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.