French Grammar : Passé Composé vs. Imperfect Tense

French Grammar : Passé Composé vs. Imperfect Tenses

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French Grammar: Passé Composé vs. Imperfect Tense
la grammaire française: le passé composé versus l’imparfait

Hier, nous dînions quand Jean a téléphoné.
Yesterday we were having dinner when Jean phoned.

Je me suis levé, je me suis habillé, et j’ai pris le petit déjeuner.
I got up, got dressed and ate breakfast.

Ils étaient fatigués.
They (masculine) were tired.

Il était huit heures.
It was 8:00.

When speaking about the past in English, you choose which past tense to use depending on the context and the meaning you wish to convey. In French sentences, you choose which past tense you use depending on the meaning you wish to convey.


You already know how to conjugate the Passé Composé and Imperfect (l’Imparfait) tenses in French. The use of them depends on what kind of meaning you wish to convey. The choice depends on your perspective: how do you view the action or state of being?

The basic uses of the Passé Composé and Imperfect tenses are summarized in this chart:

Passé Composé Imperfect
Completed actions or events Ongoing or continuous actions or events in the past
Actions or events that occurred for a specific length of time or for a specific number of times Actions or events in progress in the past
Sequencing past events to advance the storyline of a narrative Descriptions of people, things, or a physical/mental state of mind in the past
 Actions or events that interrupt other actions or events already in progress Telling the day / month  / or time of day in the past
 “Key Words and Expressions” associated with past time:
hier, avant-hier, la semaine passée, une fois, finalement…
Telling Age (with AVOIR) in the past
 … “Key Adverbial Expressions” that imply repetition over past time:
d’habitude, toujours, fréquemment, de temps en temps, chaque jour

The Passé Composé and Imperfect Tenses often occur in the same sentence. The Imperfect is used to express a past action or event that was happening when another action or event – expressed in the Passé Composé – interrupted it.

Marc étudiait quand je suis arrivé.
Marc was studying when I arrived.

The Passé Composé and Imperfect Tenses are also used together in the narration of an event or story. The Passé Composé is used to sequence actions or events that advance the storyline; the Imperfect is used to set the stage for those actions or events, to describe the background or conditions under which those actions or events took place, or to emphasize the continuing nature of a particular action or event.

Il était huit heures et il pleuvait. Madeleine a pris son parapluie et est sortie en courant.
It was eight o’clock and it was raining. Madeleine grabbed her umbrella and ran out the door.


Je pleurais beaucoup.
I used to cry a lot.

J’ai pleuré hier soir.
I cried last night.

Olivier a mangé beaucoup parce qu’il avait beaucoup faim.
Olivier ate a lot because he was very hungry.

Tout le monde dansait à la fête.
Everyone was dancing at the party.

Suzanne a coupé le gâteau et elle l’a servi aux invités.
Sandra cut the cake and served it to the guests.

Il était minuit et il y avait du tonnerre.
It was midnight and it was thundering.

Il écoutait pendant qu’elle parlait.
He listened while she spoke.

Tout le monde s’amusait à la fête quand la police est arrivée.
Everyone was having fun at the party when the police arrived.


  • LEAF French Verb Conjugation Chart: [-AR] Verb Endings
  • LEAF French Verb Conjugation Chart: [-ER] Verb Endings
  • LEAF French Verb Conjugation Chart: [-IR] Verb Endings