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Difference Between French Passé Composé vs Imparfait

The key to understanding the difference between passé composé vs. imparfait is to keep in mind specific event vs background or ongoing event. Let’s dive deeper into the two to have a better grasp of the concept.

French Passé Composé

As an English speaker, you’ll be familiar with this French tense as it is very similar to the ‘past simple’ or ‘present perfect’.

Usage

To discuss a specific action or a succession of specific actions that took place in the past. The tense is often used in spoken French.

Conjugation

Auxiliary Verb (avoir or être) + past participle of the verb.

J’ai lu les nouvelles.
I read the news.

Il est tombé.
He fell.

 

French Imparfait Tense

In English, l’Imparfait is known as the Imperfect Tense. It is very similar to the ‘past progressive’, and replaces the use of ‘would + verb’ and ‘used to + verb’ structures. It is also comparable to the ‘past progressive’.

Usage

To discuss actions that were ongoing or reoccurring in the past. It can also be used to describe habits and what used to be.

Conjugation

The imperfect is formed by dropping the -ons from the present tense nous form of the verb and adding the following endings:

(je) -ais, (tu) -ais, (il/elle) -ait, (nous) -ions, (vous) -iez, (ils/elles) -aient

Example

Ils allaient (aller = all + aient) au marché.
They were going to the market.

Nous dansions (danser = dans + ions) ensemble.
We were dancing together.

It is important to remember that verbs in the ‘past progressive’ tense are almost always going to be in the imparfait when translated into French. However, when translating ‘perfect tense’ verbs into French, it isn’t as easy to determine since in this case the use of the imparfait or the passé composé would depend on what the rest of the sentence is saying.

Watch the video below for a quick recap on Passé Composé vs Imparfait:

 

The Differences Between Passé Composé  vs. Imparfait

When narrating a story

If you’re describing a set of events that happened and formed the story of your discussion then the tense used is the Passé Composé.

Je suis arrivé à l’hôpital.
I arrived at the hospital.

In this instance, the focus is on the action of you having arrived at the hospital. It’s one event that happened at that very moment.

Now, if we use l’imparfait it enables us to not only describe an ongoing action, but the circumstances in which this action is taking place too. Therefore we are able to elaborate on details such as the date of the event, the environment and surroundings, what the weather was like etc.

Les enfants jouaient dans le parc derrière moi et je pouvais entendre leurs sons.
The children were playing in the park behind me and I could hear their sounds.

In conclusion, it concerns you and what’s happening around you too.

Discussing habits vs. Specific Events: L’imparfait vs. Passé  Composé

L’imparfait talks about habits that used to occur in the past.

Tous les dimanches, j’allais nager.
Every Sunday, I used to go swimming.

Passé Composé on the other hand talks about what took place specifically.

Dimanche, nous sommes allés en randonnée.
On Sunday, we went hiking.

Talking about ongoing actions:

L’imparfait is employed here to describe what was happening at that moment. It’s easier to remember by keeping in mind that in English, this is usually when ‘to be + ing’ is used.

Tu mangeais.
You were eating.

Passé Composé  and L’imparfait used in the same sentence:

On the chance that both tenses are used, L’imparfait will be directed towards action that lasts longer and Passé Composé will be for the shorter specific action.

Paul étudiait quand ses amis sont arrivés.
Paul was studying (long specific action) when his friends arrived. (short action that occurred in the background).

A particular action that happened at a particular time:

Can you guess which tense will be used?

Il a chanté.
He sang.

You’re right if you said Passé Composé.

If the actions are of the same length, the same tense is used to describe them:

Pendant que maman dormait, je préparais un gâteau.
While mom was sleeping, I was baking a cake.
(Actions that are both long in length).

Jean marchait pendant que je courais.
Jean walked as I was running.

Common Expressions for Passé Composé  vs. Imparfait

Even though it’s always the context of the sentence that underlines which tense will be used, here’s a list of expressions that can point you in the right direction:

L’Imparfait
English ExpressionFrench Expression
Every day, each month…Chaque jour, chaque mois…
SometimesParfois, quelques fois
Rarely, seldomRarement
On Mondays, in the evening/morning…Le lundi, le soir, le matin…
In general, usually…D’habitude, habituellement
Every Monday, every morning…Tous les lundis, tous les matins…
From time to timeDe temps en temps
Passé Composé
FirstD’abord, premièrement
SuddenlySoudain
Right awayTout de suite
ThenPuis, ensuite
FinallyEnfin, finalement
All of a suddenTout à coup

 

Therefore no matter which tense you’re picking, we hope this lesson gave you the understanding of Passé Composé vs. Imparfait. See you next lesson!

Still have questions? Our Native French Tutors will address all your queries and help you get that perfect hold on the french language.

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