Using Le Passé Composé on its own or with L'Imparfait

The main difficulty when talking about the past in French is to know when to use Imparfait or Passé composé
In this lesson, we're going to look at how to use Passé composé on its own, as well as combined with Imparfait.

(Reminder of the different usages for Imparfait: expressing continuing actions , habits or repeated actions Expressing habits or repeated actions in L'Imparfait (imperfect tense), or for descriptions and past states Describing and expressing opinions in L'Imparfait (imperfect tense))

 

Look at these examples in Passé composé:

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 César
I came, I saw, I conquered. - Julius Caesar

Passé composé 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 Passé composé and Imparfait 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 food shop 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 Passé composé is used to express a sudden action that interrupts or "cuts" an ongoing action, a habit or repeated action in Imparfait.

BONUS:
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.

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

Il faisait la vaisselle quand je suis rentrée.
He was doing the dishes when I came home.


Nous sommes allés à la plage ce matin.
We went to the beach this morning.


Je fumais depuis des années quand j'ai décidé d'arrêter.
I had been smoking for years when I decided to stop.


Christelle faisait ses courses quand elle est tombée sur Éric.
Christelle was doing her food shop when she ran into Éric.


Il a plu de lundi à vendredi.
It rained from Monday to Friday.


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 prenais une douche quand le téléphone a sonné.
I was taking a shower when the phone rang.


Il a fait froid hier soir.
It was cold last night.


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.


Il faisait froid hier soir.
It was cold last night.


En 1815, Napoléon a perdu la bataille de Waterloo.
In 1815, Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo.


Il pleuvait quand tu es arrivé.
It was raining when you arrived.


Je suis venu, j'ai vu, j'ai vaincu. - Jules César
I came, I saw, I conquered. - Julius Caesar


Q&A Forum 14 questions, 25 answers

TerryB1

I have a question about rendre visite and the placement of words between them, please explain. eg Tu as rendu souvent visite...

Asked 2 months ago

In French, the placement of adverbs like souvent is a matter that merits its own lesson. As a rule of thumb, however, in most cases you put it after the first conjugated verb (avoir, in the example you cite).

-- Chris.

TerryB1

Thank you. 

Terry asked:View original

I have a question about rendre visite and the placement of words between them, please explain. eg Tu as rendu souvent visite...

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Mamie Gâteau - We never forgot that lesson.

Asked 6 months ago

(Not a reply, but further information on my confusion.) In today's passé composé vs. imparfait lesson, the phrase cited in my question is translated as "Nous n'avons jamais oublié cette leçon." If one has never forgotten something, doesn't it indicate that it is ongoing? It's not a one-time action, or even something that has passed. Is it because it was an event (the snooping and being caught) that "taught" the lesson and since the event is in the past it's passé composé? 

Well, if you are talking about the act of forgetting it is an instant in time: there one moment, forgotten the next. It is the *state* of not remembering anymore that is ongoing. For a French speaker, it is the act of forgetting which hasn't happened. It's negative and therefore a bit more difficult to wrap your head around but it does make sense on some level....if you start thinking like the French. ;)

Thank you. Explaining that "...the act of forgetting is an instant in time..." and that even though it has NOT happened, forgetting is still seen as something that happens once was very helpful. How I wish I could think like the French! (And be able to explain it to my students!) 

Mamie Gâteau - We never forgot that lesson.

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I am confused now - I did not know that "had been doing" something translates into regular Imparfait?

Asked 7 months ago
Can you post the entire sentence? Context is often important to determine which tense to use.

I am confused now - I did not know that "had been doing" something translates into regular Imparfait?

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Incorrect English grammar in explanation

The following taken from above lesson is incorrect English grammar using the article "an". It should be "a" past action.

 Il a fait froid hier soir. Here, I'm referring to an past action that has a clear timeframe in the past, insisting on it being a single, whole past event.

Here Le Passé Composé is used to express a sudden action that interrupts or "cuts" an ongoing action, a habit or repeated action in L'Imparfait.

Il faisait froid hier soir. Here, I'm stating that it was cold during the night, insisting on the fact that this situation was ongoing then, describing the situation.
It was cold last night.

 Il a fait froid hier soir. Here, I'm referring to an past action that has a clear timeframe in the past, insisting on it being a single, whole past event.
It was cold last night.

Asked 10 months ago
AurélieKwiziq language super star

Merci Sandra !

Thanks to you, this typo has now been fixed :)

Bonne journée!

Incorrect English grammar in explanation

The following taken from above lesson is incorrect English grammar using the article "an". It should be "a" past action.

