Reading French 8 : From Sentences to Paragraphs and the Simple Past

© 2015, Greg Lessard

Linking sentences

When we speak or write, we do not usually use sentences disconnected from the previous ones or those that will follow. If we do, those who are reading or listening to us become confused and ask us to stay on topic, or they simply stop paying attention. Those who study texts often talk about two characteristics a good text should have: cohesion and coherence. Coherence exists on the level of meaning: a coherent text develops its arguments, or presents information in a way that allows the reader to follow the ideas being presented. Cohesion, on the other hand, exists at the level of a text's form. A cohesive text uses devices like words and syntactic structures to show how the various elements of the text are linked. In what follows, we will focus on cohesion, since this is the area where you will need to learn the words and structures used by French.

But first, let us consider an example in English.

It was my birthday. We had a party. I ate cake. We went to the park. I rode on some rides. I got sick. My mother cleaned up my dress. We went home.

The only signal of how the various sentences are connected is that fact that one follows the other. We as readers assume that this means that the events described also followed one another.

This text can be made a bit more cohesive by adding the conjunctions and and but and the adverb then and so:

It was my birthday, so we had a party. I ate cake, then we went to the park. I rode on some rides but I got sick. My mother cleaned up my dress and then we went home.

The structure of the text is now more explicit. In addition, the use of conjunctions and adverbs makes it possible to reorder the text while still retaining a coherent representation, as the following passage shows:

We had a party because it was my birthday. As usual, I ate cake. Unfortunately, then we went to the park. My mother had to clean up my dress before we went home because I had been sick.

In what follows, we will study how French uses similar devices to structure texts. Your objective should be to learn as many of these as possible so that you can follow the logic of what you are reading.

An overview of paragraph relations

When we speak or write, each new element of discourse is added into a framework of previous information and can also form the basis for subsequent information. We can represent this state of affairs by means of a circle, where a new piece of information is the centre, and the periphery is formed of other elements of information, each with its particular relation to the centre.

RST model

The new sentence is the point of departure and the various possible relations to other information are shown in the periphery. The different colours used show these different relations, as the following illustration shows, first in English:

RST examples in English

and then in French:

RST examples in French

To familiarize yourself with this way of seeing a text, use each of the following sentences as a starting point and think about possible elements of information that could be attached. For example, given the sentence The committee refused the proposal, a possible justification might be because its budget was unclear, and a possible alternative might be although several members were in favour of it.

Words for showing relations

Just like English, French has a series of words and structures which show the relations among the elements of a paragraph. We will examine some of these now. Before beginning, however, it is useful to remind ourselves of an important point. In oral language, we tend to make heavy use of a small number of forms, like et, , and mais. It is in writing that the full range of connectors may be found, so if we wish to read texts of any complexity in French, an understanding of these more exotic connectors is crucial.

Background information

Background information often takes the form of a temporal relation between the new event and some previous events.

Form Meaning Example
ensuite then/and next Préparez les pommes de terre et ensuite les petits pois.
quand when Quand vous verrez le signal, fermez la porte.
auparavant previously Il travaillait au bureau de poste. Auparavant il avait été joueur de hockey.

Further details and examples

The purpose of giving further details and examples is often to lead the reader to accept some opinion.

Form Meaning Example
par exemple for example Soyez prudent. Par exemple, traversez la rue avec soin.
ainsi thus Tous ont lu le rapport. Ainsi, il est unanime.
plus précisément more precisely Elle enseigne. Plus précisément, elle enseigne à l'université.

Evaluation and justification

Evaluation and justification involve analysis of some action or opinion, either by considering whether it is a good one or not (evaluation) or by explaining why it is a good one (justification). Here are some forms in French that play these roles. Note that these are some among many.

Form Meaning Example
comme as/since Comme l'eau est froide, nous n'allons pas nous baigner.
étant donné given Étant donné les circonstances, on l'a trouvée non coupable.
puisque since Puisqu'elle n'a pas d'argent, elle ne payera pas.
à la lumière de in light of À la lumière des questions, nous allons réexaminer le cas.


Actions or opinions are often contrasted with other actions or opinions, as we let the reader see that the action chosen or the opinion presented is the correct one, or that it must be seen in a broader context or a different perspective. The following examples illustrate this.

