Imparfait vs Passé composé

uses of the imparfait

In French there are two main tenses for describing actions that happened in the past. The passé composé is used to describe specific actions or events that occurred at specific times while the imparfait is used to describe things that used to occur regularly.

D'habitude, en général, habituellement (usually)Un jour (one day), le 17 septembre (on Sept. 17)
Je jouais au foot-ball.
I used to play soccer
J'ai joué un match de foot avec mes amis.
I played a soccer game with my friends
Nous allions à la plage.
We used to go to the beach.
Nous sommes allés à la plage ave toute la famille.
We went to the beach with the entire family
Pierre dînait au restaurant.
Pierre used to eat out
Pierre a dîné au restaurant avec sa petite amie.
Pierre ate out with his girlfriend.

The imparfait is used to describe repeated or ongoing actions and conditions. It is the “used to do” or “used to be” tense. The passé composé focuses on specific actions and past events that started and stopped at specific times.
IMPARFAIT - USED TO TENSE
Quand j'étais un enfant, je faisais du ski tous les weekends.When I was a child I used to/would ski every weekend.
En été, j'allais dans une colonie de vacances avec mes amis.During the summer, used to/would go to a summer camp with my friends.
PASSÉ COMPOSÉ - SPECIFIC ACTIONS & OCCURRENCES
J'ai acheté une nouvelle paire de skis. I bought a new pair of skis
Le weekend dernier, j'ai fait du ski avec un ami.Last weekend I went skiing with a friend.

Certain time expressions indicate whether to use the imperfect or the passé composé. These serve as good hints for which tense to choose. For specific events use the passé composé and for habitual events use the imparfait.
SPECIFIC EVENTS - USE THE PASSÉ COMPOSÉHABITUAL EVENTS - USE THE IMPARFAIT
un jour one day
le 24 september on Sept. 24
tous les jours everyday
chaque jour everyday
lundi Monday
un lundi one Monday
le lundi on Mondays
tous les lundi every Monday
un apres-midi one afternoon
un soir one evening
l'après-midi in the afternoons.
tous les soir every evening
une fois once
trois fois three times
plusieurs fois several times.
d'habitude usually
en général generally
habituellement usually

Use the imparfait to describe things that were in progress. Things that were happening or things that people were doing. Use the passé composé to describe a specific thing that happened at a specific time.
IMPARFAIT - ACTION IN PROGRESS, GOING ON/WERE DOING
À dix-sept heures, je préparais le repasI was preparing the meal at 5.00pm.
PASSÉ COMPOSÉ - HAPPENED AT SPECIFIC TIME, WHAT HAPPENED, WHAT SOMEBODY DID
Nous avons dîné à dix-huit heures.We had dinner at 6.00pm.

It’s possible to use the imparfait and the passé composé together in the same sentence. When action A was happening (imparfait), action B (passé composé) occurred.
ACTION A WAS HAPPENING (IMPERFECT) WHEN SPECIFIC ACTION B (PASSÉ COMPOSÉ) OCCURED.
Il était trois heures quand le telephone a sonné.It was 3 o'clock when the phone rang.
Je racontais une histoire quand tu m'as interrompu. I was telling a story when you interrupted me.
Nous regardions la télé quand papa est rentré.We were watching TV when dad came home.

When telling a story or describing a past event, use the imparfait for providing background information and describing the settings and use the passé composé to describe the specific events that happened.
PASSÉ COMPOSÉ - THESE ARE THE SPECIFIC THINGS THAT HAPPENED
Pierre a acheté des fleurs.Pierre bought flowers.
Nous sommes arrivés à l'aéroport. We arrived at the airport.
Ils ont pris un taxi.They took a taxi.
IMPARFAIT - BACKGROUND, STORY BACKDROP - WEATHER, TIME, APPEARANCES, EMOTIONAL/PHYSICAL STATES, CONDITIONS, THINGS HAPPENING
Il faisait beau.It was nice weather out.
Il était huit heures du matin.It was 8 o'clock in the morning.
Nous avions faim.We were hungry.
Elle était belle. She was beautiful.
Nous étions seuls. We were alone.
Elle était en retard.She was late.
Nous allions en ville.We were doing into town.
Les autres n'étaient pas.The other people weren't there.

Special constructions

The imparfait is also used in some special constructions. Si on + imparfait is used to make suggestions and means “what about?”. Si seulement + imparfait means “if only”. Venir de + infinitive means just but when venir is conjugated in the imparfait it means “had just”.

Si on allait au cinéma? What about going to the movies?
Si on partait en vacances? What about going on vacation?
Si seulement j’étais plus grand. If only I were taller!
Si seulement j’étais blond! If only I were blond!
Si seulement j’avais plus d’argent! If only I had more money.
Elle venait de finir son travail. She had just finished her work.
Il venait de préparer le repas. He had just prepared the meal.

It’s video time! Watch Parapluie French teach about the imparfait vs. the passe compose.


Video source: Parapluie French

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