Difference between “Le Passé Composé” and “L’Imparfait”
For those of you just starting to learn French, “Passé Composé” and “Imparfait” may still sound like pretty names of birds or of cute little pets. For others who’ve been studying French for a while, the nightmare has already been unveiled…
So what are the “Composed Past” and the “Imperfect” – not so sexy when translated into English and brought back to a dramatic grammatical reality… Oh well… Passé Composé and Imparfait are the two major tenses used to talk about past events in French. In English you guys deal with different animals called Preterit, Present Perfect or Past Continuous. Well, to be able to say what you did yesterday in French, you gotta embrace a new logic!
In linguistics (please don’t panic when you hear this word!!), we say that the Passé Composé is used for narratives. Most grammatical books will express the idea in a simplified way by saying that it corresponds to punctual actions in the past. Let’s take an example:
Ex. Hier matin, Fred est allé chez Eric. Ils ont parlé et puis Fred est reparti. - Yesterday morning, Fred went to Eric’s. They talked and then Fred left again.
Here we’re dealing with a series of punctual actions that happened one after another, in the past – notice the use of “hier matin” as an indication of something punctual.
As for the Imparfait, in linguistics (yes, again!) we say that it is used for commentaries in the past. Again, grammatical books will simplify the idea by saying that the Imparfait is used for descriptions, to set the background of a past story, to give the time in the past, to express repetitive actions in the past or actions that lasted a while. Examples:
Ex. Quand les oiseaux chantaient, je parlais aux inconnus et je riais. (habit in the past) – When the birds were singing, I would talk to strangers and laugh.
Il était quatre heures, et il regardait encore les voitures. (time/background story) – It was four o’clock and he was still looking at the cars.
Avant, Chloë faisait la fête tous les jours. (repetitive action in the past) – Before, Chloe would party every day.
Elle portait une robe qui lui allait très mal. (description in the past) – She was wearing a dress that fitted her very badly.
Now let’s have a look at a sentence mixing both beasts, and let’s see what happens:
The Imparfait establishes what was going on when the Passé Composé action interrupted the Imparfait action. Yep, the two tenses fight for the spotlights sometimes! Just make sure to pick the one that will make your sentence shine with grammatical perfection!
A plus et bon français à tous!