 Il a fait froid hier soir. Here, I'm referring to an past action that has a clear timeframe in the past, insisting on it being a single, whole past event.

Here Le Passé Composé is used to express a sudden action that interrupts or "cuts" an ongoing action, a habit or repeated action in L'Imparfait.

Il faisait froid hier soir. Here, I'm stating that it was cold during the night, insisting on the fact that this situation was ongoing then, describing the situation.
It was cold last night.

 Il a fait froid hier soir. Here, I'm referring to an past action that has a clear timeframe in the past, insisting on it being a single, whole past event.
It was cold last night.

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Je fumais depuis des années quand j’ai décidé d’arrêter

The English translation that you give is not normally what one would say.  We would say “I had been smoking...” not “I was smoking...”...the plus perfect not the imperfect.  In French would one ever use the plus que parfait as we do in English?
Asked 11 months ago
CécileKwiziq language super starCorrect answer

Hi Marnie,

In the two most common cases with 'depuis' 

Depuis ....+ présent

How long have you been waiting? Vous attendez depuis combien de temps ? because the action is carrying on.

In the same way, Depuis ...+ imparfait :

Where you would use the pluperfect in English it will be the imparfait in French :

Depuis combien de temps attendiez-vous? = How long had you been waiting?

and the action is finished .

Hoe this helps!

Thanks Cécile.

It is the English translation that of the French version that I am raising.

In English, we would say "I HAD been smoking" ONLY if another action took place while we were smoking and put an end to that smoking.

In English, by itself, the imperfect (with no implication of a subsequent action): "how long have you been smoking" AND the pluperfect when your smoking was ended by a subsequent action/decision:  "how long HAD you been smoking when you decided to stop?"

So the English translation of "Je fumais depuis des années quand j'ai décidé d'arrêter." would be "I HAD BEEN smoking for years when I decided to stop."  At the moment, the English translation is "I WAS smoking for years when I decided to stop."  The use of "was smoking" is what is incorrect.

AurélieKwiziq language super star

Bonjour Marnie !

The English in that example has now been fixed :)

Cécile's explanation as to whether or not we'd use the pluperfect in French answered your last question :)

Merci et à bientôt !

Je fumais depuis des années quand j’ai décidé d’arrêter

The English translation that you give is not normally what one would say.  We would say “I had been smoking...” not “I was smoking...”...the plus perfect not the imperfect.  In French would one ever use the plus que parfait as we do in English?

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Tu leur rendais souvent visite jusqu'au jour où ils sont parti

Je voudrais savoir pourquoi vous n'avez pas utilisé le subjonctif avec <jusqu'à-until>.  J'aurais dit <jusqu'à ce qu'ils soient partis>.  J'ai raté quoi?   C'est l'usage de <où> dans le phrase ou est qu'il y a quelque chose d'autre que j'ai raté.
Asked 1 year ago
ChrisC1Correct answer

Hi Donald,

Jusqu'à ce que.... is normally followed by the subjunctive. However, if you want to emphasise the reality or certainty of a particular action you can also use the indicative.

-- Chris (not a native speaker).

Merci Chris.

Tu leur rendais souvent visite jusqu'au jour où ils sont parti

Je voudrais savoir pourquoi vous n'avez pas utilisé le subjonctif avec <jusqu'à-until>.  J'aurais dit <jusqu'à ce qu'ils soient partis>.  J'ai raté quoi?   C'est l'usage de <où> dans le phrase ou est qu'il y a quelque chose d'autre que j'ai raté.

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AnnC1

In the adventures of Fantôme this week, we were to translate "How many times Ii dreamt of being her" and the correct response was in the passé composé

but isn't this a habituel motion? I used imparfait.
Asked 1 year ago
ChrisC1Correct answer

Hi Ann,

in this case you would use passé composé in French. If you used the imparfait, it would sound to French ears like "How many times he was dreaming of being her." sounds to English ears. The past continuous form in English doesn't really hit the spot here, just as the imparfait wouldn't in French.

-- Chris (not a native speaker)

But the Imparfait is also "Used to" and "How many times he used to dream of being her" sounds perfectly fine? I don't think I quite understand. 

In the adventures of Fantôme this week, we were to translate "How many times Ii dreamt of being her" and the correct response was in the passé composé

but isn't this a habituel motion? I used imparfait.

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I am learning to detest predictive text... ;)

Asked 1 year ago
GruffKwiziq language super star
Ah! Yes, it can be a pain. We use every official method to tell devices and browsers to switch it off but unfortunately, many mobile keyboards ignore the flags. Which device and keyboard are you using?

