Passé composé vs Imperfect: Meaning Changes

Verbes qui changent de signification

Passé composé et imparfait
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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.

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

avoir – to have

Imperfect = "had"

J’avais un chien.   I had a dog.
Pierre n’avait jamais de voiture.   Pierre never owned a car.

Passé composé = “got, received"

J’ai eu un chien.   I got a dog.
Pierre n’a jamais eu de prix.   Pierre never received an award.

avoir – to be*

Imperfect = “was/were”

J’avais beaucoup de succès.   I was very successful.
Nous avions soif.   We were thirsty.

Passé composé = "became”

J’ai eu du succès du jour au lendemain.   I became an overnight success.
Nous avons eu soif.   We got thirsty.

* In expressions where it means "to be."

connaître – to know, be familiar with

Imperfect = “knew, was/were familiar with”

Je le connaissais à peine.   I barely knew him.
Nous ne connaissions pas Rouen.   We weren’t familiar with Rouen.

Passé composé = “met, got to know”

Je l’ai connu la semaine dernière.   I met him last week.
Nous avons enfin connu Rouen.   We 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)”

Il ne pouvait pas entendre.   He 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 (did)"

Il a pu trouver la solution.   He 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.
Elle savait conduire.   She knew how to drive.

Passé composé = “found out, learned”

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

vouloir – to want

Imperfect = “wanted”

Je voulais voyager.   I wanted to travel.
Il voulait un sandwich.   He wanted a sandwich.

Passé composé = “decided to, tried to”

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

Passé composé (negative) = “refused to”

Je n’ai pas voulu voyager.   I refused to travel.
Il n’a pas voulu le finir.   He 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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 Related lessons

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Passé composé vs imparfait

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