Imparfait vs Passé Composé

In this discussion I will try to make clear when one should use Imparfait or Passé Composé in French.

Imparfait: This tense is similar to the English simple past tense, I did/I was doing. Each subject generally has a specific suffix in this tense Je fais-ais Tu fais-ais Il/Elle fais-ait Ils/Elles Fais-aient Vous fais-iez

Generally these are all pronounced the same if there is no liaison (except for vous and nous) and this applies to most verbs in the Imparfait tense.

When to use Imparfait: This tense is used when describing habitual actions in the past tense. Example: Le mercredi je dinais avec mon pere - On wednesdays I dined with my father.

It is also used to describe background information or ongoing action Example: Il faisait froide, les gens marchaient a travers le marché il pleuvait fort

Passé Composé This tense is similar to English simple past and present perfect, I did/I have done. Conjugating into this tense is done in the same way as in English, the word 'have' follows the subject then the past participle. When using verbs related to movement, e.g. aller, the auxiliary verb is être not avoir. Example: J'ai mangé - I ate/I have eaten Je suis tombé(e) - I have fallen

When to use Passé Composé: The passé composé describes actions that constitute the storyline. It tells the series of specific events that took place. Example: Hier, je l'ai acheté de nouvelles chaussures et je suis allé au restaurant

Using both Imparfait and Passé Composé in a sentence. Il faisait chaud, le soleil brilait et les enfants jouaient dans le parc. Le père de Luc est arrivé avec un gateau pour sa anniversaire. As "it was hot, the sun was shining and the children were playing in the park" describe simultaneous action and describes a scene we use Imparfait. As Luc's father arriving with cake describes the next action and progresses the story we use Passé Composé.

The use of passé composé or imparfait can have further implications when describing simultaneous or related actions. Examples:

Tu es rentrée pendant que je sortais - this sentence implies "Tu" had returned before "Je" had went out. In English to give a sentence this feeling we would say something along the lines of 'You came back when I was going out'

Tu rentrais pendant que je sortais both actions took about the same amount time, and were simultaneous. As both verbs are imparfait the feeling is “remote” : someone is watching the scene and describing what was taking place, the setting: 2 people entering/leaving, and telling it to us. This is the description of a scene. In English to give this feeling we would say 'You were returning while I was going' It would generally be followed by an event in passé composé. It can also be used to explain when something happened. E.g. 'Il a fait le repas quand tu rentrais et je sortais'

Tu es rentrée pendant que je suis sortie - both actions took about the same amount of time, and were simultaneous, but the feeling is much more “live”:we are seeing the scene through the eyes of the “je”, we become the “je”, crossing path with this other person who is leaving. This describes two simultaneous events rather than setting a scene. In English to give this feeling we would say 'You returned when I left' This is more likely to be used in general conversation in French

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September 6, 2016


The French imperfect can match an English past simple by exception: when the English verb is considered as "stative".

In the absence of any other element of language suggesting a habitual action in the past, for all English "dynamic" verbs, the prime translation for a past simple will not be an imperfect, but a compound past.

  • je dînais avec mon père = I was having dinner with my father (action in progress)
  • le mercredi, je dînais avec mon père = on Wednesdays, I dined/used to dine with my father. (habit)
  • hier, j'ai dîné avec mon père = yesterday, I dined with my father (past and complete)
  • tu es rentré pendant que je sortais = you came back (one time action) while I was going out (simultaneous action in progress)

The imperfect suffixes pronounced the same are only for: "je/tu Verb-ais, il/elle/on Verb-ait, ils/elles Verb-aient".
"Nous" and "vous" have very distinctive pronunciations: nous Verb-ions - vous Verb-iez

Since French does not make a difference between "stative" and "dynamic" verbs, the French imperfect is everywhere in story telling:

  • il faisait froid, j'avais douze ans, j'aimais la pluie = it was cold, I was twelve, I liked the rain.
  • les gens marchaient, il pleuvait = people were walking, it was raining

About time sequence:

  • "pendant que je suis sortie" does not work at all because "pendant" suggests an action in progress and "je suis sortie" a past and complete action.
September 9, 2016

It's somewhat unrelated, but faire is a tricky verb to pronounce, and in je faisais, the two ai are pronounced differently je feu-zè -- same vowels as in je ferais (conditionnal).

French natives actually usually make the opposite mistake because of that, as they end up mistakenly writing je fesais...

September 6, 2016

I'm surprised you did not mention the past progressive. As a native French speaker, a more natural way for me to translate the feel of the example you gave would be this way :

Tu es rentré pendant que je sortais.
You came back while I was leaving.

I prefer this way because the action of coming back ends before the action of leaving, but it starts after the action of leaving.

Your solution translated back to french would then be :

You had come back when I went out.
Tu étais rentré quand je suis sorti.

I think it translates this way because in this case the action of coming back happens entirely before the action of leaving starts.

Then again, I might be wrong...

September 7, 2016

Thank you for your response. I believe you are right that the use of imparfait in that example implies the past progressive and have corrected my translations. I made the mistake of using plus-que-parfait (past perfect in English) in my English translations because it sounds more natural to me.

September 7, 2016

Question: your entire resume and statement of professional experience is 'background'. So was I wrong in using passe compose in both these sentences? I was so sure that the first use of passe compose is acceptable because I'm speaking about the trip as a one-time event that doesn't reoccur...

Un stage bénévole en Kenya a été ma source d'inspiration pour étudier l'eau. Auparavant, j'ai été Assistant de recherche en système d'information et j'ai mené une étude hydro-géophysique.

February 5, 2018

This is all correct, except "au Kenya" (not "en", because le Kenya is masculine).

February 5, 2018

Thank you for the explanation. I have a question about the meaning of the example that you used. Does the phrase "Hier, JE L'AI acheté de nouvelles chaussures et ..." mean something different vs. "Hier, J'AI acheté de nouvelles chaussures et ..." ?

May 6, 2018

"Je l'ai acheté de nouvelles chaussures" is incorrect.

If you bought shoes for someone, you need an indirect object, because the construction is "acheter quelque chose à quelqu'un":

"Je lui ai acheté de nouvelles chaussures" is correct.

May 8, 2018

There are several people with the same question about an exercise in the Politics section of French Duolingo that has gone unanswered for a few years.

Write this in French : He was in the army for thirty years.

The correct answers only seem to be in Passé Composé, but we are wondering, why?

I understand why the Passé Composé would work for it in some contexts:

"He was in the army for thirty years. He is now a doctor."
"Il a été dans l'armée pendant trente ans. Il est maintenant un docteur."

But, couldn't a speaker choose l'imparfait to emphasize how long he was in the army? :

"He was in the army for THIRTY years. He was ready to get out." "Il était dans l'armée pendant trente ans. Il était prêt à quitter."

May 17, 2018

An English past simple tense + for + duration translates to a passé composé + pendant + duration, because the action is complete. Actually, the best tense for this is the French past simple, and you should see it used in (quality) writing.

  • Il a été/Il fut dans l'armée pendant 30 ans. Maintenant, il est médecin. (no article before the profession).

If at some point in the past he was ready to go out, it means that he then was still in the army. The imperfect will mean that exactly.

  • Il était dans l'armée depuis 30 ans. Il était prêt à la quitter ("quitter" needs an object, people or places).
May 19, 2018


May 21, 2018
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