FR: passé composé / imparfait

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New Member
USA - English
No matter what I do, I always forget when to use the imparfait instead of passé composé… I know the rules (interrupting action, habitual action etc.) but I can never remember them when I'm speaking or writing… Does anyone have any good ways to remember these quickly, or do I just have to practice a lot? Thanks!

Moderator note: Multiple threads have been merged to create this one. This thread is, however, closed because it is too generic. If you have a specific phrase you want to discuss, please open a new thread if that phrase has not been discussed yet. See also this page about the general use of those two tenses. If you are interested in the usage difference between the passé composé and the passé simple, see this thread.
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  • Lucas

    Senior Member
    France, français
    Well... parfaire means « to finish », so that imparfait can mean « unfinished ». You may try to always use imparfait when the situation you're talking about is unprecise or interrupted. But I don't guarantee that shall always work...

    Ex. :
    « Où étais-tu auparavant ? (unprecise)
    - Je vivais à Lyon. »
    - J'ai vécu à Lyon de 1998 à 2002. » (precise and finished)

    Ex. :
    « Qu'as-tu fait hier ? (precise and past)
    - J'ai fait mes devoirs. » (hier implied)
    - Je faisais mes devoirs lorsque tu m'as téléphoné. » (unfinished action)
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    Senior Member
    England and English
    Which would you say in French?
    la loi était promulguée le 3 janvier 2005 et les premiers résultats étaient presque aussitôt remarqués


    la loi a été promulguée le 3 janvier 2005 et les premiers résultats ont été presque aussitôt remarqués



    Senior Member
    English (England)
    "était" is used for a state "a été" for an action. It's a bit difficult for English speakers to tell the difference sometimes, because we can use "was" for both.

    A clear example is using "open" (adjective) and "opened" (past participle) -

    "The window was open" - "la fenêtre était ouverte" (state)
    "The window was opened" - "la fenêtre a été ouverte". (action)

    (I'm not saying that's the best way to express this in French, just using it as a clear example of the difference).

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    Senior Member
    England and English
    So using your guidelines, if I wanted to say
    The solution was the new law, which was already in the planning stages and which was implemented in 2004.
    Would this be right?
    La solution était la nouvelle loi, qui était déjà à l'état d'ébauche et qui a été mise en application en 2004.
    Thank you
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    New Member
    English, England
    Can anyone help me with past tenses in french.

    Is there a general rule that will give me guidance as to when to use the composite past tense or the imperfect past tense.

    Am I correct in the following assumptions

    J'ai donné = I have given
    Je donnais = I gave

    j'ai eu = I have had
    j'avais = I had

    j'etais allé = I have been
    j'allais = I went

    Perhaps if anyone knows of a previous discussion on this issue they could post a link to it.

    Many Thanks


    PS I realise that this is not on topic [...]
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    Senior Member
    J'ai donné = I gave, I have given, I did give
    je donnais = I gave, I was giving, I used to give, I would give (habitually)

    J'ai eu, I have had (more or less), I had...
    J'avais = I had, I used to have

    j'étais allé = I had gone
    j'allais = I used to go, I was going, I went (when we mean "used to go or would go" habitually)

    Passé composé/Imparfait is much more complicated than the simple translations I have provided


    New Member
    English, England
    OK I guessed it was more complicated than simple direct translation, but I haven't managed to find any real explanation anywhere.

    would it be reasonably safe when relating things that happened or things that you did in the recent past you would use passe compose

    Things like:

    I visited the eiffel tower = j'ai visité la tour eiffel
    I gave you the wrong number = j'ai donné le mauvais nombre
    I went to Marseille = j'ai allé a Marseille


    Senior Member
    French / France
    Imparfait is for passed actions, lasting a while or repeated several times:
    "En été, je chantais tous les jours" repeated action
    "je l'ai écouté, pendant qu'il chantait" long action, still on when the other took place
    Hope it helps!


    New Member
    English, Filipino-Philippines
    Quelle est la difference l'imparfait et le passe compose? Quand vous utilisez l'imparfait et le passe?

    Vous pouvez expliquer et donner un example pour la difference en usage?

    Merci d'avance.


