main verb in the gerund, the ING form.
It’s the combination of the two, the verb to be and the main verb, that form the tense.
The verb “to be” has no meaning
- You are not using “to be” to state your location, as in “I am in Paris”.
- You are not using “to be” to define who you are, how you look… as in “I am French”, “I am tall”.
You are using “to be” to conjugate the main verb, to actually add this “progressive” notion to it : you are/will be/ were… in the process of doing something.
3 – There is no Progressive Construction in French
Surprise… And it’s a bad one :-(
In French, we just don’t use this notion at all.
We don’t make a difference between what you are doing right now, and what you usually do.
- Je regarde la télévision = I watch TV = I am watching TV.
- Je regardais la télévision = I watched TV = I was watching TV.
- Je regarderai la télévision = I will watch TV = I will be watching TV.
We do not use the verb to be + verb in gerund. It’s a concept that doesn’t exist at all in French.
You need to stop here and really understand what I am saying, because believe me, this is going to affect so much the way you speak in French!
ALL the French tenses translate into both simple and progressive form in English (when applicable of course).
4 – What You Need to Change
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So, the mistake that happens all the time is that student translate word by work. They think “I am” in English, they translate as “je suis”. No matter what comes next.
Well, now that you know that in a progressive construction, such as “I am watching TV”, the “I am” is indissociable from the “watching” (you are not saying “I am French, tall…” you are using a present progressive “I am watchING”, using “to be” to conjugate “to watch”), you need to STOP whenever you are inclined to translate the verb “to be”, and see what comes next.
- If what comes next is a place, or an adjective, go ahead, you are actually using “to be” as your main verb
– I am in Paris = je suis à Paris.
– I am tall = je suis grand(e)
Be careful however that not every single expression using “to be” in English uses “être” in French… You may already be familiar with the infamous exceptions “j’ai faim – I am hungry, j’ai froid – I am cold” etc….
- If what comes next is a verb, then watch out !! Is it a verb in ING?
If so, it’s a progressive construction.
Don’t translate the “to be” part, use the appropriate “simple” tense in French.
– I am watching TV = I watch TV = Je regarde la télé.
– I was watching TV = I watched TV = Je regardais la télé.
– I will be watching TV = I will watch TV = Je regarderai la télé.
5 – What If You Really Want to Say You Are in The Middle of it?
Now, you’re friend calls as you are eating dinner. In English, you’d say: “sorry, this is not a good time, I’m eating dinner”. How convenient.
In French, we’d use an expression: “être en train de + verb in the infinitive”: “je suis en train de dîner”.
So now, don’t go and use this expression each time you’d use a progressive tense in English…
In English, you could say : “I was eating chips and he was doing his homework as Dad was talking on the phone”. In French, you would never translate that by “j’étais en train de manger des chips et il était en train de faire ses devoirs alors que Papa était en train de téléphoner”… It would just sound ridiculous…
So “être en train de + verb” is close in meaning, but it is definitely not the same thing as a progressive tense in English.
As I said, we don’t usually point out the fact that you are doing it right now, unless it’s important.
Use “être en train de” as you would “I’m in the middle of” in English.
6 – What About Passé Composé and Near Future?
Things do get a bit more complicated here, since these tenses can lead to confusion. Again here, the key is to understand when to use these tenses in French and English, not just translate word by word.
As you know, French has compound tenses (such as Passé Composé) that use an auxiliary verb “avoir” or “être” to conjugate a main verb. The auxiliary verb is conjugated in the present for Passé Composé, in the Imparfait for Pluperfect, in the Conditional for Past Conditional etc…
The main verb is conjugated in the Past Participle.
Most verbs use “avoir” to build their compound tenses, some verbs use “être”.
- So, to an English speaker, something like “je suis parti” may very much look like it’s a translation of “I am leaving”.
Wrong. It means “I left”.
- “J’étais parti” may even more look like “I was leaving”.
Wrong again. It means “I had left”.
You need to get this progressive construction out of your “French” head.
Note that imparfait is usually the way to go to translate a past progressive into French.
- I was watching TV = Je regardais la télé
(more likely than Passé Composé “J’ai regardé la télé” although without the context, it’s impossible to say for sure. Read my article about Passé Composé ≠ Imparfait to know more)
The same confusion is easy to apply to the Near Future construction: “I am goING to + verb in the infinitive”, since this construction uses a progressive construction in its core. You have to be careful when you use its French equivalent “aller + verb in the infinitive”. No “to be” in French.
- I am going to watch TV = Je vais regarder la télé.
- I will be watching TV = Je vais regarder la télé.
- I was going to watch TV = J’allais regarder la télé.
- I will be going to watch TV … euh, no. You wouldn’t say that even in English :-)
7 -What About Questions And Progressive Tenses in French?
This progressive construction is even more difficult to translate when it’s used in a question form, since you’d start the sentence with the auxiliary verb “to be”. So watch out, the same logic still applies: no “to be” in French!
- Are you watching TV? = tu regardes la télé ? Est-ce que tu regardes la télé ? Regardes-tu la télé ?
(NOT “es-tu regardé la télé” which simply doesn’t exist in French)
Yes, we have many ways of asking questions in French – if you cannot switch from street French to “est-ce que” to “inversion” with ease, or if you don’t know for sure when to use which (for example here I wouldn’t use inversion for a question that can be answered in “yes” or “no”…) I strongly advise you to get my audio lesson “Secrets of French Conversation“.
8 – So… How do You Train For This?
It’s one thing to understand the rule, it’s something else to break a bad habit, or get something going smoothly. Not falling into the trap of translating a progressive construction shows real mastery in French. It’s one of the most common mistakes I hear, so don’t beat yourself up if you slip from time to time.
The only solution to get it right is to develop your French ear so that something like “es-tu regardé la télé” just doesn’t sound right to you. To achieve this, you need to first understand the rule – as I just demonstrated, it’s a bit more complicated than “don’t use a progressive construction in French” – and then you need to practice with audio. I encourage you to take a look at my bilingual French audiobooks: easy novels, learning method and lessons for all levels. Thorough explanations with the English speaker in mind. Fun stories using really useful vocabulary. Novels recorded at several speeds to prepare you for modern street French.
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