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Perfect vs. Imperfect Tense in French: A Beginner’s Guide

This article explores key differences and uses of Passé Composé vs. Imparfait (perfect vs. imperfect tense) in the French language, complete with detailed explanations and examples.

Imagine a painter choosing between a broad brush and a fine-tipped one. The broad strokes capture the expansive mood, setting, and background, while the detailed strokes zoom in on specific events and actions. Imparfait and Passé Composé function similarly, with the former casting an overarching storyline and the latter honing in on particular moments.

But how exactly do you navigate between these two past tenses as a language learner? What situations call for the use of each? And what are the rules and patterns that dictate their formation?

Let’s unpack this together in this beginner-friendly guide.

French past tense 1: How to form the Imparfait

French grammar can get pretty complicated, and one area that exemplifies this complexity is the construction of Imparfait. But don’t worry, we can make it easier by focusing on the common regular formations and an important irregular verb, être (to be).

Conjugating regular verbs in the Imparfait

What makes forming the Imparfait tricky are the different French verb forms. Regular verb conjugations, for instance, are based on the verb stem of the first-person plural (nous).

From there, specific Imparfait endings are added. These endings are -ais, -ais, -ait in singular and -ions, -iez, -aient in plural.

Here’s a simple breakdown of the verb parler (to speak):

  • Je parlais (I was speaking)
  • Tu parlais (you were speaking)
  • Il/elle/on parlait (he/she/one was speaking)
  • Nous parlions (we were speaking)
  • Vous parliez (you were speaking)
  • Ils/elles parlaient (they were speaking)

Conjugating être in the Imparfait

If we followed the same logic for the verb être, you’d soon find yourself at a dead-end. Être is the exception to the rule. It has its unique stem (ét-) for the Imparfait. Here’s how it works:

Nous sommes (we are) → irregular stem ét- based on the infinitive + Imparfait endings

  • J’étais (I was)
  • Tu étais (you were)
  • Il/elle/on était (he/she/one was)
  • Nous étions (we were)
  • Vous étiez (you were)
  • Ils/elles étaient (they were)

Curious about other verb types in the Imparfait? We recommend these guides on -ir verbs and -re verbs for further reading.

Perfect vs. Imperfect Tense in French

French past tense 2: How to form the Passé Composé

The second French past tense is the Passé Composé. Its name in English, “Compound Past,” hints at its similarity to the English Present Perfect. However, it’s essential to remember that, just as with the Imparfait, which is comparable to Simple Past or Imperfect, its usage doesn’t mirror its English counterpart.

Compare:

  • J’ai parlé (Passé Composé) vs. I have spoken (Present Perfect)
  • Je parlais (Imparfait) vs. I spoke (Past/Imperfect)

But before considering the practical differences, let’s look at how to form the French Passé Composé in more detail:

As a compound tense, Passé Composé consists of two parts: auxiliary verb avoir or être + past participle.

The auxiliary verb changes depending on the pronoun, while past participles come in different forms depending on the verb type. Here, the most important endings to remember are: for -er verbs like parler (to speak), -i for -ir verbs like finir (to finish), and -u for -re verbs like perdre (to lose).

Passé Composé with avoir

The majority of French verbs use avoir as their auxiliary in the Passé Composé. The conjugation of avoir changes with the subject, and then you add the past participle of the main verb.

Let’s use the verb manger (to eat) as an example:

  • J’ai mangé (I have eaten)
  • Tu as mangé (you have eaten)
  • Il/elle/on a mangé (he/she/one has eaten)
  • Nous avons mangé (we have eaten)
  • Vous avez mangé (you have eaten)
  • Ils/elles ont mangé (they have eaten)

Passé Composé with être

For a select group of verbs, mainly motion verbs like aller (to go) and reflexive verbs like se rencontrer (to meet), the auxiliary verb is être. Again, the auxiliary changes with the subject, followed by the past participle of the verb. Using aller (to go) as our illustration:

  • Je suis allé(e) (I have gone)
  • Tu es allé(e) (you have gone)
  • Il est allé / elle est allée / on est allé (he has gone / she has gone / one has gone)
  • Nous sommes allé(e)s (we have gone)
  • Vous êtes allé(e)(s) (you have gone)
  • Ils sont allés / elles sont allées (they have gone)

Note: The e and s in brackets indicate that the verb changes depending on the gender (e for feminine) and number (s for plural) of the subject. This only applies to verbs that are formed with être.

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Key differences in practical application: Perfect vs. Imperfect Tense

Knowing how to form the two French tenses is one thing, but understanding when to use each of them in a sentence is another. But to sound like a local, that’s precisely what you need to do.

So, let’s move on to the question of practical application with a focus on three main use cases.

1. Background vs. events

When narrating stories, it’s essential to differentiate between setting the stage and describing specific actions. While the Imparfait provides the context (like the weather or ongoing activities), the Passé Composé pinpoints precise events. Think of it this way: Imparfait paints the scenery, while passé composé highlights the main action, such as a character’s significant movement or a surprising twist in the plot.

Examples:

  • Imparfait: Il faisait noir dehors. (It was dark outside.)
  • Passé Composé: Elle est tombée et s’est cassé le bras. (She fell and broke her arm.)

2. Incomplete vs. complete

The Imparfait is your go-to tense for actions that lack a clear beginning or end – like routines or continual states. For instance, describing how French learners frequently practised, Imparfait would be the choice. Conversely, Passé Composé underlines actions that started and finished, like a family vacation.

Examples:

  • Imparfait: Je pratiquais le français tout le temps. (I practised French all the time.)
  • Passé Composé: Nous sommes partis en vacances à Paris l’été dernier. (We went on vacation to Paris.)

3. Both in the same sentence

The two tenses can also be used in the same sentence. In these cases, the Imparfait typically describes an ongoing backdrop, while the Passé Composé highlights a specific event.

Elle chantait sous la douche quand le téléphone a sonné. (She was singing in the shower when the phone rang.)

Expressions used with the perfect vs. imperfect tense

Another way to differentiate these two tenses is through specific terms and phrases. Imparfait is often used with expressions of frequency, repetition, and continuity, while Passé Composé tends to be used with expressions of change and conclusion.

Although exceptions are always possible, the following lists are a good rule of thumb:

Expressions using Imparfait

  • Toujours (always)
  • Souvent (often)
  • De temps en temps (from time to time)
  • Chaque jour/semaine/année (every day/week/year)
  • Rarement (rarely, seldom)

Expressions using Passé Composé

  • Déjà (already)
  • Soudain (suddenly)
  • Tout à coup (all of a sudden)
  • Tout de suite (right away)
  • Puis (then)

From past to present: Learn French with Cactus today

Are you now fully understanding of the perfect vs. imperfect tense? Want to learn more about French grammar and achieve fluency in the language? If so, check out our online courses taught by seasoned professionals. Using a proven learning method, you’ll experience tangible progress from the comfort of your home.

Additionally, for those who prefer an in-person touch, we offer face-to-face courses in cities like London, Brighton, Manchester, and Edinburgh. Take the next step in your learning journey with Cactus today. A bientôt!

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Dr. Anneke Schmidt is the founder of Skill & Care Content Solutions. She is an experienced content writer, editor, and educator with a demonstrated history of working in the research industry. Her main specialisms are Social Sciences and Education, with a particular focus on e-learning and professional development.

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