    Senior Member
    Question très compliquée
    to make it short:
    passé composé is the oral equivalent of the passé simple ; they are both used for actions which were short and punctual e.g.
    Français écrit :“ce matin-là, Thomas se leva tôt, s'habilla, et descendit acheter son croissant à la boulangerie. Il le mangea à toute vitesse. (passé simple)
    Français oral : “Ce matin, je me suis levé(e), je me suis habillé(e) et je suis descendu(e)acheter mon croissant à la boulangerie. Je l'ai mangé à toute vitesse. (passé composé) : note that the auxiliary can be être or avoir, which complicates things further.
    The imparfait is used both orally and when you write when you are describing a situation : e.g; : “il pleuvait ce matin-là”
    or a habit : “Lorsque j'étais jeune, je jouais au tennis.”
    Hope it helps


    New Member
    English, Filipino-Philippines
    We had a quiz about imparfait et le passe.

    "J'ai eu un accident" .it translates to "I had an accident."

    what about "J'avais un accident." This is wrong but I just want to know what it translates to.

    "J'ai ete a l'hopital" means
    "J'etais a l'hopital" means

    Sorry about the accents, I'm using notepad.


    Senior Member
    "J'avais un accident." would be "I used to have an accident"
    "J'ai ete a l'hopital" means I've been there
    "J'etais a l'hopital" means I was there


    Senior Member
    French / France
    Yes, it's a very difficult question. I am a native French speaker and I felt the need to check the differences between passé-composé, imparfait and passé simple myself ! :)

    I hope I won't be kicked out for that but it's such a worthwhile and complex question that I can't stand by and do nothing :)
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    Senior Member
    I agree with carolineR - the passé composé is for actions in the past "I did something" (and as she says, more for oral or informal French - you'd use the passé simple in a more literary context) and the imparfait for situations, where in English you'd often use the past continuous "I was doing something".


    Senior Member
    l'imparfait exprime très souvent une habitude dans le passé : nous allions en weekend à la mer quand j'étais enfant .


    French / Burkina-Faso
    Usually when we use the "passe compose", we are more or less referring to an explicit or implicit conextion of the situation with the moment of speaking. But by using the imparfait, the result of the action or situation at the moment of speaking is not important.
    e.g. "J'ai été à l'hopital..." .. c'est pourquoi je vais mieux car j'ai reçu un traitement."
    "J'étais à l'hopital..." ... les docteurs étaient sympas. Here the describe the situation as separated from the moment of relating.
    Hope this may help!!


    Senior Member
    India - [hin]English
    the passé composé is nearly always equivalent to the english simple past [i ate] and also the present perfect [i have eaten]

    the imparfait is equivalent to the english past continous [i was eating]

    while narrating a story, all the phrases relating to the environment, to the surroundings [it was raining, the stars were shinning etc ] are in imparfait.
    when you talk about a past habit [eg i used to drink milk when i was small, in other words, an action that continues over a period of time] imparfait is used.
    passé composé is used for all actions of a short duration eg [ i was eating when the phone rang]

    however in the case of être, personally, i find that I was is translated in the imparfait most of the time.
    hope it helps


    New Member
    Haitian Creole, French, HAITI
    1- PASSE SIMPLE : J'eus un accident.
    Translation : I had an accident.

    Passe simple is used to convey a short-lengthed event (in the past).

    2- IMPARFAIT : J'avais un accident.
    Translation : I was having an accident/ I used to have an accident.

    Imparfait is used to convey an action of indefinite length or repeated action. In this example, the use of the imparfait makes no since, because you cannot be having an accident for an accident happens "quickly", and an accident is unlikely an habitude.

    3- PASSE COMPOSE : J'ai eu un accident.
    Translation : I had an accident/ I have had an accident.

    Passe compose is like present perfect, in that it is used when conveying sth that happened at a specific point of time. In spoken french or generally it translates the English Simple Past (Preterit).

    I hope that helps.


    Senior Member
    London, England (English)
    Hi all:)

    I have been studying french for 6 years and I still don't understand when I am supposed to use the imparfait or the passe compose.
    In our school we never really got taught about the imparfait tense and all our learning was on the passe compose...However I have noticed that people seem to use the imparfait more frequently.....

    what is the difference between these two sentences:( I haven't got a european keyboard so if someone wants to put in the accents etc that would much appreciated!)
    Elle a ferme la porte quand elle a remarque qu'il neigeait
    elle fermait la porte quand elle a remarque qu'il neigeait

    (also why do people use the imparfait when talking about naming a child)?

    Thanks-you so much for your help I just can't seem to work these tenses out:(


    Well, the imparfait is used to describe something, a place, for example: "Il faisaid froid dehors, il y avait de la neige partout, et les gens marchaient lentement pour ne pas glisser." You also use the imparfait to describe something which is usual, for example: "Tous les lundi, j'allais chez mon cousins, et on regardait chaque fois le même film." The passé- composé is more used in speaking language, it's more oral, and it is used for:
    - An accomplished punctual event: Elle est morte.
    - a repetition: Elle est allée 5 fois au cinéma.
    - A succession of actions: Elle s'est réveillée puis s'est levée et s'est habillée.

