Advanced French Past Tenses

French verbs that are usually in the imperfect

French school
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The difference between the two main French past tenses, the passé composé and the imperfect, is a constant struggle for many French students. In my lesson on passé composé vs imperfect, you learned about the fundamental differences between these two tenses. In this more advanced lesson, you will learn about the particularities of certain verbs when used in the past.

Usually Imperfect

Some French verbs are nearly always used in the imperfect rather than the passé composé:

  • aimer - to like, love
  • croire - to believe
  • espérer - to hope
  • être - to be
  • penser - to think
  • sembler - to seem
  • sentir - to feel
  • vouloir - to want

These verbs describe a state of mind or state of being. They are most often in the imperfect because verbs like "wanting" and "being" do not usually have a clear indicator of start and finish - either they last for an unspecified amount of time or they are interrupted by some other action.

   J'aimais danser quand j'étais jeune.
   I liked to dance when I was young.

   Je croyais en Dieu.
   I believed in God.

   J'espérais gagner.
   I hoped (was hoping) to win.

   J'étais heureux l'année passée.
   I was happy last year.

   Je pensais à mon frère.
   I was thinking about my brother.

   Il semblait trop parfait.
   It seemed too perfect.

   Je me sentais malade pendant toute la journée.
   I felt sick all day.

   Je voulais rentrer après le film.
   I wanted to go home after the movie.
However, these verbs are used in the passé composé when there is a clear indication of the beginning or end of the action of the verb, or when it is obvious that this was a simple action that only occurred once.

   Je n'ai pas aimé le film.
   I didn't like the movie.

   Je ne t'ai pas cru quand tu as dit...
   I didn't believe you when you said...

   Hier, j'ai espéré que tu viendrais ; aujourd'hui, ça m'est égal.
   Yesterday I hoped you would come; today I don't care.

   Quand je l'ai vu, j'ai été surpris.
   When I saw him, I was surprised (just at that moment).

   J'ai pensé à une bonne histoire.
   I thought of a good story.

   Il a semblé disparaître.
   He seemed to disappear (all of a sudden).

   J'ai senti une goutte de pluie.
   I felt a drop of rain.

   Tout d'un coup, j'ai voulu partir.
   All of a sudden, I wanted to leave.

Now that you know which verbs are usually in the imperfect, you can learn about verbs that have different meanings depending on whether they are used in the passé composé or imperfect, and verbal constructions that are always in the imperfect.

Meaning Changes

There are a few verbs that have different meanings depending on whether they are used in the passé composé or imperfect. Note however that these verbs are usually used in the imperfect; the passé composé meaning is fairly uncommon.

avoir - to have
   imperfect - had
   J'avais de l'argent. - I had some money
   Je n'avais pas assez de temps. - I didn't have enough time
   J'avais faim. - I was hungry

   passé composé - had, got, received
   J'ai eu un accident. - I had / got into an accident
   J'ai eu une bonne surprise. - I got a nice surprise
   J'ai eu faim. - I got hungry

connaître - to know
   imperfect - knew, was familiar with
   Je la connaissais bien. - I knew her well

   passé composé - met
   J'ai connu Michel hier. - I met Michel (for the first time) yesterday

devoir - to have to
   imperfect - was supposed to (whether I did or not)
   Je devais partir à midi. - I was supposed to leave at noon

   passé composé - must have, had to
   J'ai dû le perdre. - I must have lost it
   J'ai dû partir à midi. - I had to leave at noon (and did)

pouvoir - to be able to
   imperfect - could, was able to (whether I did or not)
   Je pouvais mentir. - I could lie / was capable of lying

   passé composé - could, was able to, managed to; (negative) couldn't, was unable to
   J'ai pu mentir. - I was able to lie
   Je n'ai pas pu mentir. - I couldn't / was unable to lie

savoir - to know
   imperfect - knew
   Je savais l'adresse. - I knew the address
   Je savais nager. - I knew how to swim

   passé composé - learned, found out
   J'ai su la solution. - I found out / discovered the solution
   J'ai su nager. - I learned how to swim

vouloir - to want
   imperfect - wanted
   Je voulais partir. - I wanted to leave
   Je voulais plus d'argent. - I wanted more money

   passé composé - tried, decided to; (negative) refused
   J'ai voulu partir. - I tried / decided to leave
   Je n'ai pas voulu partir. - I refused to leave

Verbal Constructions

Some verbs have particular constructions which, when referring to the past, are always in the imperfect:

aller + infinitive (near future)
   J'allais étudier. - I was going to study.

avoir (with age)
   J'avais 18 ans. - I was 18.

être en train de
   J'étais en train d'écrire une lettre. - I was writing a letter.

faire (with weather)
   Il faisait beau. - It was nice out.

venir de + infinitive (recent past)
   Je venais d'arriver. - I had just arrived.

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Team, ThoughtCo. "Advanced French Past Tenses." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Team, ThoughtCo. (2021, December 6). Advanced French Past Tenses. Retrieved from Team, ThoughtCo. "Advanced French Past Tenses." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).