There are several past tense options in French, including passé composé, imparfait, and plus que parfait. It’s generally easy for English speakers to know when the plus que parfait tense should be used (for example: “Before I arrived, she had already left [plus que parfait]”). Plus que parfait is the “past before the past” and is used almost identically in English.
What is not used identically in English are the imperfect and passé composé tenses. Some of their uses will instinctively make sense to most English speakers and some uses might not.
The general rule
Think of passé composé as a snapshot and imparfait as a video. In other words, if you imagine a certain action, could you capture it in fully in a picture? If you can, it is likely passé composé. However, if a photo would not fully encompass the duration of the action, it is likely to be imparfait.
When to use imparfait
As we explained in their respective lessons, the general rule is that imparfait is used for
- Setting a scene in the past
- Continual or ongoing actions in the past
- Describing how someone or something was or behaved in the past
Sometimes, just a basic past tense translation into English will be sufficient. If it a sentence describes how someone felt:
Example: Tim wanted to leave → Tim voulait partir
Other times (but not always), substituting “was” or “were” + VERB in English will be an accurate translation.
Example: She was singing → Elle chantait
Sometimes imparfait should be understood to have either the idea of something happening in general, or that the word “often” or a close synonym is implied in the sentence.
Example: He ran on Thursdays → Il courait le jeudi (note: le + [day of the week] is how habitual, weekly patterns are described in French)
Imparfait can also be used to describe something that “used to” happen but no longer does.
Example: We used to go to France → On allait en France.
When to use passé composé
The primary time passé composé should be used is to describe distinct, singular actions that occurred in the past.
Example: He swam yesterday → Il a nagé hier
Passé composé is also used when describing repeated actions in the past, if they occurred a set number of times.
Example: He ran ten times → Il a couru dix fois
If a specific time period is used to describe an event, or if it is a clearly one-time action that started and completed in the past, the verb should most likely be translated as passé composé.
Imparfait and passé composé patterns
A sentence that describes what was taking place when a distinct event occurred is a common imparfait + passé composé pattern. In other words, the event that was happening prior to the interruption is in imparfait, and the interrupting verb is in passé composé.
Example: I was cleaning when I heard a voice → Je nettoyais [passé composé] quand j’ai entendu [imparfait] une voix
Some verbs are more common in imparfait form, so if you have to guess on the tense of these verbs, the imperfect tense is more likely.
More common in imparfait: verbs of feeling, having, being, liking, hoping, knowing and thinking, among others.
Examples: sembler, avoir, être, aimer, espérer, savoir, penser, etc.
Making the call
The decision over which past tense form to use when speaking or writing is an especially difficult one for English speakers. You won’t get it right all the time unless you achieve fluency, and even then many non-native speakers still struggle.
Fortunately, using the incorrect tense will only rarely interfere with your ability to be understood by other French speakers, so we would suggest you make the best call that you can and move forward with your sentence.