    Hope I helped you...


    Senior Member
    English UK
    In the first sentence, "Elle a fermé la porte quand elle a remarqué qu'il neigeait" the emphasis is on the action that she took when she noticed that it was snowing, i.e. she closed the door (completed action) in order to keep the snow/cold out or the heat in.
    In the second sentence, the emphasis is on "what she was doing at the time" when she noticed that it was snowing. "Elle fermait..." indicates an ongoing action in the past that had not been completed when she noticed that it was snowing.
    Try this link for further clarification.

    Marga H

    Senior Member
    For me (learning both English and French as foreign languages) imparfait is close to past continuous tense.


    Senior Member
    English UK
    Further to my previous answer, I would add that, if you are still studying French, ask your teacher/lecturer for help. In my experience teachers usually have a resource bank of useful grammar/tense notes and worksheets.


    Senior Member
    For me (learning both English and French as foreign languages) imparfait is close to past continuous tense.

    You're quite right, the "imparfait" mostly corresponds to the PCT. Exept for the verbs that cant be conjugated in the continuous form.

    "Elle a refermé sa porte quand elle a remarqué qu'il neigeait" would mean "she closed her door when she noticed it was snowing"

    "Elle refermait sa porte quand elle a vu qu'il neigait" > she was closing her door when she noticed it was snowing"

    "En fermant sa porte, elle a vu qu'il neigeait" > As she was closing her door, she saw it was snowing


    Senior Member
    London, England (English)
    I am studying alone now:( I haven't been to school/ college for a while (I'm 28) although I'm thinking of enrolling in a local college again.
    Also, what tense would they called their baby john be in? and why/

    Thanks for all your help


    Senior Member
    UK English
    Dear Macymoo,

    You use the imperfect when something was happening at the time something else happened.

    So your two sentences could be intepreted as follows:

    Elle a fermé la porte quand elle a remarqué qu'il neigeait

    Your person looked out and noticed that it was (already) snowing - so she closed the door.

    The noticing is a single action, so is the closing of the door. The snowing is something that was continuous - happening all the while the other things were going on

    elle fermait la porte quand elle a remarque qu'il neigeait

    She was in the middle of closing the door when she noticed it was (already) snowing

    The door closing is a continuous action during which she noticed [single action] the snowing, which again is continuousTo give a silly example and illustrate the point further

    elle fermait la porte quand il a neigé

    I.e it only snowed whilst she was closing the door - sudden dump whoosh!
    [Either that or she took a hell of a long time to close the door!]
    In this case the door closing is continuous the snowing is single action

    In French there is the construction "être en train de faire..."
    One test you can apply is to see if the verb can be replaced by the above + the infinitive.

    In your first example you could replace "qu'il neigeait" by "qu'il était en train de neiger" * but you could not replace either of the other two verbs - they would no longer make sense.

    Hope that helps. If you are still confused I'll try some more examples. (perhaps through the email system)

    By the way there is a little bit of software you can get for free from
    that puts a little flag icon on your desktop or tool bar (available in several languages) and it produces a list of the accents that floats on your screen and you then drag and drop them in place.

    Bon courage


    *Chers amis francophones ne me critiquez pas trop sévèrement au question de style. C'est comme exemplaire tout simplement.



    Senior Member
    UK English
    Dear Macymoo,

    In reply to your second question, which I didn't understand first time round something similar applies.

    If at the time of registering the baby they gave it the name "Bartholemew" that is one action.

    "Ils ont nommé (appelé) le bébé B..."

    One action

    If the loving parents then decided that B.. was too long a name to repeat and within closed doors gave it a pet name, say "Froglet", and used that during the unfortunate offspring's early childhood, then you would have....

    "Ils appelaient le bébé "Froglet"

    This is because it was continuous/over a period of time.

    As someone else said the Imperfect is sometimes also called the Past Continuous.



    Senior Member
    English Canada
    Here is how I used to teach the differences between these two tenses to French Immersion students.

    The imperfect is the present tense viewed from the past and the passé composé is the past tense viewed from the present.

    "Je fais mes devoirs."
    Il a dit qu'il fasait ses devoirs.

    Où est Michel? - Il est sorti.

    Of course, if the differences could be this simple, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, one cannot rely on this distinction to help solve all the problems.

