You will find many examples and explanations in this article.
Let’s begin by concluding that it takes time to understand the difference between “le passé composé” and “l’imparfait.”
Thus, you need to be patient and not be hard on yourself if you feel lost.
I can almost guarantee you that the vast majority of French learners have gone through the same process.
|Passé Composé (PC)||Imparfait|
J’ai dormi pendant sept heures
(I slept for 7 hours)
|An ongoing action/a habit
J’aimais mon école
(I liked my school)
|Age and weather are almost always in “imparfait”
Elle avait dix ans
(She was 10 years old)
Il faisait beau
(The weather was nice)
|When you describe someone/something
Elle avait les yeux bleus
(She had blue eyes)
Il était grand
(He was big)
It should also be mentioned that the verbs of movement are often (but not always) in “Passé Composé.” For instance:
- Je suis allé au cinema
(I went to the cinema)
- Elle est arrivée en retard
(She was late)
Before beginning with the exercises, let’s look at a very common example where the action changes from “l’mparfait” to “le passé composé.”
We will describe an ongoing action that is interrupted by a sudden action:
- Il essayait (Imparfait) de se concentrer quand le téléphone a sonné (PC) – She was trying to concentrate when the telephone rang.
In this example, an ongoing action (she was trying to concentrate), is interrupted by a sudden and completed action (the telephone rang).
Comment and solution: Completed action in the past.
Note: We are describing something that can relate to weather.
Comment and solution: In this case, the person was losing his or her phone all the time. Thus, we describe a habit.
However, if the sentence would read “J’ai perdu mon téléphone 4 fois,” it would be a completed action. In this case, we would choose “PC.”
Comment and solution: In this case, we’re talking about a habit in the past. Verbs relating to our feelings are often in “imparfait.” However, this is not always the case.
Comment: We are describing something/someone.
Note: Completed action that took place the day before.
There are many expressions related to these past tenses. We can begin by looking at examples with PC.
Let’s look at this phrase:
- Suddenly, a man appeared on the screen
- Soudain, un homme est apparu sur l’écran
Is this a completed action? Is the man still on the screen? It is difficult to know without having more information.
However, this word (soudain) is usually connected to PC. We can also use the term “tout à coup,” which roughly translates the same.
Let’s look at another phrase:
- At that moment, I became scared
- à ce moment-là, j’ai eu peur
“à ce moment-là” can describe a sudden change. It can also be defined as a completed action. Why?
Usually, we would say “J’avais peur,” using the imperfect tense. Feelings are often described in this tense.
However, in the example above, the person got scared at the moment when something happened. Thus, we will choose PC.
Let’s look at another example when something happened just a couple of hours ago.
- Yesterday, I visited my mother.
- Hier, J’ai rendu visite à ma mère
This one is quite logical if you think about it. Something that happened yesterday is defined as a completed action.
Sometimes things in the past can be a habit. If we talk about something that happened last year, we’ll still, in most cases, stick to PC. For instance:
- Last year, I played basketball
- L’année dernière, j’ai joué au basket
Sequences of actions are also usually in PC. There are many examples of this, for instance:
- Then she continued to discuss
- Puis elle a continué a discuter
It should be mentioned that other prepositions will follow the same construction. “Après” which means “after,” is one example.
Several nouns and prepositions indicate that something is a habit. I have already listed some of them in the exercises in this article. However, let’s look at another example:
- Je jouais au foot tous les jours
- I was playing football everyday
Sometimes we can even indicate literally that something is a habit in the sentence. For instance:
- I usually did errands in the morning
- D’habitude, je faisais mes cours le matin
I have already talked about the importance of describing things with the help of “imparfait.” This can include more aspects of life than just age, weather and the surroundings.
Take a look at this phrase:
- He was following me wherever I went
- Il me suivait partout où j’allais
“Suivait” and “allais” are both in the imperfect tense. It can be difficult to analyze this phrase with regards to factors like habits and completed actions.
We can, however, conclude that the person saying this is describing something in the past.
Now let’s look at another phrase that focuses on weekdays.
- I played the guitar on Fridays
- Le vendredi, je jouais de la guitare
We know that this phrase includes a habit. Why? Because the “le” before “vendredi” indicates that we are, or were doing something on a weekly basis.
Thus, an article (le) before a weekday means that we are doing an action repetitively. Conversely, the lack of an article before a weekday indicates that it’s not a habit.
PC with avoir and être
PC will always be conjugated using the (common) verbs avoir and être. We use their conjugated forms in the present tense to create different verbs in PC. For instance:
- J’ai (avoir) dormi= I slept
- Elle est (être) arrivée= She arrived
- On a (avoir) fini= We finished
- Nous sommes (être) venus= We came
Students sometimes become confused when they learn that these verbs also have their own conjugated forms in PC.
