February 2015
« Jul    

Imparfait vs. Passé Composé

How to tell when to use the imperfect or the passé composé–printable

When deciding which tense to use, it is often helpful to think of the analogy of the use of these tenses to a stage play.  In a play, there is often scenery (trees, birds singing, sun shining, etc.) and background action (minor characters strolling by, children playing, working, etc.).  This scenery and background action is represented by the imperfect.

            Il était tôt.                                           It was early.

            Il faisait froid.                                     It was cold out.

            James allait au travail.                    James was going to work.

            Il ne regardait pas à droite.            He wasn’t looking to the right.

Likewise, in a play, there are main actors upon whom the audience focuses, if even for a moment.  They speak, more, become aware, act and react.  The narration of these past events requires the passé composé.

            Qu’est-ce que lui est arrivé?                                        What happened to him?

            Il a eu un accident?                                                         He had an accident.

            Un gendarme lui a donné une contravention.          A policeman gave him a ticket.

Thus the imparfait describes past situations, while the passé composé narrates specific events. In addition, l’imparfait can set the stage for an event expressed with the passé composé.

To determine correct use of these two past tense forms in French, le passé composé and l’imparfait, refer to the following chart.

______________L’imparfait___________________________________Le passé composé ______________

1.  ongoing actions                                                                  1.  single event—specific beginning and end

J’allais en France hier quand l’avion                                      Marie-Ève est née en 1981.

            est entré en collision.

2.  habitual/repeated actions                                                   2.  series of events

            Mes amis se brossaient les dents chaque                   Mes amis se sont brossé les dents, se sont

            jour.                                                                                         lavé la figure et ont mangé le dîner.

3.  background information—action being                             3.  main action—the stuff interrupting the back-

     interrupted by another event                                                   ground information

                                                Ma mère était à la banque quand je suis né.

4.  general description of mental/physical state                      4.  change in mental/physical state

            Quand j’étais jeune, j’avais peur des                                      Quand le chien a aboyé, je suis devenu

            chiens.                                                                                           avoir peur des chiens.

5.  feelings, time, age, weather

            Il faisait beau samedi.

            Mon père avait 56 ans.

            Étiez-vous triste?

Sometimes words or phrases will help you decide if the verb should be in the passé composé or the imparfait.  Some examples for each verb tense are listed.

passé compose— d’abord-first                                                    un jour-one day

                                    puis-then                                                       lundi-on Monday

                                    ensuite-next                                                 soudain-suddenly

                                    une/deux/etc. fois-once, twice, etc.          tout d’un coup-all of a sudden

                                    plusieurs fois-several times                     au moment où-just when

                                    un week-end-one weekend

imparfait—                toujours-always                                           de temps en temps-from time to time

                                    d’habitude-usually                                       chaque-each, every

                                    tous les jours-everyday                               autrefois-formerly

                                    souvent-often                                                le week-end-on the weekends

                                    le lundi-on Mondays                                    normalement-usually

                                    en général-in general                                  le soir-in the evenings