    Another point of view is the fact that an imperfect cannot be used unless there is another verb in the past [at least implied]

    Il faisait ses devoirs. This is not a complete thought. One expects additional information, such as ...lorsque je suis entré dans la chambre.

    Still, another way of looking at the imperfect is this:

    When it is used, neither the beginning nor the end of the state or action is being considered, merely its existence at some moment in the past.

    With the passé composé, on the other hand, one of three possibilities is being considered: the beginning, the end, or the totality.

    I always liked to use this example to illustrate:

    George VI a commencé à régner dès 1936.
    Il a régné jusqu'en 1952.
    Il a régné de 1936 à 1952.

    BUT: Il régnait en 1940.

    Another example may illustrate the fact that the imperfect is used when not referring to the beginning or end.

    Les agents ont cherché partout: ils regardaient sous le lit, ils fouillaient les placards, ils ouvraient tous les tiroirs. Here the imperfects behave almost like adjectives modifying a noun. They are elaborating on what the search involved.

    You could not use the passé composé here, because the verbs would be indicating a sequence of actions, i.e. First the policemen searched everywhere, then they looked under the bed, etc. That would not make any sense, would it?

    Another interesting point: Years ago, a university researcher made a comparison of the two French versions of the Reader's Digest in Canada and France. The same articles were compared in the two editions, and the researcher found that the imperfect was more frequent in France than in Canada.

    There is a great deal more to be said about these two tenses, but these notions may give some idea of how they are used.
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    New Member
    Le passe compose indique:
    - un evenement ponctuel realise dans le passe
    - une action dont on connait les limites
    - la situation a un moment du passe
    - une habitude, un etat passes



    English & Guyana (South America)
    Can someone help me learn the difference between the passé composé and l'imparfait? like how and when you know to use it. :confused:


    Senior Member
    French - Canada
    The usage is the same as in English:

    She cooked a cake --> Elle a cuisiné un gâteau.
    She was cooking a cake --> Elle cuisinait un gâteau.

    The "imparfait" is often used when you want to indicate that two actions are simultaneous: she was cooking a cake while watching TV --> elle cuisinait un gâteau en regardant la télé.


    English - USA
    What Iznogood has told you is correct.... but we English speakers often need a little more help than that, because we do have trouble remembering which past tense to use when we start out learning French!

    passé composé
    1. things that started and ended in the past;
    j'ai fait une maîtrise en histoire. - I did a Masters degree in History.
    2. single punctual events, one-time actions, changes in state of mind
    elle a pleuré parce qu'elle a eu peur quand elle est tombée - She cried because she was/got scared when she fell. (ie. the fall scared her)
    3. past actions of definite and defined duration.
    elle a vécu 2 ans en Italie - She lived in Italy for 2 yrs.
    4. interrupting actions
    Elle faisait la vaiselle quand le téléphone a sonné - she was doing the dishes when the telephone rang.

    1. continuing background action that got interrupted by something else
    Elle faisait la vaiselle quand le téléphone a sonné - she was doing the dishes when the telephone rang.
    2. past descriptions, conditions, states of mind
    il faisait beau, il y avait du vent, etc - it was nice out, it was windy, etc
    mon ex adorait les fraises - my ex loved strawberries
    le chien voulait sortir - the dog wanted to go outside
    c'était une grande maison - it was a large house
    elle pleurait parce qu'elle avait peur de tomber - she was crying because she was scared of falling (scared she might fall).
    3. repeated past actions, habitual actions, "we would do X", "we used to do Y"
    chaque été, on allait à la plage - every summer, we went (would go/used to go) to the beach.

    these rules are usually listed in grammar books, broken down in more or less detail. I may have lumped some cases together which are split apart in other lists, and perhaps I have forgotten a case or two. You may wish to read a bit about the subject online - here's a place to start, for example. hope that helps.


    Senior Member
    Russian, (Ukraine)
    My teacher loves telling us this. :D
    The passe compose - the perfect tense in French, describes short complete actions which took place once. (or more than once, really - but what it wants to say is that - they didn't go on for a long period of time)
    e.g. I went to the cinema yestrday. (je suis allee au cinema hier). I ate a cake.. I watched TV. etc.
    Where as the imperfect (l'imparfait) describes long, continious actions which took place over some period of time. The most translation equivalents in english are:e.g. I was doing...(je faisais) I was eating( je mangeais), I was sleeping(je dormais)... etc.


