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Those confusing past tenses in French

French GrammarThe Passé composé versus the imparfait! When studying French, everyone needs to spend some time going over the tricky relationship between these two main past tenses. Instead of trying the figure out how they translate exactly into English grammar terminology (it doesn’t work in many cases), it is better to understand how and when they are used in French. First, we should understand the distinctions between the passé composé and the imparfait in order to be able to express past events accurately and with the correct tense. Study the following explanations, and then see how they are used in the 3 different real life situation scenarios!

Let’s start with understanding the use of the Passé Composé:

The ‘passé composé’ is used to express a punctual and completed action which has taken place in the past. For example, “We ate early this morning.” “The train arrived on time last night.”

Whereas in English this kind of past action is expressed with a simple conjugation, in French the passé composé, as it’s name implies, is a compound tense and has two elements to it: an auxiliary verb and the past participle of the verb you are conjugating. The auxiliary verb will always be either the verb avoir or the verb être, and the conjugation involves simply using the auxiliary verb in the present tense followed by the past participle of main verb.

Note: 80% of French verbs are conjugated with avoir. Many verbs of motion take être, such as aller (to go), partir (to leave), venir (to come), retourner (to go back), arriver (to arrive). And, all reflexive verbs are conjugated with the verb être. Common verbs such as se coucher (to go to bed), se réveiller (to wake up), se lever (to get up), s’habiller (to get dressed), s’ennuyer (to be bored), etc…

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An example of a verb that is conjugated with the verb avoir:

J’ai regardé la télé = I watched some TV.
Tu as regardé le nouveau film = You watched the new movie.
Il/elle a regardé le DVD = He/she watched the DVD.
Nous avons regardé le programme = We watched the programme.
Vous avez regardé les informations = You watched the news.
Ils ont regardé le spectacle = They watched the show.

An example of a verb that is conjugated with the verb être:

Je suis allé(e)(s) à l’école = I went to school.
Tu es allé(e) au marché = You went to the market.
Il est allé à l’hôpital = He went to the hospital.
Elle est allée au magasin = She went to the shop.
Nous sommes allés(es) au restaurant = We went to the restaurant.
Vous êtes allé(e)(s) chez les voisins = You went to the neighbours.
Ils/elles sont allé(e)(s) à Marseille = They went to Marseille.

Note: The past participle agrees, just like an adjective, with the feminine and plural subjects only with the verb être – not with avoir (unless you have a direct object before the verb, but more on that later.) Notice the four possibilities when the subject is Vous.

Examples: Hier, je suis allé(e) au magasin et j’ai acheté une nouvelle robe! =Yesterday I went to the store and I bought a new dress.
La semaine dernière en classe de maths, je me suis ennuyé(e) (reflexive verb : s’ennuyer)=Last week in Math class, I got bored.
Avant-hier, j’ai travaillé pour mon père = The day before yesterday, I worked for my father.

Notice the above examples express punctual and completely finished actions.

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The Imparfait — The other past tense is used for the following three situations:

1) To describe someone’s physical or emotional state, a mood, the weather or a general condition or situation … It is generally used to describe the more passive actions vs the active ones.

Example: Hier soir, ma mère était très belle, elle sentait bon et elle souriait sans cesse – elle était visiblement amoureuse = Last night, my mother was very beautiful, she smelled nice and she continuously smiled, she was obviously in love.

2) For an action or a habit that took place repeatedly in the past. The equivalent in English would be ‘I used to...’ or ‘would’. Note that we do not have a word in French to express ‘used to’ but the imperfect tense is used to communicate the equivalent.

Example: Quand j’étais jeune, j’allais tous les dimanche voir ma grand-mère – When I was young, I used to go (I would go) every Sunday to see my grandmother.

3) A continuing action in the past that has not been completed yet. We don’t know when the action finished. In English, the equivalent is ‘was, were + verb ending in ing’- ex: I was thinking, I was playing.

Example: Hier soir je pensais à nos vacances pendant que je regardais une emission sur les voyages – Last night I was thinking about our vacation while I was watching a programme on travel.

The conjugation of verbs in the imparfait has a simple pattern, you just need to take the verb minus it’s infinitive endings and then add the following endings (let’s take ‘parler’ as an exemple):
Je parlais
Tu parlais
Il/elle parlait
Nous parlions
Vous parliez
Ils parlaient

For some irregular verbs, the form of the verb used in the imperfect, or the stem, is the same as the conjugation for nous in the present tense minus the ons ending.

Ex. choisir (to choose) Nous choisissons (the present tense), and the stem used for the imperfect will be choisiss (je choisissais, tu choisissais, etc.) faire (nous faisons), the stem is fais (je faisais, tu faisais, vous faisiez, etc.)

Note : you will hear the verb être and the verb vouloir most of the time in the imparfait. I would advise that you automatically conjugate theses two verbs in the imparfait and not in the passé composé each time you use these two verbs.

This is how they are conjugated:

Être :
J’étais à Paris = I was in Paris
Tu étais chez moi = You were at my place.
Il/elle était triste = He/she was sad.
Vous étiez fatigués = You were tired.
Nous étions heureux = We were happy.
Vous étiez en France = you were in France.

Vouloir :
Je voulais du chocolat = I wanted some chocolate.
Tu voulais partir en Turquie = You wanted to leave for Turkey
Il/elle voulait du thé = He/she wanted some tea.
Nous voulions travailler en France = We wanted to work in France.
Ils/elle voulaient de l’argent = They wanted money.

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