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Passé Composé Vs Imparfait

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis - updated on Jun 17, 2020
passé composé versus imparfait

This popular lesson focuses on the use and differences of Passé-Composé vs Imparfait in the French language, with many examples and explanations + videos

Understanding when to use passé composé versus imparfait is probably one of the most difficult things for an English speaker, since you cannot translate literally from English.

Passé composé vs imparfait is mostly a question of specific event vs background or ongoing event.

Imagine 2 pictures: a selfie vs a wide angle shot.

1 – What is the French Imperfect Tense?

The French imperfect is a French tense used for the past. It’s called l’imparfait in French.
The imperfect French tense describes actions that were ongoing or repeated in the past.
The imperfect can correspond to the English simple past tense, but also to structures such as used to and would and even the past progressive.
We conjugate the imperfect in French by adding the endings -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez and –aient to the root of the present tense nous form of the verb.

Je parlais, nous étudiions, ils choisissaient, elles allaient…

2 – What is the French Passé Composé?

The passé composé is a French tense used for the past. The passé composé corresponds mostly to the English simple past or the present perfect.
The passé composé talks about specific actions that were completed in the past.
In spoken French language, the passé composé is always used instead of the passé simple.
We conjugate the passé composé using the auxiliary verbs avoir or être followed by the past participle (le participe passé) of the verb.

J’ai parlé, nous avons étudié, ils ont choisi, elles sont allées…

Now the big question for French students is when to use Passé Composé vs Imparfait. That’s what I am going to explain in this article.

3 – You Cannot 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 English 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

4 – Passé Composé vs Imparfait Shortcut

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.

  1. Imparfait = what was happening all around you (including you), background. Also ongoing events, habits, what used to be.
    (Picture a wide angle shot)
  2. Passé composé = what took place at that very moment: a specific event or a succession of specific events, the main storyline.
    (Picture a selfie)

Now let’s be more specific about Passé Composé vs Imparfait

5 – Passé composé vs Imparfait – Detailed Explanations + Examples

A – Habits versus specific events

The imperfect describes habitual actions in the past

Le lundi, je dînais chez ma soeur
On Mondays, I used to have dinner at my sister’s

The PC describes what took place, specific events.

Un lundi, nous avons dîné au restaurant.
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). Scroll down in this article for a list.

B – Story telling

What French past tense should you chose 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 portrait: the camera zooms on you and shows what you are doing specifically at that very moment. You are the only important part of the picture. The background is blurred.

J’ai pris un selfie et j’ai souri pour la photo.
I took a selfie and I smiled for the picture.

Now, on the contrary…

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.

You may be in the picture: you may even be an important part of it but everything else is as important as you and you are capturing and describing the whole scene.

C’était le mois de septembre et il faisait beau à Paris. J’étais devant l’Arc de Triomphe et je prenais un selfie. Des voitures passaient derrière mois et j’entendais le bruit de la ville tout autour de moi. J’étais si contente d’être là. C’était un jour spécial.
It was September and the weather was nice in Paris. I was in front of the Arc de Triomphe and I was taking a selfie. Cars were driving behind me and I could hear the sound of the city all around me. I was so happy to be there. It was a special day.

You cannot just translate from English. You have to understand the situation.

C – In the same sentence

  1. 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.
    Nous dormions – we were sleeping.
  2. The PC will describe a specific action that took place at a precise time.
    Ils sont entrés – they came in.
  3. When used in the same sentence, Imparfait will be used for the background action, the longer action that’s going on, and Passé-composé for the specific shorter action.
    Ils sont entrés (specific event – short in length) pendant que nous dormions (ongoing action – longer in length).
    They came in as we were sleeping.

  4. 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.

6 – Imperfect List of Expressions

Some “time” expressions are usually followed by the imperfect since they introduce habitual events: I suggest you memorize them, it’s a big help.

  1. le lundi, le soir, le matin…
    On Mondays, in the evening, in the morning…
  2. tous les lundis (tous les matins, tous les soirs, tous les jours…)
    Every Monday, every morning, every evening, every day…
  3. chaque jour (chaque mois, chaque année…),
    Each day, month, year…
  4. d’habitude, habituellement
    usually, habitually
  5. généralement, en général
    in general
  6. normalement
    usually
  7. parfois, quelques fois
    sometimes
  8. de temps en temps
    from time to time
  9. rarement
    rarely, seldom
  10. autrefois
    in the past, formerly (pretty formal).

Please note this is not set in stone. It’s not like with the French subjunctive. It’s not the expression that dictates the use of Imparfait or Passé-Composé, it’s the context.

List of French imperfect expressions

7 – Passé Composé List of Expressions

Some expressions of time tend to be followed by the Passé Composé since they usually introduce specific events.

  1. d’abord, premièrement – first
  2. puis, ensuite – then
  3. enfin, finalement – finally
  4. soudain – suddenly
  5. tout à coup – all of a sudden
  6. tout de suite – right away

Again, this is not set in stone. Only the context will tell.

8 – Imparfait vs Passé-composé Practice

When it comes to understanding imparfait vs passé-composé, there is the theory and then the practice.

