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L'imparfait vs. Le passé composé

L'imparfait vs. Le passé composé

Author: Cecile McKernan

Students will gain recognition of the different rules of usage for each tense through the various texts, PPTs, and videos.


After this tutorial, student should be able to:

  • Correctly form the Passé Composé, with both possible helping verbs
  • Correctly form the Imparfait
  • Understand the different between the two tenses in the French language
  • Be able to correctly identify the rules of why each tense is used
  • Better your writing!  Better your speaking! 
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Layout of this tutorial:

  • Le Passé Composé vs. L'Imparfait

  • Description of the uses

  • Review of the Passé Composé

  • Review of L'Imparfait

  • Activities to practice online

  • Listening activities for the tenses

  • Quiz!

Les Trois Petit Cochons les passés!

Ma petite introduction, vidéo numéro 1


Que sont les deux temps du passé: le passé composé et l'imparfait?

Ce sont deux temps au passé!

Un est un temps simple- seulement un mot/ une forme du verbe.

L'autre est un temps composé- deux parties forment le verbe, le verbe auxiliaire (être ou avoir) et le participe passé.


You need to understand it’s mostly a question of background/specific event, and develop an ear for it.

1 – You can not translate literally

“I was singing” or verbs in past progressive are going to be imperfect. For those, you can rely on translation 90% of the time.
The problem is “I sang” or verbs in the perfect tense… they can be translated as “je chantais” or “j’ai chanté”: it is the rest of the sentence that tells, so there is no way you can just translate.

2 – Some expressions are usually followed by the imperfect.

le lundi (on MondayS), le soir, le matin… tous les lundis (tous les matins, soirs, jours…), chaque jour (mois, année…), tous les jours, d’habitude, habituellement, généralement, en général, normalement, parfois, quelques fois, de temps en temps, rarement, autrefois (in the past, formerly – pretty formal).

3 – Main differences

I suggest you learn by heart the 2 sentences below. Don’t think in term of actions, actions can be in both PC or imperfect.

Imparfait = what was happening all around you (including you), background. Also ongoing events, habits, what used to be.
Passé composé = what took place at that very moment: a specific event or a succession of specific events, the main storyline.

Now let’s be more specific:
A – Habits versus specific events

The imperfect describes habitual actions in the past. The PC describes what took place, specific events.

Le lundi, je dînais chez ma soeur / Un lundi, nous avons dîné au restaurant.

On Mondays, I used to have dinner at my sister’s / One Monday, we dined in a restaurant.

In this case, what you need to look for are the time setting words : “le lundi” (habit) versus “un lundi”(specific).

B – When you are telling a story

The passé composé describes actions that constitute the storyline. It tells the series of specific events that took place. Some expressions of time tend to be followed by the PC in a story ; d’abord, puis, ensuite, enfin, finalement, soudain, tout à coup, tout de suite… since they usually introduce specific events. Memorize them, they’re a big help.

The imperfect describes the background, it sets the scene:

the date, the time of the day, the weather, the scene (what people were doing)….. external circumstances,
age, appearance, physical traits, physical condition, feelings, attitudes…. personal circumstances.

C – In the same sentence

The Imparfait describes ongoing background actions, what was happening at that time (often with a “to be + ing” construction in English) – these actions had started before, and may continue after.
The PC will describe a specific action that took place at a precise time as the background action was going on:
Ils sont entrés (specific even – short in lenght) pendant que nous dormions (ongoing action – longer in lenght). They came in as we were sleeping.

Sometimes, the same tense is used for the 2 actions if they are of same length:
- 2 actions that went on for some time:
Pendant que j’etudiais, tu regardais la télé. While I was studying, you were watching TV.
- or 2 specific shorter actions:
Tu es rentrée quand je suis sortie. You came in as I was going out.

Les Trois Petit Cochons ....écoutez et faites les activités!

Vidéo en français canadien! Écoutez l'accent canadien!

Mindmaps - Always a great way to learn! Click to see image in full screen!

Passe composé review

Review how to form the passé composé French!

Écouter en français l'imparfait...crime scene description using the imparfait...