Form Meaning Example
par contre on the other hand Elle a échoué. Par contre, elle a fait de son mieux.
cependant however Il y a beaucoup de neige. Cependant, elle est légère.
toutefois nevertheless Elle a fait de son mieux. Toutefois, elle a échoué.
en dépit de despite En dépit de ses efforts, elle a échoué.
tandis que while Les populations rurales sont contentes, tandis que les citadins sont mécontents.

Goals and results

The difference between goals and results lies in the person or thing performing some action. Humans and animals can have goals: something they wish to accomplish by performing an action. Results on the other hand are the consequences of some event without a human cause, as when a branch falls because of the weight of the snow on it. The following examples illustrate some of the forms in French used to show goals and results. Some forms like parce que and par conséquent can represent either goals or results.

Form Meaning Example
afin de in order to Nous avons fermé la porte afin de bloquer le vent.
pour que so that Je vous ai écrit pour que vous puissiez préparer la réunion.
parce que because L'entreprise a perdu de l'argent parce que les ventes étaient mauvaises.
par conséquent as a result Elle a perdu son portable. Par conséquent, elle n'a pas pu prendre des notes.

A special case of relations: argumentation

One of the most frequent uses of written language is argumentation: presenting a point of view and defending it, or criticizing another point of view. When this happens serially, we speak of a debate. The following table gives some of the principal elements used in French to make an argument, along with their category and an example. Try to memorize these forms as they will appear in many texts.

Meaning Form Example
Hypothesis si ... alors S'il neige, alors l'université sera fermée.
en admettant que Même en admettant qu'elle ait raison, il faut agir maintenant.
Concession bien que Bien qu'il neige, l'université restera ouverte.
quoique Pierre fera le travail quoiqu'il n'aime pas écrire les rapports.
Restriction sauf Tout le monde sauf Pierre est parti.
à l'exception de À l'exception de Queen's, toutes les universités se sont fermées.
Addition de plus Elle est fâchée et de plus elle est triste.
en outre Les employés sont payés et en outre logés.
Choice ou bien...ou bien Ou bien vous partez ou bien vous restez.
ou ... ou Ou vous partez ou vous restez.

Exploring paragraph relations

To check your understanding of the various elements used to combine sentences, pick the appropriate form in the questions below. There are many questions, so you can take the quiz more than once. Remember that the goal is to help you identify sentence relations. None of the results are retained as marks.

The simple past

We have seen that it is possible to use the imperfect, past perfect and the pluperfect to talk about past events, as the following example illustrates:

Note how the imperfect gives background information (look at était, dormait), the past perfect gives events that occur (look at a sonné, s'est levée, a trébuché), and the pluperfect gives events that happened before the events described by the past perfect (look at avait laissé).

In literary texts in French, we find the same system, but with one important difference. Instead of the past perfect, French uses the simple past to describe events that occur. So if the passage above was found in a novel, it would read as follows. Pay special attention to the words in bold.

Notice the forms sonna, se leva, trébucha. The ending in -a tells us that we are dealing with the simple past. With one or two rare exceptions, this usage of the simple past is found only in written texts.

Forming the simple past

If you look at the examples above, you will notice that all the verbs in the simple past end in -a. This is because all of them belong to the first conjugation. The following table shows the ending for each of the persons and numbers. In the vast majority of texts, the third person singular or plural will predominate, so pay particular attention to these two forms: -a and -èrent.

Person, gender, number Ending Example
1st person singular -ai Je chantai
2nd person singular -as Tu chantas
3rd person singular (masculine) -ait Il chanta
3rd person singular (feminine) -ait Elle chanta
1st person plural -ions Nous chantâmes
2nd person plural -iez Vous chantâtes
3rd person plural (masculine) -aient Ils chantèrent
3rd person plural (feminine) -aient Elles chantèrent

There are also a number of irregular verbs in French whose past perfect you should also learn. Here are some of them. As before, the third person forms are the most frequent and the most important.

