Passé composé vs Imparfait

French past tenses

The most important French past tenses are the passé composé and the imparfait, and they are troublesome for several reasons. While l’imparfait is more or less equivalent to the English past progressive, l’imparfait is more widely used, especially with verbs like avoir and être. As for the passé composé, it has three English equivalents. Be sure you fully understand these two French tenses before continuing with this lesson.

For French students, the trickiest aspect of these French verb forms is that they often work together, juxtaposed not only throughout stories, but even within individual sentences. Understanding the contrasting relationship between the passé composé and imparfait is essential to communicating in French.

  Imparfait vs passé composé

In a nutshell, the imparfait is used for incomplete actions while the passé composé is reserved for completed ones, but of course it’s more complicated than that.

Incomplete vs Complete
Imparfait explains what was happening, with no indication of when or even if it ended. Passé composé announces what happened, actions that were completed.
J’étais à l’école. I was at school. Je suis arrivé tôt. I arrived early.
Je faisais mes devoirs. I was doing my homework. J’ai fini mes devoirs. I finished my homework.
Uncounted vs Counted
Imparfait details what used to happen on a regular basis, or happened an indefinite number of times. Passé composé expresses what happened a specific number of times.
J’étudiais le lundi. I used to study on Mondays. J’ai étudié lundi. I studied on (a specific) Monday.
Je perdais constamment mon livre. I was always losing my book. J’ai perdu mon livre deux fois. I lost my book twice.
Ongoing vs New
Imparfait indicates an ongoing state of being or feeling. Passé composé reports a change in a state of being, a new feeling.
J’aimais l’école. I liked school. À ce moment, j’ai détesté l’école. At that moment, I hated school.
J’étais toujours inspiré par mes profs. I was always inspired by my teachers. J’ai été inspiré par ton succès. I was (became) inspired by your success.
Background + Event
Imparfait describes what was happening or how something was when … … the passé composé interrupted with news of some occurence.
J’étais à l’école quand … I was at school when … … il a commencé à pleuvoir. … it started raining.
J’essayais d’étudier mais … I was trying to study but … … mon ami m’a posé une question. … my friend asked me a question.

Imparfait and passé composé in action

To give you an idea of how these tenses work, together and separately, here are three similar stories using each tense individually and then both together.

Histoire à l’imparfait
Quand j’étais lycéen, j’étudiais tous les jours. Je voulais être accepté dans une grande école parce que je souhaitais être politicien. Je lisais les journaux régulièrement et je commentais constamment l’actualité en compagnie de mes amis. When I was in high school, I studied every day. I wanted to be accepted into a prestigious university because I hoped to be a politician. I read newspapers regularly and I talked about current events all the time to my friends.
Histoire au passé composé
Quand j’ai décidé d’être politicien, j’ai commencé à étudier tous les jours. J’ai fait des recherches et j’ai choisi une grande école. Cependant, je n’ai lu le journal que trois fois en un an, et, un soir, quand j’ai parlé de l’actualité pendant un dîner, je me suis rendu ridicule devant tout le monde. When I decided to be a politician, I started studying every day. I did research and chose a prestigious university. However, I only read the newspaper three times in one year, and, one evening, when I talked about current events at a dinner party, I made a fool of myself in front of everyone.
Histoire aux temps passés mélangés
Quand j’étais lycéen, j’ai décidé que je voulais être politicien. J’étudiais tous les jours parce que je devais, pour cela, être accepté dans une grande école. Je lisais les journaux régulièrement, et, un soir, quand j’ai parlé de l’actualité pendant un dîner, j’ai impressionné tout le monde. When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to be a politician. I studied every day because for that I needed to be accepted into a prestigious university. I read newspapers regularly and one evening, when I talked about current events at a dinner party, I impressed everyone.

Imparfait and passé composé clues

Some words and phrases are virtually always used with the imparfait, while others seem to stick like glue to the passé composé. These lists can help you determine which tense you need in any given sentence.

ImparfaitPassé composé
chaque semaine, mois, annéeevery week, month, yearune semaine, un mois, un anone week, month, year
le week-endon the weekendsun week-endone weekend
le lundi, le mardi…on Mondays, on Tuesdays…  lundi, mardi…on Monday, on Tuesday
tous les joursevery dayun jourone day
le matin, le soirin the mornings, in the eveningsun matin, un soirone morning, one evening
toujoursalways (in the past) toujoursalways (and still now)
normalement, d’habitudeusuallyplusieurs foisseveral times
en général, généralementin general, generally   une fois, deux fois…once, twice…
souventoftensoudain, soudainementsuddenly
parfois, quelquefoissometimes tout à coup  all of a sudden
de temps en tempsfrom time to time tout d’un coupin one fell swoop
autrefoisformerlyensuite, puisnext, then
  finalementin the end

  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 fill-in-the-blanks exercises

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Passé composé vs imparfait
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8 Responses

  1. M P 20 December 2018 / 6:22


    I have a general idea of how the passé composé and imparfait work, but sometimes I am confused about which tense to use with être and avoir. For example, in “J’ai été raisonnable, je m’en suis tenu à ne manger que cinq gâteaux,” I’m not sure I understand why it wouldn’t be j’étais. Could you help explain why? Merci !

  2. Kim 19 April 2018 / 5:58

    If I want to tell somebody that “when I had exams and a lot of homework, I took breaks to rest, I studied with my friends and I tried to remain calm ….” Would you use passé composé ou imparfait?

    • lkl 19 April 2018 / 11:29

      When I had … is background information, so you’d use imperfect. The rest are “interrupting” that state, so you need passé composé.

  3. Mathilde BERTHET 10 April 2018 / 11:08

    Je cherchais une explication simple pour mes étudiants ougandais, et je trouve ton article très clair et complet à la fois, merci!

  4. Julien 25 November 2016 / 18:44

    I’m French and I can answer this. There is no debate. You have to use the imperfect (Imparfait) : “Je travaillais ici lors des attaques.” The fact that you’re still working at the same place right now is irrelevant here.

  5. Samantha 25 May 2016 / 16:42

    There is a very strange debate going on right now. Several other French teachers have insisted that the imperfect can never be used for things that are still true. For example, Où travaillais-tu lors des attaques le 11 novembre? I would say, Je travaillais ici! Je suis prof ici depuis 2002. Their stance is that you´d have to respond in the PRESENT TENSE.

    • lkl 25 May 2016 / 17:13

      Interesting. In theory, that’s correct – you need the present tense for things that are still true, as in your Je suis prof depuis 2002. But you simply can’t say Je travaille ici lors des attaques en novembre – it sounds absurd. À la limite, you could say Je travaille ici depuis les attaques, but that makes it sound like you started at that time, not that you were already there. So I vote for the imperfect, if that helps. 🙂