    Senior Member
    USA; American English
    My French teacher used to describe the English equivalent of the imparfait as "used to." While this isn't exactly on the mark, it helps. And if you think of the passé composé as an one-time event, the distinction become clearer. It's actually harder in a simple English sentence to distinguish between the two:

    He went there. (e.g., to a school. Ambiguous, no? He used to go to that place, or he stopped there one time?)

    But in French ...

    Il y allait. <-- covers a span of time (he used to go there)

    Il y est allé.<-- denotes a specific instance of stopping there

    The "used to" analogy doesn't quite apply in all instances, though...

    Quand il avait faim, il a mangé le déjeuner. <--- Being hungry covers an indistinct timeframe (l'imparfait). Solving the problem by eating lunch is a specific act (passé composé).

    I hope this helps...


    Senior Member
    USA; American English
    A second thought occurs to me...

    Think of these two sentences in English.

    When I was in the store, I bought a shirt. vs. I went to the store and I bought a shirt.

    In the first case, the timeframe is indistinct, but the act of buying the shirt is specific. (imparfait + passé composé); In the second, two specific acts took place -- going to the store and buying a shirt (passé composé + passé composé).


    Senior Member
    Russian, (Ukraine)
    Smartypnts' explanation is a lot more clearer and generally better than mine, I must admit! :) Even I learned something from it! (and I'm supposed to know the 'L'imparfait' and the 'passe compose' inside out!! :p )
    Yes, my teacher also loves 'key words'! Like, for the perfect tense - when she asks us, we as a chorus reply - 'have, had'
    and for the imperfect ' was + -ing, used to' :D


    English (UK)
    I have a question regarding this old thread - what about when a certain time-frame is specified?
    I want to say:
    "Bacteria A" was regularly detected over a 4-year period, before being replaced by "Bacteria B"

    Would it still be
    "Bacteria A" a été détectée régulièrement pendant 4 ans, avant d’être remplacée par « bacteria B »


    "Bacteria A" était détectée régulièrement pendant 4 ans, avant d’être remplacée par « bacteria B »

    I am a bit confused :confused:
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    New Member
    Canada, English
    Hi, I'm doing a french project and I was wondering about using the the phrase "was _____ed", like "was made" or "was build". I was always using "était fait" or "était construit" but then I was reading a french website that said "la capitale a été transférée à Moscou après la révolution russe de 1917", obviously meaning "the capital was transferred...". I often have to say "it was constructed in...". Should that be "il était construit" or "il a été construit"? I'm not really sure if that should be imparfait or passe compose.


    Senior Member
    English/lives France
    il a été construit. The imperfect is habitual or continuous; Paris se trouvait au bord de la Seine. The passé composé is for actions that were sudden, or have been completed: l'immeuble a été construit.

    Pink bubbles

    American English - United States
    It's important to understand the usage of imperfect versus the use of past tense in French. And I'll admit that it sometimes confuses me as well. Just to clarify...
    Imparfait - used when/with
    a) An ongoing action with no specified completion
    b) An ongoing action with no specified completion
    c) Description/background info; set the scene of how things were or what was happening when... (to be + -ing usually indicates this)
    d) General description of physical or mental state of being
    e) Expression of the time of day or age in the past

    while passe compose is used with/when:
    a) One or more events or actions that began and ended in the past
    b) A single event
    c) ...when something happened, interrupting the description/background.
    d) Change in physical or mental state at a precise moment or for an isolated cause

    so...l'imparfait describes past situations, while le passé composé narrates specific events. In addition, l'imparfait can set the stage for an event expressed with the passé composé (see letter c on imparfait above...)

    I hope this helps clarify its usage for you.
    -Pink bubbles


    Senior Member
    polszczyzna warszawska
    I think passé composé is better here as imparfait implies a continuous action that would rather work as some kind of a background for other actions, e.g.:
    Quand la capitale était transférée à Moscou il est sorti.

    Technically you don't know if the capital was moved to Moscow or not. ;)



    Senior Member
    French (France)
    An example :

    "(1) Des problèmes survinrent lors de la troisième année des travaux. (2) Le palais était alors construit selon des plans (3) qui se révélèrent fautif. (4) Il dut être rasé et reconstruit. (5) Le château n'a finalement été achevé qu'après douze années de dur labeur."

    1. Simple past, because the event happened and was over with then.
    2. Imperfect, because it's in the past, but ongoing at the time of our story.
    3. Simple past again, same reason as for 1.
    4. Still more simple past. I could have used compound past instead.
    5. Compound past, it's over. I could have continued using simple past, though.

    Simple past and compound past are about equivalent, semantically. Simple past is more elegant and better for formal writing, compound past is more common and more appropriate for informal speech.
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