Passé composé vs Imparfait

French past tenses

Passé composé vs imparfait
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The most important French past tenses are the passé composé and the imparfait, and they can be difficult 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.

J’étais à l’école. I was at school.
Je faisais mes devoirs. I was doing my homework.

Passé composé announces what happened, actions that were completed.

Je suis arrivé tôt. I arrived early.
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.

J’étudiais le lundi. I used to study on Mondays.
Je perdais constamment mon livre. I was always losing my book.

Passé composé expresses what happened a specific number of times.

J’ai étudié lundi. I studied on (a specific) Monday.
J’ai perdu mon livre deux fois. I lost my book twice.

Ongoing vs New

Imparfait indicates an ongoing state of being or feeling.

J’aimais l’école. I liked school.
J’étais toujours inspiré par mes profs. I was always inspired by my teachers.

Passé composé reports a change in a state of being, a new feeling.

À ce moment, j’ai détesté l’école. At that moment, I hated school.
J’ai été inspiré par ton succès. I was (became) inspired by your success.

All in the past vs Relevance to present

Imparfait describes something that is entirely in the past.

Il voulait toujours être médecin. He always wanted (used to want) to be a doctor.
J’y mangeais souvent. I often ate there / I used to eat there often (but never again).

Passé composé explains something that started in the past and continues today.

Il a toujours voulu être médecin. He has always wanted to be a doctor.
J’y ai souvent mangé. I have often eaten there (and might again).

Background + Event

Imparfait describes what was happening or how something was …

J’étais à l’école … I was at school …
J’essayais d’étudier … I was trying to study …

… when the passé composé interrupted with news of some occurrence.

… quand il a commencé à pleuvoir. … when it started raining.
… mais mon ami m’a posé une question. … but 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 past 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 French 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.

Imparfait Passé composé
chaque semaine
chaque mois
chaque année
every week
every month
every year
une semaine
un mois
un an
one week
one month
one year
le week-end on the weekends un week-end one weekend
le lundi, le mardi… on Mondays, on Tuesdays…   lundi, mardi… on Monday, on Tuesday
tous les jours every day un jour one day
le matin, le soir in the mornings, in the evenings un matin, un soir one morning, one evening
toujours always (in the past)   toujours always (and still now)
usually plusieurs fois several times
en général
in general
  une fois, deux fois… once, twice…
sometimes soudain
de temps en temps from time to time   tout à coup   all of a sudden
rarement rarely   tout d’un coup in one fell swoop
autrefois formerly d’abord first
    ensuite, puis next, then
    enfin finally
    finalement in the end

 Remember that in French 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:

Note: You must be logged into your Progress with Lawless French account to take these tests. If you don’t have one, sign up – it’s free!

 Related lessons

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Passé composé vs imparfait

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3 Responses

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 🙂

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