être avoir faire dire pouvoir
je fus j'eus je fis je dis je pus
tu fus tu eus tu fis tu dis tu pus
il fut il eut il fit il dit il put
elle fut elle eut elle fit elle dit elle put
nous fûmes nous eûmes nous fîmes nous dîmes nous pûmes
vous fûtes vous eûtes vous fîtes vous dîtes vous pûtes
ils furent ils eurent ils firent ils dirent ils purent
elles furent elles eurent elles firent elles dirent elles purent

Finally, here are some forms for verbs in the -ir, -re and -oir families.

finir perdre recevoir
je finis je perdis je reçus
tu finis tu perdis tu reçus
il finit il perdit il reçut
elle finit elle perdit elle reçut
nous finîmes nous perdîmes nous reçûmes
vous finîtes vous perdîtes vous perdîtes
ils finirent ils perdirent ils reçurent
elles finirent elles perdirent elles reçurent

Again, notice the pattern in the third person plural (a vowel followed by -rent and the frequent appearance of the circumflex accent). These are important clues to bear in mind. To test your sensitivity to them, look at each of the following sentences and try to determine if they are in the simple past or in some other tense. When you have decided, mouse over each sentence to check your understanding.

Exploring the simple past

In general, the simple past is combined with the imperfect and sometimes the pluperfect. To help practice working out these interactions, read the following passage. To check your understanding, mouse over the various sentences to check their meaning.

Silencieusement, elle se leva. Elle mit ses vêtements et sans allumer la lampe, elle ouvrit la porte. Les autres dormaient encore.

Elle prit ses clés sur le comptoir et elle but un peu de jus. Elle laissa une note rapide pour s’excuser de son départ imprévu.

Il faisait froid dehors, et elle mit du temps à desserrer la chaîne de sa bicyclette. Elle l’enfourcha et elle se mit à pédaler.

Soudainement, derrière elle, elle put entendre une petite voix qui pleurait. Elle tourna la tête et il sortit des ombres …

When reading this text, you should begin to have the impression of what it is like to read a novel in French. Try to find a novel online and attempt to read the opening paragraphs. If you continue to do that, you will discover that the exercise becomes easier and easier.

Reading passages

We now have the means of moving beyond isolated sentences and understanding some of the relations which underly paragraphs and texts. We have also seen how some basic literary texts work in the simple past. Using this knowledge, you should be able to grasp at least the basic meaning of the following passages. As usual, this should be built upon the scaffolding we have seen to date:

As usual, you won't understand everything, but do your best. Then, check your understanding against the translation provided.

A passage from La peste (The Plague) by A. Camus

Le matin du 16 avril, le docteur Bernard Rieux sortit de son cabinet et buta sur un rat mort, au milieu du palier. Sur le moment, il écarta la bête sans y prendre garde et descendit l'escalier. Mais, arrivé dans la rue, la pensée lui vint que ce rat n'était pas à sa place et il retourna sur ses pas pour avertir le concierge. Devant la réaction du vieux M. Michel, il sentit mieux ce que sa découverte avait d'insolite. La présence de ce rat mort lui avait paru seulement bizarre tandis que, pour le concierge, elle constituait un scandale. La position de ce dernier était d'ailleurs catégorique : il n'y avait pas de rats dans la maison.


On the morning of April 16th, Dr Bernard Rieux walked out of his office and tripped on a dead rat, in the middle of the landing. At the time, he moved the rat out of the way without paying any attention and went down the stairs. But, on arriving in the street, the thought came to him that the rat was out of place and he retraced his steps to alert the janitor. Seeing the reaction of old Mr. Michel, he saw more clearly how out of place his discovery was. The presence of the dead rat had only seemed strange to him, while for the janitor, it constituted a scandal. The latter's position was categorical: there were no rats in the house.

A passage from La chute (The Fall) by A. Camus

Il y a quelques années, j’étais avocat à Paris et, ma foi, un avocat assez connu. Bien entendu, je ne vous ai pas dit mon vrai nom. J’avais une spécialité : les nobles causes. La veuve et l’orphelin, comme on dit, je ne sais pourquoi, car enfin il y a des veuves abusives et des orphelins féroces. Il me suffisait cependant de renifler sur un accusé la plus légère odeur de victime pour que mes manches entrassent en action. Et quelle action ! Une tempête ! J’avais le cœur sur les manches.


A few years ago I was a lawyer in Paris and, my word, quite a well-known one. Of course, I have not told you my real name. I had a specialisation: noble causes. Widows and orphans, as one says, I don't know why, since there are abusive widows and ferocious orphans. However, it was sufficient for me to sniff on an accused person the slightest hint of being a victim for me to roll up my sleeves and enter into action. And what action! A real tempest! I had my heart on my sleeve.

