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 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


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.


Q&A

Sandra

Kwiziq community member

2 September 2018

1 reply

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.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

4 September 2018

4/09/18

Merci Sandra !

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

Bonne journée!

Marnie

Kwiziq community member

16 August 2018

3 replies

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?

Cécile

Kwiziq language super star

22 August 2018

22/08/18

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!

Marnie

Kwiziq community member

24 August 2018

24/08/18

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.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

28 August 2018

28/08/18

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 !

Donald

Kwiziq community member

17 July 2018

2 replies

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.

Chris

Kwiziq community member

19 July 2018

19/07/18

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).

Donald

Kwiziq community member

19 July 2018

19/07/18

Merci Chris.

Ann

Kwiziq community member

6 June 2018

1 reply

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.

Chris

Kwiziq community member

7 June 2018

7/06/18

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)

Robert

Kwiziq community member

3 April 2018

1 reply

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

Gruff

Kwiziq language super star

14 April 2018

14/04/18

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?

Robert

Kwiziq community member

3 April 2018

1 reply

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

Chris

Kwiziq community member

3 April 2018

3/04/18

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).

Terri

Kwiziq community member

12 January 2018

2 replies

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.

Terri

Kwiziq community member

12 January 2018

12/01/18

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.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

15 January 2018

15/01/18

Bonjour Terri ! Yes, here the letter "was informing" the speaker, hence the use of L'Imparfait :) Bonne journée !

Robert

Kwiziq community member

24 October 2017

2 replies

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?

Chris

Kwiziq community member

24 October 2017

24/10/17

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)

Robert

Kwiziq community member

25 October 2017

25/10/17

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.

William

Kwiziq community member

29 June 2017

1 reply

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

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

29 June 2017

29/06/17

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 !

James

Kwiziq community member

25 June 2017

2 replies

Indicative Past simple tense.

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

Andy

Kwiziq community member

25 June 2017

25/06/17

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!

James

Kwiziq community member

26 June 2017

26/06/17

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
Let me take a look at that...