To drill on the verb forms, use my French Verb Audio Drills. To me, understanding when to use these tenses is probably one of the most difficult thing for an English speaker, since they cannot translate literally from English.
You need to understand it’s mostly a question of background/specific event, kind of like in a movie a close-up versus a background shot, and develop an ear for it.
1 – You can not Translate Imparfait or Passé Composé Literally
“I was singing” or verbs in past progressive are going to be imperfect. For those, you can rely on translation 90% of the time.
The problem is “I sang” or verbs in the perfect tense… they can be translated as “je chantais” or “j’ai chanté”: it is the rest of the sentence that tells, so there is no way you can just translate
2 – Main Differences Between Passé Composé and Imparfait
I suggest you learn by heart the 2 sentences below.
Don’t think in term of actions: actions can be in both PC or imperfect.
- Imparfait = what was happening all around you (including you), background. Also ongoing events, habits, what used to be.
- Passé composé = what took place at that very moment: a specific event or a succession of specific events, the main storyline.
Now let’s be more specific about the differences between Passé Composé and Imparfait:
A – Habits versus specific events
The imperfect describes habitual actions in the past ≠ The PC describes what took place, specific events.
Le lundi, je dînais chez ma soeur ≠ Un lundi, nous avons dîné au restaurant.
On Mondays, I used to have dinner at my sister’s ≠ One Monday, we dined in a restaurant.
In this case, what you need to look for are the time setting words : “le lundi” (habit) versus “un lundi”(specific).
B – When you are telling a story
The passé composé describes actions that constitute the storyline. It tells the series of specific events that took place.
Imagine that you are taking a selfie: the camera zooms on you and show what you are doing specifically at that very moment, and “ignore” the wider background.
I took a selfie and I smiled for the picture – j’ai pris un selfie et j’ai souri pour la photo.
The imperfect describes the background, it sets the scene:
- the date, the time of the day, the weather, the scene (what people were doing)….. external circumstances,
- age, appearance, physical traits, physical condition, feelings, attitudes…. personal circumstances.
In other words, exactly the contrary than the selfie: it’s a wide angle camera capturing the global scene:
It was a grey day, people were watching a guy who was dancing. Another guy took several pictures. People were captivated – Il faisait gris, des gens regardaient un type qui dansait. Un autre type prenait des photos. Les gens étaient captivés.
Of course, it’s all a question of perspective: were you smiling for your selfie when suddenly a bike ran into you? Then the smiling part would be the background…
Are you the guy taking picture of the dance artist and describing the series of specific event? Then it would most likely be passé-composé.
You cannot just translate. You have to understand the situation.
C – In the same sentence
- The Imparfait describes ongoing background actions, what was happening at that time (often with a “to be + ing” construction in English) – these actions had started before, and may continue after.
≠ The PC will describe a specific action that took place at a precise time as the background action was going on:
Ils sont entrés (specific event – short in length) pendant que nous dormions (ongoing action – longer in length). They came in as we were sleeping.
- Sometimes, the same tense is used for the 2 actions if they are of same length:
– 2 actions that went on for some time:
Pendant que j’étudiais, tu regardais la télé. While I was studying, you were watching TV.
– or 2 specific shorter actions:
Tu es rentrée quand je suis sortie. You came in as I was going out.
3 – Some Expressions are Usually followed by the Imperfect
Some time expressions are usually followed by the imperfect since they introduce habitual events: I suggest you memorize them, it’s a big help.
- le lundi, le soir, le matin… On Mondays, in the evening, in the morning…
- tous les lundis (tous les matins, tous les soirs, tous les jours…) Every Monday, every morning, every evening, everyday…
- chaque jour (chaque mois, chaque année…), Each day, month, year…
- d’habitude, habituellement – usually, habitually
- généralement, en général – in general
- normalement – usually
- parfois, quelques fois – sometimes
- de temps en temps – from time to time
- rarement – rarely, seldom
- autrefois – in the past, formerly (pretty formal).
4 – Some Expressions TEND TO be followed by the Passé Composé
Some expressions of time tend to be followed by the Passé Composé since they usually introduce specific events.
