Depuis vs. Pendant vs. Il y a: A Guide for French Learners

Since the beginning of time…

…French students have struggled with depuis , pendant and il y a .

Alright, maybe I’m being a little dramatic. Maybe.

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.



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.

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!

Depuis (Since)

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.

This is an action that started in the past (five months ago) and is still true today.

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.

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 using these two French past tenses.

Pendant (During)

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 for 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.

The action (playing soccer) has been started and completed, and the speaker is no longer doing the action in the present or habitually.

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 actionsPour is interchangeable with pendant in this case.

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.

In this case, il y a is followed by a length of time (20 minutes).

Where to Practice Using These Expressions

You may’ve only just started learning the French temporal expressions depuispendant and il y a, but it’s never too early to start practicing! You can start applying your new skills using online exercises and language tools:

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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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!

And one more thing...

If you like learning French on your own time and from the comfort of your smart device, then I'd be remiss to not tell you about FluentU.

FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews, documentary excerpts and web series, as you can see here:


FluentU brings native French videos with reach. With interactive captions, you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.


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 learn mode. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning, and play the mini-games found in our dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."


All throughout, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a totally 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 the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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