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“Imparfait” or “Passé Composé ?”

This is a very common question that puzzles a lot of French learners (including native speakers). Here is a simple guide to answer 90% of the cases.

passé composé imparfait
Expresses specific actions or events that were started and completed in the past
ex: Il a fait ses devoirs (He did his homework)
Describes ongoing or continuous actions or events in the past
ex: Il faisait ses devoirs (He was doing his homework)
Expresses a specific action or event at a specific point in past time
ex: Il a fait ses devoirs hier soir (He did his homework last night)
Describes habitual or repeated actions or events in the past
ex: Il faisait ses devoirs tous les soirs (He would do his homework every night)
Describes persons, things, weather, or a state of mind in the past
ex: Elle était nerveuse. Il faisait froid. (She was nervous. It was cold.)

Notes:

  1. Le passé composé expresses an action or event repeated a specific number of times in the past
    Je suis allée en France trois fois. (I went to France three times.)
    Caution : J’allais en France tous les ans. (I would go to France every year.)
  2. Le passé composé is usually equivalent to an English simple past. L’imparfait is usually equivalent to the English “was/were … -ing”, “would + verb”,
    “used to”
    Hier il a neigé pendant deux heures. (Yesterday it snowed for two hours.)
    Il neigeait pendant qu’ils marchaient. (It was snowing while they walked.)
  3. L’imparfait is used to describe an action or event that was going on in the past when another action or event took place. The action or event that took place is in passé composé
    Je sortais quand Laure a téléphoné. (I was going out when Laure called.)
  4. Le passé composé is often used (but not always) after the following expressions.

    • hier (yesterday)
    • hier soir(last night / yesterday evening)
    • ce jour-là (that day)
    • un jour (one day)
    • plusieurs fois (several times)
    • avant-hier (the day before yesterday)
    • l’année / la semaine dernière (last year, last week)
    • l’été / l’automne/ le printemps / l’hiver dernier (last summer / fall / spring / winter)
    • le mois dernier (last month)
    • d’abord (first, at first)
    • soudain (suddenly)
    • tout-à-coup (suddenly, all of a sudden)
    • enfin (finally)
    • finalement (finally)
    • ensuite (next, then)
    • une fois / deux fois … (once, twice … )
  5. L’imparfait is often used (but not always) with the following expressions when they imply repetition.

    • autrefois (formerly)
    • chaque jour / mois / semaine / année (each day / month / week / year)
    • chaque soir (each evening / night)
    • de temps à autre (from time to time)
    • de temps en temps (from time to time)
    • d’habitude (usually)
    • habituellement (usually, habitually)
    • d’ordinaire (ordinarily)
    • en ce temps-là (at that time)
    • en général, généralement (generally)
    • fréquemment (frequently)
    • parfois (sometimes)
    • souvent (often)
    • toujours (always)
    • tout le temps (all the time)
    • tous les jours / soirs / mois, toutes les années (every day / night / month / year)
  6. L’imparfait is often used (but not always) with verbs that express a state of mind over a period of time in the past.

    • aimer (to like, to love)
    • croire (to believe)
    • désirer (to desire)
    • espérer (to hope)
    • être (to be)
    • penser (to think)
    • pouvoir (to be able to, to can)
    • préférer (to prefer)
    • regretter (to regret)
    • savoir (to know [how])
    • vouloir (to wish, to want)

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