A passage about the Seven Years' War (source: Wikipédia)

La guerre de Sept Ans (1756-1763) est un conflit majeur du XVIIIe siècle, la première guerre à être mondiale car la première à mêler plusieurs puissances regroupées dans deux alliances antagonistes et à se dérouler simultanément sur plusieurs continents et dans de nombreux théâtres d’opérations : Europe, Amérique du Nord, Inde, Philippine. Elle est considérée comme préfiguratrice des futures guerres mondiales. Elle oppose principalement d’une part au niveau mondial le Royaume de France au Royaume de Grande-Bretagne, d’autre part au niveau européen le Royaume de Prusse aux états des Habsbourg (archiduché d'Autriche, royaumes de Bohême et de Hongrie). Cependant, par le jeu des alliances et des opportunismes, de nombreux pays européens et leurs colonies participent à cette guerre, notamment l’Empire de Russie aux côtés de l’Autriche ainsi que le Royaume d’Espagne et son empire d’Amérique du Sud aux côtés de la France. Le conflit s'est traduit par un rééquilibrage important des puissances européennes. S’emparant de Québec (1759) et de Montréal (1760), l’Empire britannique fait presque entièrement disparaître le Premier espace colonial français.


The Seven Years' Ware (1756-1763) was a major conflict of the 18th Century, the first war to take place on a world scale, since it was the first to bring into conflict a number of powers grouped into two opposing alliances and to take place simultaneously on several continents and in numerous theatres of action: Europe, North America, India, Philippines. It is considered to prefigure future world wars. On the world scale, it brought into conflict principally the Kingdom of France and the Kingdom of Great Britain, while on the European scale, it brought into conflict the Kingdom of Prussia and the states of Habsburg (the archduchy of Austria, the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary). However, by the interplay of alliances and opportunistic actions, numerous European countries and their colonies participated in the war, notably the Russian Empire which sided with Austria and the Kingdom of Spain and its South American empire, which sided with France. The conflict led so an important recalibration of European power. By capturing Québec (1759) and Montréal (1760), the British Empire almost completely wiped out the first French colonial empire.

A passage on privacy from Québec law (source: Code civil)

35. Toute personne a droit au respect de sa réputation et de sa vie privée.

Nulle atteinte ne peut être portée à la vie privée d'une personne sans que celle-ci y consente ou sans que la loi l'autorise.

36. Peuvent être notamment considérés comme des atteintes à la vie privée d'une personne les actes suivants:

1° Pénétrer chez elle ou y prendre quoi que ce soit;

2° Intercepter ou utiliser volontairement une communication privée;

3° Capter ou utiliser son image ou sa voix lorsqu'elle se trouve dans des lieux privés;

4° Surveiller sa vie privée par quelque moyen que ce soit;

5° Utiliser son nom, son image, sa ressemblance ou sa voix à toute autre fin que l'information légitime du public;

6° Utiliser sa correspondance, ses manuscrits ou ses autres documents personnels.


All persons have the right to their reputation and their privacy.
No intrusion into a person's private life is permitted without their consent or unless authorized by law
The following acts are considered to be intrusions into the privacy of an individual
1) Enter a person's dwelling or take anything from it
2) Intercept or voluntarily use a private communication
3) Capture or use a person's image or voice when that person is in a private place
4) Make surveillance of a person's private life by any means
5) Use a person's name, image, resemblance or voice for any purpose other than a legitimate public purpose
6) Use a person's correspondence, manuscripts or other personal documents.

Summing up

You should now feel comfortable with:

  1. recognizing the distinction between coherence and cohesion in texts
  2. recognizing the form and meaning of the basic paragraph-level relational forms in French
  3. understanding the logic of a short text based on the meaning of its sentences and on the forms which connect them
  4. identifying forms of the simple past in French
  5. reading a short literary passage written in the simple past

We have now seen many of the basic grammatical devices and word forms found in a variety of texts. Using these, you should be able to establish the gist of many passages you come across. Some of this is helped by the fact that many words in French and English are similar. In the next module, we will examine an area where this similarity betwen the two languages is not as pronounced: everyday language.