The Different Past Tenses in French

Le Passé - Passé composé v Imparfait

Past tenses in French

One of the most striking differences between French and English is in verb tenses. Learning how to use the various past tenses can be very tricky, because English has several tenses which either do not exist in or do not translate literally into French - and vice versa.

During the first year of French study, every student becomes aware of the troublesome relationship between the two main past tenses.

The imperfect [je mangeais] translates to the English imperfect [I was eating] while the passé composé [j'ai mangé] literally translates to the English present perfect [I have eaten] but can also be translated as the English simple past [I ate] or the emphatic past [I did eat].

It is extremely important to understand the distinctions between the passé composé and imperfect in order to use them correctly and thus express past events accurately. Before you can compare them, however, be sure that you understand each tense individually, as this will make it a lot easier to figure out how they work together.

Generally speaking, the imperfect describes past situations, while the passé composé narrates specific events. In addition, the imperfect can set the stage for an event expressed with the passé composé. Compare the uses of these two tenses:


1. Incomplete vs Complete

The imperfect describes an ongoing action with no specified completion:

   J'allais en France. - I was going to France.

   Je visitais des monuments et prenais des photos.

- I was visiting monuments and taking pictures

The passé composé expresses one or more events or actions that began and ended in the past:

   Je suis allé en France. - I went to France.

   J'ai visité des monuments et pris des photos. - I visited some monuments and took some pictures.

2. Habitual vs Occasional

The imperfect is used for habitual or repeated actions, something that happened an uncounted number of times:

   Je voyageais en France tous les ans. - I traveled (used to travel) to France every year.

   Je visitais souvent le Louvre. - I often visited the Louvre.

The passé composé talks about a single event, or an event that happened a specific number of times:

   J'ai voyagé en France l'année dernière. - I traveled in France last year.

   J'ai visité le Louvre trois fois. - I've visited the Louvre three times.

3. Ongoing vs New

The imperfect describes a general physical or mental state of being:

   J'avais peur des chiens.

- I was afraid of dogs.

   J'aimais les épinards. - I used to like spinach.

The passé composé indicates a change in physical or mental state at a precise moment or for an isolated cause:

   J'ai eu peur quand le chien a aboyé. - I was scared when the dog barked.

   Pour la première fois, j'ai aimé les épinards.

- For the first time, I liked spinach.

4. Background + Interruption

The imperfect and passé composé sometimes work together - the imperfect provides a description/background info, to set the scene of how things were or what was happening (past tense of "be" + verb with -ing usually indicates this) when something (expressed with the passé composé) interrupted.

   J'étais à la banque quand Chirac est arrivé. - I was at the bank when Chirac arrived.

   Je vivais en Espagne quand je l'ai trouvé. - I was living in Spain when I found it.


Note: There is a third tense, the passé simple, which technically translates to the English simple past tense, but is now used primarily in writing, in place of the passé composé.

Examples
Imperfect


Quand j'avais 15 ans, je voulais être psychiatre. Je m'intéressais à la psychologie parce que je connaissais beaucoup de gens très bizarres. Le week-end, j'allais à la bibliothèque et j'étudiais pendant toute la journée.

When I was 15, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I was interested in psychology because I knew a lot of really weird people. On the weekends, I used to go to the library and study all day.




Passé composé

Un jour, je suis tombé malade et j'ai découvert les miracles de la médecine. J'ai fait la connaissance d'un médecin et j'ai commencé à étudier avec lui. Quand la faculté de médecine m'a accepté, je n'ai plus pensé à la psychologie.

One day, I got sick and discovered the wonders of medicine. I met a doctor and started studying with him. After the medical school accepted me, I didn't think about psychology any more.



Indicators


The following key words and phrases tend to be used with either the imperfect or the passé composé, so when you see any of them, you know which tense you need:

 

ImperfectPassé composé
chaque semaine, mois, année  every week, month, yearune semaine, un mois, un anone week, month, year
le week-endon the weekendsun week-endone weekend
le lundi, le mardi...on Mondays, on Tuesdays...  lundi, mardi...on Monday, on Tuesday
tous les joursevery dayun jourone day
le soirin the eveningsun soirone evening
toujoursalwayssoudainementsuddenly
normalementusuallytout à coup, tout d'un coup  all of a sudden
d'habitudeusuallyune fois, deux fois...once, twice...
en général, généralementin general, generallyenfinfinally
souventoftenfinalementin the end
parfois, quelquefoissometimesplusieurs foisseveral times
de temps en tempsfrom time to time
rarementrarely
autrefoisformerly
 
Notes:

Some French verbs are used primarily in the imperfect, while others have different meanings depending on which tense they are used in. Learn more about advanced past tenses.

There is a third tense, the passé simple, which technically translates to the English simple past tense, but is now used primarily in writing, as the literary equivalent of the passé composé.
 
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Lawless, Laura K. "The Different Past Tenses in French." ThoughtCo, Sep. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/different-past-tenses-in-french-1368902. Lawless, Laura K. (2017, September 14). The Different Past Tenses in French. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/different-past-tenses-in-french-1368902 Lawless, Laura K. "The Different Past Tenses in French." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/different-past-tenses-in-french-1368902 (accessed December 13, 2017).