It’s time to practice! Below, I will give you some examples and even videos featuring imparfait vs passé-composé.

Imparfait vs passé-composé is explained clearly in my French audiobook method.

  1. Understand how you build and when to use the tenses of the past and future in French versus English.
  2. Unravel the secrets of Passé Composé versus Imparfait, the elusive “On” and more.
  3. Reinforce all these concepts in the context of an ongoing story recorded at 2 different levels of enunciation (enunciated & modern).
  4. Q & A section will entice you to practice out loud what you’ve learned and improve your confidence when handling conversations.
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A – Story with Explanations for the Tenses

Below, you’ll find a short French story featuring imparfait vs passé-composé and in parenthesis why I used this specific tense of the past.

I used very simple vocabulary. If you cannot understand this story, maybe you shouldn’t be worrying about imparfait vs passé-composé right now and concentrate on priorities for French beginners.

Differences Between Passé Composé and Imparfait

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).

B – Passé Composé French Story

Here is a short video I made to illustrate Passé Composé using the popular videogame “The Sims 4”.

In this video, we’ll concentrate on what took place in Philippe’s life, the series of actions he did that evening.

And here is the French transcript:

Voici Philippe. Ce soir, Philippe est rentré tôt du travail et il a mangé un burger. Et puis il s’est levé, il s’est mis en maillot de bain, et il est sorti de chez lui.

Il a traversé son jardin, il s’est approché de sa piscine et il a descendu l’échelle pour entrer dans l’eau.

Il a nagé un petit peu sur place, et puis, il a commencé à faire des longueurs.

Philippe s’est approché du bord de la piscine, et puis il est sorti de l’eau.

Il a couru pour rentrer dans la maison

Il a décidé d’aller prendre un bain pour se rincer, et se réchauffer.

Il est entré dans son bain et s’est lavé.

Il est sorti de la baignoire, puis il a voulu jouer de la guitare.

Après un moment, il a posé sa guitare, il a pris son assiette et l’a mise dans le lave-vaisselle ; il a ouvert le frigidaire, pris les ingrédients pour se faire un croque monsieur, et il a commencé à cuisiner.

Il a retourné le croque-monsieur.

Il a sorti son téléphone et a envoyé un texto à son ami Pierre.

Il a salé son croque-monsieur, l’a retourné une fois de plus, et puis il l’a mis sur une assiette, et il est allé s’asseoir pour dîner.

C – Passé-Composé vs Imparfait French Story

Now, we’re going to watch the same video of Philippe, but in between what took place (in passé-composé), I’ll describe what was happening in Philippe’s head and around him, using Imparfait, illustrating the difference between passé-composé and imparfait.

For this to really sink in, I suggest you start by watching the first passé composé video, then watch this one. The contrast will then be obvious.

Here is the French transcript, with imparfait in italic.

Voici Philippe. Ce soir, Philippe est rentré tôt du travail et il a mangé un burger. Et puis il s’est levé, il s’est mis en maillot de bain, et il est sorti de chez lui.

Il a traversé son jardin, il s’est approché de sa piscine et il a descendu l’échelle pour entrer dans l’eau.

Brrr, l’eau était un peu fraiche ce soir-là !

Il a nagé un petit peu sur place, et puis, il a commencé à faire des longueurs.

Ça lui faisait du bien de nager. Il était stressé ce jour-là, mais là, il sentait que petit à petit, il se relaxait.

Philippe s’est approché du bord de la piscine, et puis il est sorti de l’eau.

Il a couru pour rentrer dans la maison car il avait un peu froid : il faisait plutôt frais pour la saison.

Il a décidé d’aller prendre un bain pour se rincer, et se réchauffer.

Il est entré dans son bain et s’est lavé.

Il était content et jouait avec la mousse, comme un enfant ! Qu’allait-il faire après son bain ?

Il est sorti de la baignoire, puis il a voulu jouer de la guitare.

C’était nouveau pour lui : Philippe était encore un débutant et c’était un peu difficile.

Après un moment, il a posé sa guitare, il a pris son assiette et l’a mise dans le lave-vaisselle ; il a ouvert le frigidaire, pris les ingrédients pour se faire un croque monsieur, et il a commencé à cuisiner.

Il avait envie de manger des légumes, mais malheureusement, il n’en avait plus.

Il a retourné le croque-monsieur.

Mmmm, ça sentait bon. Philippe faisait des progrès en cuisine ! En parlant de bon cuisinier, Philippe se demandait comment allait Pierre.

Il a sorti son téléphone et a envoyé un texto à son ami Pierre.

Il a salé son croque-monsieur, l’a retourné une fois de plus, et puis il l’a mis sur une assiette, et il est allé s’asseoir pour dîner.

9 – A Deeper Analysis of Passé-Composé vs 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 French 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 choose 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 were 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 were 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.

10 – 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 an ear for it. To achieve this, only one solution: work with level adapted French audio novels. My bilingual novels are recorded at different levels of enunciation (enunciated and modern). My French audiobooks are exclusively available on French Today.

You may also enjoy my article on how to choose être or avoir for Passé Composé.

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