Passé composé versus imparfait

This lesson concentrates on the proper uses and differences between passé composé and imparfait in French

Imparfait and passé composé cannot translate literally from English

  • The imparfait describes what was happening all around you (including you), the background. Also it refers to ongoing events, habits, what used to be.
  • The passé composé expresses what took place at a precise moment: a specific event or a succession of specific events, the main storyline.

Now it’s time to explain what the differences between passé composé and imparfait are.

1) Habits versus specific events

  • The imparfait describes an action or a habit that took place repeatedly in the past
    The equivalent in English would be “I used to” or “I would” + verb.
    Example: Quand j’étais jeune, j’allais tous les weekends voir ma grand-mère.
    When I was young, I used to go (I would go) every weekend to see my grandmother.
  • The passe composé refers to a punctual and completed action which has taken place in the past
    Example: Hier, je suis allé(e) au magasin et j’ai acheté une nouvelle robe! Yesterday I went to the store and I bought a new dress.

2) When you are telling a story

The passé composé describes actions that constitute the storyline. It tells the series of specific events that took place.
Example: Hier nous sommes allés au ciné. (Yesterday we went to the movies)

The imperfect describes the background, it sets the scene:

  • the date, the time of the day, the weather, the scene (what people were doing)….. external circumstances,
  • age, feelings, appearance, physical condition, physical traits, attitudes…. personal circumstances.
    Example: Il n’y avait personne dans la cour, le silence et l’obscurité régnaient partout.

3) Imparfait and passé composé used in the same sentence

  • The imperfect describes ongoing background actions, what was happening at that time (often with a “to be + ing” construction in English) – these actions had started before, and may continue after.
    The PC will describe a specific action that took place at a precise time as the background action was going on:
    Example: Ils sont entrés pendant que nous dormions.
  • Sometimes, the same tense is used for the 2 actions if they are of same length
    – 2 actions that went on for some time:
    Example: Tandis que que j’apprenais mes leçons de français, tu regardais la télévision.
    – or 2 specific shorter actions:
    Example: Tu es rentrée quand je suis sortie.

4) Expressions used with the imparfait or passé composé

Some expressions are followed by the imperfect in French

The following expressions of time are generally used with the imperfect since they introduce recurrent events

  • d’habitude, habituellement – usually, habitually
  • généralement, en général – in general
  • normalement – usually
  • quelquefois, parfois – sometimes
  • de temps en temps – from time to time
  • le jeudi, le matin, l’après-midi – On Thursdays, in the morning, in the afternoon,
  • tous les mercredis, tous les jours  – Every Wednesday, everyday
  • chaque jour, chaque mois, chaque année  – Each day, month, year…
  • rarement – rarely, seldom
  • autrefois (formal) – in the past, formerly

Other expressions of time are used with the passé composé

As they usually introduce specific events:

  • d’abord, premièrement – first
  • puis, ensuite – then
  • enfin, finalement – finally
  • soudain – suddenly
  • tout à coup – all of a sudden
  • tout de suite – right away

Here are some examples of use with the imparfait or passé composé

Lorsque j’habitais à Paris, je travaillais dans le XIIème arrondissement et j’allais tous les jours au travail en bus.
Chaque année je prenais mes vacances en juillet et je passais un mois au Laos.
Un jour, j’ai reçu une proposition d’emploi à Londres. J’ai décidé de l’accepter et peu après j’ai déménagé.

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