I am learning to detest predictive text... ;)

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Can you élaboration on the difference between using "en" + gerund versus l'imparfait and passé composèrent ?

Asked 1 year ago
ChrisC1Correct answer

The gerund in French has several uses. What your question alludes to seems to address its use in expressing a timeline.

Elle est tombée en parlant. -- She fell while talking.
Il lisait son journal en mangeant le dîner. -- He used to read his newspaper while eating dinner.

Clearly the gerund is used when expressing simultaneity of two actions under the condition that the subject is the same.

Marie m'a parlé en me regardant. -- Marie talked to me while looking at me.
Marie m'a parlé pendant qu'il me regardait. -- Marie talked to me while he looked at me.

In the first sentence the subject (Marie) is the same and the two actions are simultaneous, hence the gerund. In the second example there are two subjects involved (Marie and il), so the gerund wouldn't work. Therefore one solution is to use "pendant que" and convey the temporal relationship of the two events using passé composé and l'imparfait.

I hope that helps a bit.

-- Chris (not a native speaker).

Can you élaboration on the difference between using "en" + gerund versus l'imparfait and passé composèrent ?

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question from Week 91 level A2 test

It notified me that you were my electricity provider. The correct answer was Elle m'informait que vous étiez mon fournisseur d'électricité. Is this in the imperfect tense because it is a continuing action (still my provider) or because it is in the past tense but with no specific time frame? Thank you for your help.
Asked 1 year ago
On further searching, I think this is probably the answer: "Note that L'Imparfait is also the tense to express continuing actions in the past, or actions seen in their progression, with no clear beginning or end." I just didn't search far enough. Sorry.
AurélieKwiziq language super star
Bonjour Terri ! Yes, here the letter "was informing" the speaker, hence the use of L'Imparfait :) Bonne journée !

question from Week 91 level A2 test

It notified me that you were my electricity provider. The correct answer was Elle m'informait que vous étiez mon fournisseur d'électricité. Is this in the imperfect tense because it is a continuing action (still my provider) or because it is in the past tense but with no specific time frame? Thank you for your help.

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Rentrée is féminin, n’est-ce pas?

In the answer provided as correct “Je faisais le lit quand tu es rentrée.” Is there not an assumption the “tu” is referring to someone female?
Asked 1 year ago
Yes, you are correct. The answer given assumes that "tu" is a female person. Do you find anything wrong with that? -- Chris. (not a native speaker)
Only to the extent the "correct" answer was only "correct" IF the person referred to was female. The question was excellent save for a bit of detail.

Rentrée is féminin, n’est-ce pas?

In the answer provided as correct “Je faisais le lit quand tu es rentrée.” Is there not an assumption the “tu” is referring to someone female?

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From B1 test.Ç'est alors que Maxime a attrapé mon sac et š'est enfui en courant

Maxime is a girl / woman. Shouldn't the reflexive verb include an 'e' ..... et s'est enfui ... be ..... et s'est enfuie
Asked 2 years ago
AurélieKwiziq language super star
Bonjour William !

I'm sorry for the confusion here, but Maxime is a predominantly masculine name in French, so I didn't realise that it could be misleading :)

Could you let me know which week this B1 challenge came out, so I can add a hint to remove the ambiguity.

Merci et bonne journée !

From B1 test.Ç'est alors que Maxime a attrapé mon sac et š'est enfui en courant

Maxime is a girl / woman. Shouldn't the reflexive verb include an 'e' ..... et s'est enfui ... be ..... et s'est enfuie

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Indicative Past simple tense.

When would you use the past simple tense, as opposed to the passe compose or the imparfait?
Asked 2 years ago
Hi James, The passé simple is a literary tense. It is exactly equivalent to the passé composé but used in literature or journalism, that is the written word, rather than in conversation. When reading the main trick is to be able to recognise it, you can forget all about it when talking. It would only become necessary should you ever chose to write a novel in French!
Thanks Andy, It`s just that I saw it one of the tutorials- where I thought the passe compose should be used , and there was an audio attached. Should I find it I`ll mail it. James

Indicative Past simple tense.

When would you use the past simple tense, as opposed to the passe compose or the imparfait?

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How to write and pronounce 1815 in words

Asked 2 years ago
How to write and pronounce 1815 in words
AurélieKwiziq language super star
Bonjour Radhika ! There are two ways to pronounce years like this one in French: - mille huit cent quinze (like a normal number) or - dix huit cent quinze (eighteen hundred fifteen) À bientôt !

How to write and pronounce 1815 in words

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