When to use "devoir" in L'Imparfait or Le Passé Composé

The verb devoir usually means must / to have to (see Conjugate devoir in Le Présent (present tense)).

However, in past context, its meaning changes depending on whether you use Passé composé or Imparfait.

Devoir in ImparfaitI was supposed to [do]

Il devait me rappeler, mais il a oublié !
He was supposed to call me back, but he forgot!

Ils devaient venir ce soir, mais ils ont annulé à la dernière minute.
They were supposed to come tonight, but they cancelled at the last minute.

Nous devions nous rejoindre à 17h. Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé ?
We were supposed to meet at 5pm. What happened ?

Maintenant que ses parents n'étaient plus là, elle devait s'occuper de sa sœur.
Now that her parents were gone, she had to take care of her sister.

-> Here we don't know if she fulfilled that obligation.

When conjugated in Imparfaitdevoir refers to a past obligation, without specifying whether it was met or not.
Actually, in most cases, the obligation was not met.

To conjugate devoir in Imparfait, see Conjugate regular verbs in L'Imparfait (imperfect tense)

Devoir in Passé composéI had to [do] / I must have [done]

Il est parti tôt, donc j'ai dû faire la lessive moi-même.
He left early, so I had to do the laundry myself.

Nous étions en retard, donc nous avons dû appeler un taxi.
We were late, so we had to call a taxi.

Il a dû le laisser là pour toi.
He must have left it there for you.

J'ai trouvé l'écharpe de Sophie. Elle a dû l'oublier.
I found Sophie's scarf. She must have forgotten it.

When conjugated in Passé composédevoir can either refer to:
- a past obligation that was met.
or
- the likeliness of an action having taken place, a hypothesis on a past situation.

To conjugate devoir in Passé composé, see Conjugate voir, devoir, pouvoir, boire, croire, savoir, lire, taire (+ avoir) in Le Passé Composé (conversational past)

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

Nous devions nous rejoindre à 17h. Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé ?
We were supposed to meet at 5pm. What happened ?


Il a dû le laisser là pour toi.
He must have left it there for you.


Nous étions en retard, donc nous avons dû appeler un taxi.
We were late, so we had to call a taxi.


Il devait me rappeler, mais il a oublié !
He was supposed to call me back, but he forgot!


J'ai trouvé l'écharpe de Sophie. Elle a dû l'oublier.
I found Sophie's scarf. She must have forgotten it.


Ils devaient venir ce soir, mais ils ont annulé à la dernière minute.
They were supposed to come tonight, but they cancelled at the last minute.


Maintenant que ses parents n'étaient plus là, elle devait s'occuper de sa sœur.
Now that her parents were gone, she had to take care of her sister.


Il est parti tôt, donc j'ai dû faire la lessive moi-même.
He left early, so I had to do the laundry myself.


Q&A Forum 5 questions, 7 answers

JoanneB2Kwiziq community member

de retard vs. du retard

Although this was an exercise about using "devoir", I didn't understand how it expressed "to be late," which was son train a eu du retard Shouldn't it be "de retard" not "du retard?"

Asked 2 months ago
CécileKwiziq team memberCorrect answer

Hi Joanne,

The expression is -

‘Avoir du retard’ = To be late /delayed

L’avion que nous attendons a du retard = The plane we are waiting for is late/delayed 

J’ai beaucoup de retard il faut que je me dépêche = I am very late I must hurry

Hope this helps!

de retard vs. du retard

Although this was an exercise about using "devoir", I didn't understand how it expressed "to be late," which was son train a eu du retard Shouldn't it be "de retard" not "du retard?"

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TedC1Kwiziq community member

l'imparfait de devoir

I am assuming that "was supposed to" and "ought to have" are the same: "he ought to have reminded me"/"he was supposed to remind me" = "il devrait me rappeler".

Asked 3 months ago
CécileKwiziq team memberCorrect answer

Hi Ted,

'was supposed' would use devoir in the imparfait as it is the past -

Il devait me contacter mais ne l'a pas fait = He was supposed to contact me but didn't do it

Il devait me rappeler He was supposed to remind me /to call me back

'ought to' would use devoir in the conditional ( something that should happen)

Elle devrait aller voir ses parents plus souvent = She ought to go and visit her parents more often

'ought to have' would use devoir in the conditional past (something that should have happened but it's in the past so won't happen now)

Ils auraient dû me demander de les aider They ought to have asked me to help them

Three different ideas and three different tenses, same verb.

But very good question!

Hope this helps!

l'imparfait de devoir

I am assuming that "was supposed to" and "ought to have" are the same: "he ought to have reminded me"/"he was supposed to remind me" = "il devrait me rappeler".

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William C1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

A Supplementary Question

I know that the exercise is about conjugating "devoir" but the second clause is unusual.

You were supposed to go and see her, but something came up. Will there be an separate exercise for this construction?

 ".... but something came up"   .... " ..... mais tu as eu un empéchement"

Asked 8 months ago
CécileKwiziq team memberCorrect answer

Hi William,

'Avoir un empêchement' means to, have an obstruction, hindrance that stopped you doing something ...

So it can be translated in English by

' to have an emergency''to be unable to do something', or 'something came up' as in the example you quote.

Hope this helps!

 

William C1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Is "mais elle a eu un empéchement" also possible here? 

CécileKwiziq team member

Tout à fait, William ...

A Supplementary Question

I know that the exercise is about conjugating "devoir" but the second clause is unusual.

You were supposed to go and see her, but something came up. Will there be an separate exercise for this construction?

 ".... but something came up"   .... " ..... mais tu as eu un empéchement"

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AnnC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

The way I understand devoir, it can mean inevitability in the imparfait such as Il eva it perdre un jour. in the test question, the answer for she had

to replace him was "Elle a dû" vs if it was inevitable, shouldn't "Elle devait" be correct as well?

Asked 9 months ago
ChrisC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor

Elle a dû le remplacer. -- She had to replace him.Elle devait le remplacer. -- She was supposed to replace him.

AnnC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

From the thought co: You can also use devoir to express fatalism or the fact that something is inevitable:

Il devait perdre un jour. > He had to / was bound to lose one day. Elle ne devait pas l'entendre avant lundi. > She wasn't to hear it until Monday.

The way I understand devoir, it can mean inevitability in the imparfait such as Il eva it perdre un jour. in the test question, the answer for she had

to replace him was "Elle a dû" vs if it was inevitable, shouldn't "Elle devait" be correct as well?

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BillC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

New lesson

Great lesson but didn’t see it til I failed a test question:(. Is there a way to find new lessons easily if one has already gotten 100% on all existing lessons? Merci

Asked 10 months ago

New lesson

Great lesson but didn’t see it til I failed a test question:(. Is there a way to find new lessons easily if one has already gotten 100% on all existing lessons? Merci

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