The main difficulty when talking about the past in French is to know when to use L'Imparfait (Indicatif) or Le Passé Composé (Indicatif).
In this lesson, we're going to look at how to use Le Passé Composé (Indicatif) on its own, as well as combined with L'Imparfait (Indicatif).
(Reminder of the different usages for L'Imparfait (Indicatif): expressing continuing actions , habits or repeated actions Expressing past habits or repeated actions with the imperfect tense in French (L'Imparfait), or for descriptions and past states Describing and expressing opinions with the imperfect tense in French (L'Imparfait))
When to Le Passé Composé (Indicatif) with L'Imparfait (Indicatif) or on its own in French
Look at these examples in Le Passé Composé (Indicatif):
Nous sommes allés à la plage ce matin.We went to the beach this morning.
Il a plu de lundi à vendredi.It rained from Monday to Friday.
En 1815, Napoléon a perdu la bataille de Waterloo.In 1815, Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo.
Je l'ai frappé, il m'a donné un coup de pied dans le tibia, et on est tombés tous les deux par terre.I hit him, he kicked me in the shin, and we both fell on the floor.
Je suis venu, j'ai vu, j'ai vaincu. - Jules CésarI came, I saw, I conquered. - Julius Caesar
Le Passé Composé (Indicatif)
is more like a direct equivalent of the English Simple Past
(I went, I did ...
It is used for past actions/events
that happened once
, with a clear beginning and end
, as well as for a succession of actions
in the past.
Now look at these sentences where both Le Passé Composé (Indicatif) and L'Imparfait (Indicatif) are used:
Je prenais une douche quand le téléphone a sonné.I was taking a shower when the phone rang.
Christelle faisait ses courses quand elle est tombée sur Éric.Christelle was doing her grocery shopping when she ran into Éric.
Il faisait la vaisselle quand je suis rentrée.He was doing the dishes when I came home.
Je fumais depuis des années quand j'ai décidé d'arrêter.I had been smoking for years when I decided to stop.
Nous allions à l'école à pied tous les jours jusqu'au jour où Papa a acheté une voiture.We walked to school every day until the day Dad bought a car.
Here Le Passé Composé (Indicatif)
is used to express a sudden action that interrupts
or "cuts" an ongoing action, a habit or repeated action
in L'Imparfait (Indicatif).
Let's look at these contrasting examples and their nuances:
Il faisait froid hier soir.It was cold last night.
-> Here, I'm stating that it was cold during the night, insisting on the fact that this situation was ongoing then, describing the situation.
Il a fait froid hier soir.It was cold last night.
->Here, I'm referring to a past action that has a clear timeframe in the past, insisting on it being a single, whole past event.
Here, the difficulty lies in the peculiar case of to be and how to translate it, as with this "state" verb, the nuance of meaning is not as clear as with other action-oriented ones.
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