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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton March 19, 2010

Aspects of virtuality in the meaning of the French imparfait

Frank Brisard
From the journal


Most traditional approaches to the French imparfait characterize this tense by combining notions of past reference, imperfective aspect, and/or anaphora. Typically, the imparfait may refer to a past situation, present this situation as unbounded, and, in narratives, as simultaneous to a situation previously reported in the passé simple. This article argues that a unified definition of the imparfait, taking into account all of its uses, cannot be based on these notions alone. It is proposed that the imparfait presents a situation as part of a mentally construed reality which does not coincide with the speaker's, and which is not to be considered as actual for that reason. In particular, it construes the viewpoint (ground) from which a designated situation is conceived as distinct from that of the speaker at the time of speaking. This shift of viewpoint in the meaning of the imparfait, away from the speech event, effectively sets up a virtual locus of viewing that is treated as a given or known reference point in the construction of an alternative conception of reality. This alternative, virtual reality may, but need not, correspond with the conception of an actual situation in the past, depending on contextual licensing. It is the virtual nature of the viewpoint — or, in other words, its modal (epistemic) import — that sets the use of the imparfait apart from that of other French simple tenses, and notably from that of the passé simple.

Dept. of Linguistics, University of Antwerp, Prinsstraat 13, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium. E-mail:

Received: 2004-07-30
Revised: 2008-10-17
Published Online: 2010-03-19
Published in Print: 2010-March

© 2010 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/New York

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