- d’abord, premièrement – first
- puis, ensuite – then
- enfin, finalement – finally
- soudain – suddenly
- tout à coup – all of a sudden
- tout de suite – right away
5 – Here is a Typical Story with the Explanation for the Tenses
C’était le 3 juillet (background). Il faisait beau (background). Les oiseaux chantaient (background), le soleil brillait (background). J’avais vingt ans (background) et je me promenais dans Paris (background).
Généralement (habit so imparfait will follow), je passais mes vacances avec mes parents. Mais cette année-là (specific time so PC will follow), je suis allée à Paris avec des amis. Je ne parlais pas très bien français (background), et j’étais un peu timide (background).
Il était midi (background), et j’avais faim (background). Je suis allée dans un café, et je me suis assise à une table (succession of specific events/storyline).
C’était un petit café typiquement parisien (background) : on entendait un air de musique à la radio (background), quelques personnes déjeunaient et parlaient tranquillement sur la terrasse (background).
Le serveur est venu à ma table, et j’ai passé ma commande (succession of specific events/storyline). Le serveur est tout de suite revenu avec mon café (specific event).
Pendant que j’attendais mon repas, et que je buvais tranquillement mon café (ongoing events), j’ai commencé à me sentir mal (specific event). Soudainement (introduces PC), je me suis évanouie et je suis tombée par terre (succession of specific events, storyline).
Le serveur a téléphoné aux pompiers (specific event, storyline). Ils sont arrivés très vite (specific event, storyline). Je me suis réveillée (specific event), mais je me sentais encore faible (ongoing).
Alors, les pompiers ont décidé (specific event/storyline) de m’emmener à l’hôpital où les médecins ont fait des tests (specific event). Je suis sortie de l’hôpital le soir (specific event) et après cette aventure, mon séjour à Paris s’est passé sans problème (specific event).
6 – A Deeper Analysis of Passé-Composé Versus Imparfait
Now, I would like to give you a feeling of the difference in dynamics between passé-composé and imparfait. This is more advanced of course, and may be a bit confusing, so beginner students may want to skip it and go directly to the related links I suggest below :-)
Let’s take that sentence “tu es rentrée quand je suis sortie“.
First, let’s point out that I translated this sentence as “You came in as I was going out”. You may debate that if the 2 actions have the same length, it should be “You came in as I went out”… but my first translation sounded better to my American ear. If you accept that, then it’s an example of a past progressive (an ING construction) being translated as a passé-composé.
This notion of 2 actions in the past taking place at the same time is a bit tricky in French, since it could be translated in many different ways. And that is where style, dynamics, perspectives come into the picture…
So we are going to face a decision, where the writer / speaker will chose the construction s/he’ll use not only according to grammar, but also to the twists s/he wants to give to the story:
- Tu rentrais pendant que je suis sortie / Tu es rentrée pendant que je sortais (more likely) – there is a slight difference of time being addressed here: one action took longer (imparfait) than the other (passé-composé)
- Tu rentrais pendant que je sortais = both actions took about the same amount time, and where simultaneous, but also, the feeling is “remote” : someone is watching the scene and describing what was taking place, the setting: 2 people entering/leaving, and telling it to us.
- Tu es rentrée pendant que je suis sortie = both actions took about the same amount of time, and where simultaneous, but the feeling is much more “live”:we are seeing the scene through the eyes of the “je”, we become the “je”, crossing path with this other person who is leaving. It’s much more dynamic and lively.
7 – French People Rely on Their French Ear
Sometimes, I just cannot explain to my students why I used Passé Composé over Imparfait or Imparfait versus Passé Composé. One or the other just “sounded” better to me.
The choice of Passé Composé over Imparfait is the kind of thing where grammar cannot explain everything, you need to develop and ear for it. To do this, only one solution: work with level adapted French audio novels. My bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation. My French audiobooks are exclusively available on French Today.
If you liked my grammar lesson on the most common tenses of the past in French, Passé-Composé versus Imparfait, you’ll also like:
– my article on how to choose être or avoir for Passé Composé
– my article on the uses of si with hypothesis in French.
– my article on understanding when to use the French Subjunctive.