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Difference Between French Passé Composé vs Imparfait

At the base, understanding the difference between passé composé vs. imparfait is to know that it means specific event vs background or ongoing event. Let us dive deeper into the two to have a better grasp.

French Passé Composé

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


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


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

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

French Imparfait Tense

In English, this the French l’Imparfait is known as the Imperfect Tense. Like the previous tense, this one also connects with Simple Past but it also relates to ‘used to’, ‘would’ and ‘past progressive.’


Narrates actions that are still happening around, habits, what used to be, or actions that were repeated in the past.


Add the endings to the base of ‘nous’ in all verbs but in the present tense.
Endings: -ait, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez and -aient

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

Most importantly, remember that for past progressive verbs, it’s easier to translate into English for understanding but for verbs in the perfect tense, the translations can go wrong. The reason being that the tense used in French, depends on what the rest of the sentence is saying.

The Differences Between Passé Composé  vs. Imparfait

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 you having arrived at the hospital. It’s an event that happened at that very moment.

Now, if we use l’imparfait then we’ll be describing not only about the subject but what’s around the subject too. That is to say, we expand on details like the date, the external circumstances, the physical traits, feelings, weather, 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’s not just about you but also what’s happening around you.

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.

Talk about actions that started and may continue

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 came in (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.

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 help you identify.

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
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 Passé Composé vs. Imparfait. See you next lesson!

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