The article about passé composé or imparfait is available in both French and EnglishClick here for the French version.

How many times did you get confused and make the mistake between passé composé or imparfait? For French as a foreign language whose mother tongue has Latin origin, it is easier to understand. For students whose native languages ​​are not Latin, it’s a bit more complicated … That’s why it seems appropriate to write a mini-course on this subject, to try to answer to your doubts .

Review : passé composé or imparfait

What is the passé composé ?

The passé composé is a tense of the past of the indicative mode. It express a short action finished in the past.

Construction : auxiliaire être or avoir in present tense + participe passé of the verb

Examples : J’ai mangé. I ate / J’ai fini. I finished

The passé composé is used in the following cases.

  • To speak about a punctual event of the past. Example: J’ai obtenu mon permis de conduire en 2006. > I obtained my driver’s license in 2006.
  • To comment a succession of events. Example: J’ai lu l’email du client, j’ai répondu au client et je l’ai appelé. > I read the client’s email, then I answered the client and called him.
  • To tell about a limited event in the time. Example: J’ai étudié pendant 5 ans pour être professeure de français. > I studied to be a French teacher for 5 years.
  • To speak about repeated actions. Example: J’ai posté des contenus sur Instagram et sur Facebook tous les jours. > I posted content on Instagram and Facebook every day.

What is the imparfait?

The imparfait is a tense of the past of the indicative mode. It describe and tell about habits in the past.

Construction : radical of the verb at “nous” in present tense + terminaisons AIS / AIS / AIT / IONS / IEZ / AIENT

Examples : Nous mangeons (présent) > je mangeais (imparfait). I ate or I was eating / Nous finissons (présent) > je finissais (imparfait). I finished or I was finishing.

The imparfait is used in the following cases.

  • To talk about an action going on in the past. Example: En 2000, je vivais encore en France. > In 2000, I was still living in France.
  • To comment on the setting, the circumstance of a punctual event. Example: Quand j’étais en Master, j’ai eu deux enfants. > When I was in Master, I had two children.
  • To tell habits in the past. Example: Chaque année, j’allais en vacances en Normandie. > Every year, I went on holiday in Normandy.
  • To describe in the past. Example: C’était une journée magnifique. > It was a beautiful day.

Passé composé versus imparfait

How to place in a time line the passé composé and the imparfait?

When I am teaching French in class, I like to show this graphic that shows a timeline. It is clear that the passé composé interrupts the imparfait. It is a way to show the nuances of these tenses and to make their understanding easier.

Le passé composé et l’imparfait de l’indicatif

Example : Je lisais quand il est entré. > I was reading when he came in. here “lire” is interrupted by “entrer”.

Tips passé composé or imparfait

There are logical connectors, adverbs which make it possible to know if the verb which follows is in the imperfect or in the past composed.

Adverbs that can introduce the passé composé when it comes to a short and finished action in the past are:

  • Un jour, un matin, un soir ;
  • Soudain, tout à coup, brusquement ;
  • Tout de suite, immédiatement ;
  • D’abord, enfin, puis, ensuite.

Adverbs that can introduce the imparfait when it comes to a description or an habit in the past are:

  • Tous les jours, tous les matins, tous les soirs ;
  • Chaque jour, chaque mois, chaque année ;
  • En général, généralement, d’habitude ;
  • Autrefois, à l’époque ;
  • Toujours, souvent, rarement.

These tips have to be practiced. You have to speak French or have your writing / essaies corrected to improve and go to the 0 mistakes. Speaking is the key! I am at your disposal for a tailor-made review program! Contact me here for more information:

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