Let us look at them:
- j’ai été= I was
- tu as été= You were
- il, elle, on a été= He/she/it was
- nous avons été= We were
- vous avez été= You were
- ils, elles ont été= They were
- j’ai eu= I had
- tu as eu= You had
- il, elle, on a eu= He/she/it had
- nous avons eu= We had
- vous avez eu= You had
- ils, elles ont eu= They had
Which verbs take “être” as their auxiliary?
The vast majority of the verbs in PC will use “avoir” as their auxiliary.
There are, however, some verbs that take “être” as their auxiliary. Dr Mrs P. Vandertramp will help you to remember these verbs.
Devenir (to become): devenu
Revenir (to come back): revenu
Monter (to go up): monté
Rester (to stay): resté
Sortir (to go out): sorti
Passer (to pass by, to spend): passé
Venir (To come): venu
Aller (To go): allé
Naître (To be born): né
Descendre (To get off): descendu
Entrer (To come in): entré
Rentrer (To come home): rentré
Tomber (To fall): tombé
Retourner (To return): retourné
Arriver (To arrive): arrivé
Mourir (To die): mort
Partir (To leave): parti
The first letter in every verb creates the sentence Dr Mrs P. Vandertramp. I know from personal experience that this sentence will help you remember which verbs take “être” as auxiliary.
I also want to mention that it will come a day when you know this by heart .
Let’s look at how we can create the imperfect tense.
It should be mentioned that we conjugate this tense by looking at the different verb groups. These groups are divided into the following categories:
- ER – verbs ending in er, for instance, regarder
- IR – the ones ending in ir, for instance finir
- RE- the ones ending in re, for instance, entendre
Let’s focus on the ones ending in ER. We can let “commençer- to begin” serve as an example. We’ll begin by listing this verb in the present tense:
- je commence
- tu commences
- il/elle/on commence
- nous commençons
- vous commencez
- ils/elles commencent
We’ll then pick number 4 – the nous-form.
We’ll remove “ons” which gives us “commenç.”
Thus, “Commenç” is our stem.
Last but not least, we can now add the endings for the imperfect tense. These endings will always be the same:
Which gives us:
je commençais= I began
tu commençais= You began
il/elle/on commençait= He/she/it began
nous commencions= We began
vous commenciez= You began
ils commençaient= They began
So, how can we translate these conjugations?
We could translate them in 2 ways:
- I was beginning
- I began
We need to look at the context when doing the translation. It is important to understand the difference between “PC” and “l’imparfait” and apply some of the rules listed at the beginning of this article.
We will follow the same process for the IR-verbs. Let’s do the same process with the verb “finir,” which means “to finish.”
- Je finis
- Tu finis
- Il/elle/on finit
- Nous finissons
- Vous finissez
- Ils/ells finissent
We’ll pick number 4, that is the nous-form. We’ll then remove “ons” from “finissons,” which will give us “finiss”:
This is the stem. We can now add the endings.
- Je finissais
- Tu finissais
- Il/elle/on finissait
- Nous finissions
- Vous finissiez
- Ils/ells finissaient
You are probably familiar with the process by now.
Let’s go through the process for the third time by using the verb “entendre,” which means “to hear.”
We’ll start by looking at the present tense:
- Tu entend
- Il/elle/on entends
- Nous entendons
- Vous entendez
- Ils/ells entendent
We’ll pick number 4, nous, and remove “ons” from the end of “entendons.”
This gives us the stem “entend.” We can now add the endings:
- Tu entendais
- Il/elle/on entendait
- Nous entendions
- Vous entendiez
- Ils/ells entendaient
Choosing between these two tenses is sometimes very difficult.
We could say that something is a habit in the past. However, it’s also a completed action. We often choose the imperfect tense when we describe things we were doing in our childhood.
This is often a completed action. It is, however, also a habit in the past.
Beginners usually spend much time thinking about the difference. But, in some cases, the rules simply don’t make sense.
This article provides you with a solid foundation. However, it does not answer all your questions.
My suggestion is to study French series, books, and songs regarding this.
Why are they using a specific tense? This will help you to become more confident when choosing.
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that the verbs of movement are usually in “le passé composé”
This is something that you will notice when you listen to native speakers.
This is also the case when it comes to describing events in the past.
Take a look at this phrase:
- While I was cooking, he prepared the desert
I would say that the first part of this phrase should be in the imperfect tense. The second part should be in “le passé composé”
In reality, it is more likely that both phrases would be in the imperfect tense.
- Pendant que je cuisinais, il préparait le desert
Preparing the dessert should be a short and completed action. Likewise, preparing dinner should also be a short action, even if it’s an ongoing action.
However, both parts of the phrase will be in the imperfect tense, partly because we are describing something.
We can conclude this article by saying that you should not feel discouraged if you don’t get it right in the beginning.
Stick with it and make sure to get knowledge and inspiration from native speakers.
You can also ask me a question. I will do my best to help you