The 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 to 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, it is important to understand the distinctions between the passé composé and the imparfait in order to be able to describe past events accurately and with the correct tense.
1) Let’s start with understanding when and how the passé composé is used:
The passé composé is used to relate a punctual and completed action which has taken place in the past. For example: “We ate early this morning,” or: “The train arrived on time.”
Whereas in English this kind of past action is expressed with a simple conjugation, in French the passé composé, as its 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. The other 20% that take the verb être are mostly verbs of motion , such as aller (to go), partir (to leave), venir (to come), retourner (to go back), arriver (to arrive). Also, all reflexive verbs are conjugated with the verb être. The most common reflexive verbs are 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…
A few examples with a verb that is conjugated with avoir: Regarder:
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.
A few examples with a verb that is conjugated with être: Aller:
Je suis allé à l’école. = I went to school.
Tu es allé 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 au restaurant. = We went to the restaurant.
Vous êtes allées chez les voisins. = You went to the neighbours.
Ils / elles sont allés à Marseille. = They went to Marseille.
Important to know: 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, more on that later). Notice the four possibilities when the subject is vous.
Hier, je suis allée aux Galeries Lafayette et j’ai acheté une nouvelle robe ! = Yesterday I went to the Galeries Lafayette and I bought a new dress.
Pendant le dernier cours de maths, je me suis particulièrement ennuyé(e) (reflexive verb: s’ennuyer). = During the last Math class, I got particularly bored.
Avant-hier, j’ai travaillé pour mon père. = The day before yesterday, I worked for my father.
Note that the above examples express punctual and completely finished actions.
2) 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.
Hier soir, ma mère était très belle, elle était décontractée et elle souriait sans cesse ; elle était visiblement amoureuse . = Last night, my mother was very beautiful, she was relaxed 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.
Quand j’étais jeune, j’allais tous les dimanches 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” (I was thinking, I was playing…)
Hier soir je pensais à nos vacances pendant que je regardais une émission 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 its infinitive endings and then add the following endings.
An example with the verb parler (to speak):
Je parlais, tu parlais, il / elle/on 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.
For example, with choisir (to choose), we say: Nous choisissons (the present tense), and the stem used for the imperfect will be choisiss… (je choisissais , tu choisissais , etc.).
While with 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. We would advise that you automatically conjugate these two verbs in the imparfait and not in the passé composé each time you use them.
This is how they are conjugated:
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.
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 / elles voulaient de l’argent. = They wanted money.