French grammar guru Carol Beth L. is back on the blog with this guide to the passé composé, the imparfait, and when you should use each of them…
If you’ve been studying French grammar long enough, you may know that French has two different forms of the past tense: the passé composé (composed past) and the imparfait (imperfect). It is sometimes difficult for those who have just learned them to distinguish between situations that require the passé composé and situations that warrant the imparfait. There are patterns, however, that can help you tell when to use each one.
Generally speaking, the passé composé is used for things that happened only once in the past, and that happened at a specific time, not over a duration of time. If you want to talk about the one and only French lesson last happened last Thursday, for example, then you doubly know that you should use the passé composé. It happened at a specific point time (last Thursday), and there was only one such lesson on that particular Thursday. So you might say:
J’ai eu mon cours de francais jeudi dernier.
I had my French class last Thursday.
If your teacher asks you if you did your homework, then you probably also both know which homework that was, and either you’ve done it or not. If you did do it, you hopefully only had to do it once. So if you’ve done it, you’d probably say:
Oui, j’ai fait mes devoirs. Les voici!
Yes, I did my homework. Here it is!
A side note in this example: “devoirs,” or homework, is plural in French while the English version is singular. As a result, even though it may seem odd to us English-speakers, it is correct to use the plural possessive pronoun “mes” and the plural object pronoun (and under some other circumstances plural article) “les.”
Or, you might hear your less diligent doppleganger say:
Euh, alors, mon chien a mangé mes devoirs….
Ahhh, well, my dog ate my homework….
The imparfait, on the other hand, is usually used under different circumstances. The first common situation is a repeated action in the past.
Au lycée, je faisais mes devoirs tous les jours.
In high school, I did my homework every day.
Aux années soixante, il visitait la France tous les ans.
During the ’60s, he visited France every year.
The second common situation is when one enduring event or action is happening, and something else happens during the first one. In this case, the surrounding, more long-term event takes the imparfait, and the interrupting event takes the passé composé. In this sort of situation, the event that is conjugated using the imparfait might under other circumstances require the passé composé – sometimes even in an adjacent sentence.
Mais c’est vrai, j’ai fait mes devoirs hier soir. Pendant que je faisais mes devoirs, mon chat a sauté sur la table et a marche sur mon travail.
But it’s true, I did my homework last night. While I was doing my homework, my cat jumped on the table and walked on my work.
Pendant que nous dinions, ma mere a appelé.
While we were eating dinner, my mother called.
Let’s look at a few examples and see if you can tell whether to use the imperfect tense or the passé composé.
1) L’année dernière, je (j’) __________________ (visiter) la France.
Last year, I visited France.
2) Pendant que je (j’) __________________ (être) en France, je (j’) __________________ (rencontrer) une vieille amie.
While I was in France, I met an old friend.
3) Quand nous __________________ (être) petits, nous __________________ (jouer) sur le meme equipe de football.
When we were little, we played on the same soccer team.
4) Pendant notre séjour, nous __________________ (voyager) a Strasbourg, une petite ville alsacienne a la frontière allemande.
During our stay, we travelled to Strasbourg, a small Alsacien town on the German border.
5) Pendant que nous __________________ (rester) a Strasbourg, nous __________________ (visiter) la Musée d’Alsace.
During our stay in Strasbourg, we visited the Museum of Alsace.
How do you think you did? Here are some answers to check yourself:
1) ai visité (passé composé)
2) étais (imparfait); ai rencontré (passé composé)
3) étions (imparfait); jouions (imparfait)
4) avons voyagé (passé composé);
5) restions (imparfait); avons visité (passé composé)
How well did you do? If you missed some of them, don’t be discouraged. Keep looking for examples and practice using them. While there are general rules you can use to figure out which one is appropriate, it takes time to internalize the logic of a new language. Remember to keep it fun and enjoy studying French!
For more help learning French grammar, study with a private tutor. Tutors are available to work with you in-person or online via Skype depending on your location. Search for your French tutor now!
Carol Beth L. teaches French lessons in San Francisco, CA. She has her Masters in French language education from the Sorbonne University in Paris and has been teaching since 2009. Learn more about Carol Beth here!
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