Since the beginning of time…
…French students have struggled with depuis, pendant and il y a.
Alright, maybe I’m being a little dramatic.
But when you’re tearing your hair out over a grammar book, trying to figure out why French people have these three different ways to express a length of time, it can definitely start to feel like an eternity.
Here’s the thing.
Once you learn a handful of key situations where each term is used, they suddenly start to make a lot more sense.
In this post, we’ll show you the practical differences between depuis, pendant and il y a, so you’ll know exactly when to use each one in real French conversations.
Since When?! How to Describe Time with Depuis, Pendant and Il y a in French
What Are Depuis, Pendant and Il y a Used For?
These three French expressions are called temporal expressions. That means that we use them to express the passage of time or to talk about a specific duration of time.
We’ll explain their meaning and usage in more depth below, but here’s the gist: depuis generally translates to “since,” pendant generally translates to “during” and il y a generally translates to “ago.”
These temporal expressions are often used to talk about the past, but they can also be used to talk about a duration of time in the present and in the future.
We can also use pour (for) as a temporal expression, but more on that later.
Okay, makes sense so far, right?
The thing is, while these words have distinct meanings, they only have rough translations in English. Each expression has a specific use that’s a little more complex than its English counterpart. This typically leads to confusion among English speakers and frequent errors.
Don’t worry. We’ll clear that confusion up.
Where to Practice Using These Expressions
You may’ve only started learning French temporal expressions, but it’s never to early to start practicing! As you follow our guide below to depuis, pendant and il y a, apply your new skills using online exercises and language tools:
- Temporal expression comparisons: You can practice depuis vs. pendant vs. pour or depuis vs. il y a with lessons and fill-in-the-black exercises from the University of Texas.
Further, you can practice depuis vs. pendant vs. pour at ToLearnFrench.
- FluentU: This innovative app will show you how native speakers use tricky French words like depuis, pendant and il y a in a wide variety of contexts.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the French language and culture over time. You’ll learn French as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive subtitles.
You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with FluentU's adaptive quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning and play the mini-games found in the dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."
As you study, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a 100% personalized experience.
It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
How to Use Depuis, Pendant and Il y a Correctly
Despite the potential for confusion, the usages of these three temporal expressions have rules and are very regular. Learn the rules and you’ll be using these expressions correctly for all time!
The temporal expression depuis translates to “since” or “for” in English, but this translation isn’t so simple. In fact, its usage is very specific and certain rules must be followed.
Use depuis when…
…talking about an action that started in the past but continues in the present.
- Mon enfant joue du piano depuis cinq mois. (My child has been playing the piano for five months.)
This is an action that started in the past (five months ago) and is still true today.
- J’ai commencé à boire du café la semaine passée. Depuis, je bois du café tous les matins. (I started drinking coffee last week. Since then, I have been drinking coffee every morning.)
In this case, depuis is acting as a transition word of sorts and could be translated to “since then.”
…talking about an action that was started in the past but was interrupted by another action.
- Elle dormait depuis deux heures quand le chien a aboyé. (She had been sleeping for two hours when the dog barked.)
In this case, the sleeping is a past action that was interrupted by the dog barking.
Note that the interrupted action is expressed with the imparfait (imperfect past) and the interrupting action is expressed with the passé composé (the present perfect). Here’s an in-depth guide to the using these two French past tenses.
The French temporal expression pendant translates to the English word “during,” but it can also be used in the sense of the English word “for.” In this way, it’s also a synonym with the French word durant (during). There’s generally one rule for using pendant.
Use pendant when…
…talking about an action that has a concrete start and end point.
You can use pendant to discuss this type of action in the present, past (with the passé composé) or future.
- J’ai joué au foot pendant trois heures aujourd’hui. (I played soccer for three hours today.)
The action (playing soccer) has been started and completed, and the speaker is no longer doing the action in the present or habitually.
- Je joue au foot pendant trois heures tous les mercredis. (I play soccer for three hours each Wednesday.)
- Je jouerai au foot pendant trois heures mercredi. (I will play soccer on Wednesday for three hours.)
You can use pour instead when…
…talking about a future action with a concrete start and end.
In addition to pendant, the word pour can be used to talk about the duration of something, and it corresponds to the English “for.” However, the use of pour is very restricted, as you can only use it to refer to future actions. Pour is interchangeable with pendant in this case.
- Il va me rendre visite pour deux semaines. (He is going to visit for two weeks.)
In this sentence, we are talking about a future action with a set start and end point, so we have the option of using pendant or pour to denote the duration of the action.
Il y a (Ago)
The last temporal expression on our list is il y a (ago). While it’s normally used in a sentence to mean “there is” or “there are,” in the context of a temporal expression, il y a expresses the idea of the English “ago.”
Use il y a when…
…talking about completed actions followed by a length of time.
- Ils se sont réveillés il y a vingt minutes. (They woke up 20 minutes ago.)
In this case, il y a is followed by a length of time (20 minutes).
- Il y a cinq minutes que le professeur est parti. (It’s been five minutes since the professor left.)
The phrase il y a… que expresses the idea of “it’s been… since.”
Note that while we use the past tense to describe the professor’s action in English, French uses the present tense after que in this construction.
Now you’ve conquered these temporal expressions for the rest of your life.
In fact, maybe you’ll even think about how easy these are and how you should’ve mastered them ages ago!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.