Passé composé vs Imperfect: Meaning Changes

Verbes qui changent de signification

Knowing whether to use passé composé or imparfait sometimes depends on the meaning of the verb itself. Before reading this lesson, be sure you understand the basics of passé composé vs imparfait.

The following French verbs have different meanings in the passé composé and imparfait.

avoir – to have

Imperfect = “had, was/were”

J’avais un chien.   I had a dog.
J’avais soif.   I was thirsty.

Passé composé = “got, received, became”

J’ai eu un chien.   I got a dog.
J’ai eu soif.   I got thirsty.

connaître – to know, be familiar with

Imperfect = “knew, was/were familiar with”

Je le connaissais à peine.   I barely knew him.
Je ne connaissais pas Rouen.   I wasn’t familiar with Rouen.

Passé composé = “met, got to know”

Je l’ai connu la semaine dernière.   I met him last week.
J’ai enfin connu Rouen.   I finally got to know Rouen.

devoir – to have to

Imperfect = “was/were supposed to”

Je devais travailler hier.   I was supposed to work yesterday.
Tu devais savoir.   You were supposed to know.

Passé composé = “had to, must have”

J’ai dû travailler hier.   I had to work yesterday.
Tu as dû savoir !   You must have known!

être – to be

Imperfect = “was/were” for an unspecified amount of time

J’étais malade.   I was sick.
Tu étais fatigué.   You were tired.

Passé composé = “got, became”

J’ai été malade.   I got / became sick.
Tu as été fatigué.   You got tired.

Passé composé = "was/were" at a precise moment

J’ai été sage quand j’ai vu les bonbons.   I was good when I saw the candy (and didn’t eat it all).
Tu as été impoli.   You were rude (at that moment).

pouvoir – to be able to

Imperfect = “was/were able to / capable of (in theory)”

Je ne pouvais pas entendre.   I was unable to hear.
Je pouvais le voir.   I could see him. (I was capable of it, whether or not I actually did.)

Passé composé = "managed to, was/were able to (actually did)"

J’ai pu trouver la solution.   I managed to find the solution.
J’ai pu le voir.   I could (and did) see him.

savoir – to know

Imperfect = “knew”

Je savais son prénom.   I knew his name.
Je savais conduire.   I knew how to drive.

Passé composé = “found out, learned”

J’ai su son prénom.   I found out his name.
J’ai su conduire.   I learned how to drive.

vouloir – to want

Imperfect = “wanted”

Je voulais voyager.   I wanted to travel.
Je voulais un sandwich.   I wanted a sandwich.

Passé composé = “decided to, tried to”

J’ai voulu voyager.   I decided to travel.
J’ai voulu le finir.   I tried to finish it.

Passé composé (negative) = “refused to”

Je n’ai pas voulu voyager.   I refused to travel.
Je n’ai pas voulu le finir.   I refused to finish it.

  Remember that in literature and other formal writing, the passé simple takes the place of the passé composé.

More imparfait vs passé composé

French video Video: Passé composé vs imparfait

 Passé composé vs imparfait quizzes

Think you’ve got it? Test yourself on the difference between passé composé and imparfait with these fill-in-the-blanks exercises:

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Passé composé vs imparfait

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