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Preterite (Simple-Past) Tense

I have been learning Spanish for three years in school, and the first past tense we learned was the Preterite. Is there a preterite tense in French? I see that Duolingo has us learning the imperfect tense as the first past tense, so I was just wondering if there is a simple-past tense in French, and how commonly it is used. Merci Boucoup, Gracias, Thanks!

March 23, 2013



There is indeed a simple past tense in French (passé simple), which you mostly find in literature and well written newspapers, since its usage has nearly disappeared from usual oral conversations and even in daily writing (emails, etc).

It has been replaced in usage by the "passé composé".

Just for the taste of it (present - simple past- compound past) with frequent verbs:

  • je suis - je fus - j'ai été
  • j'ai - j'eus - j'ai eu
  • je mange - je mangeai - j'ai mangé (1st group endings in -er)
  • je finis - je finis - j'ai fini (2nd group endings in -ir)
  • je viens - je vins - je suis venu (3rd group)
  • j'apprends - j'appris - j'ai appris (3rd group)
  • je vais - j'allai - je suis allé (3rd group defective)
  • je peux - je pus - j'ai pu (3rd group )


The website Fluent French Now, which has some videos of French conversation for learning purposes, states that the imparfait is more common in conversational French than the passé composé. Is the imparfait different from the passé simple? And do you have any comments about what they say?

The address for the page is: http://www.fluentfrenchnow.com/french-conversation-skill-how-to-use-the-real-life-examples/

The quote is:

What you will notice in all the recordings is that in French the imparfait, e.g. “on habitait”. “il faisait chaud”, etc. is much more frequent than the passé composé. e.g. “on a habité”, “il a fait chaud.”


The link you propose is very useful and the explanations smart and clear, I think. Being French, I have no idea whether or not the imparfait is more often used than the passé composé. What I know for sure is that they are not interchangeable because they express different situations in the past.

The imparfait is generally a lasting action, a habit or a factual situation in the past:

  • "le gouvernement travaillait dur à cette époque" (the government was working hard at that time)
  • "nous passions nos vacances à la campagne" (we used to or we would spend our holidays at the countryside)
  • "il gagnait beaucoup d'argent à cette époque" (he was making or he made a lot of money at that time)
  • "L'idée était simple" (the idea was simple)

You ave noticed that when you translate the imparfait into English, depending on the situation I chose, you get different tenses and/or verbal forms. (continuous past in the first example).

The passé composé looks like the English present perfect but it is definitely a past tense. It is generally used to describe an action that has a more precise duration in the past, or an action which is still in progress at the time you speak

  • "il est parti à 8 heures" (he left at 8am)
  • "il a gagné beaucoup d'argent dans sa vie" (he has made or he made a lot of money in his life).
  • note: "he has made a lot of money for 10 years" can be translated by a present tense: "il gagne beaucoup d'argent depuis 10 ans".


I notice the difference, but duolingo makes they seem equal when accepting both solutions :(

  • 1594

Thanks for your comments.

In general, we accept both "passé composé" and "imparfait" as translations of "past tense", since there it is hard to figure out in one sentence, whether it is a lasting action (imparfait) or a precise duration (passé composé).

Ex: The sentence "I ate a lot" can be translated to:

  • "Je mangeais beaucoup" (imparfait)

  • "J'ai beaucoup mangé" (passé composé)

However, when there is more context in a sentence, it makes it possible to determine whether to use the "imparfait" or the "passé composé".

ex: The sentence "When I was young, I ate a lot" can only be translated to:

  • "Quand j'étais jeune, je mangeais beaucoup" (imparfait)

ex: The sentence "Yesterday, I ate a lot" can only be translated to:

  • "Hier, j'ai beaucoup mangé" (passé composé)


Well... i have used most of time "pretérito indefinido/ perfecto". Duolingo teach them at the same time. So you use AVOIR + PARTICIPLE to make sentences. Some specific verbs requires ÊTRE + PARTICIPLE, which requires to change the verb into feminine/masculine, singular/plural. There is another one, called imperfecto (spanish) where u change the verb ending according to each person, example je savais, tu savais, il savait.... sentence: j'ai appris le français quand j'étais un enfant (aprendi francés cuando era un niño). Got it? I tried to teach in a simple way, but i think u'd better get more info on the net, since u have to learn the irregular verbs, verbs u use être, etc.i have some books on my pc, if you want me to send them through email, just ask. Good studies....


I'm going to move this thread to the French discussion where the questions will be appreciated, and more people can jump in.


it's called passé simple but we practically never use it.

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