L’imparfait et le passé composé: the difference between the two tenses

In this article , we are going to get to know the difference between two tenses which are mainly used to express actions in the past .

Let’s start by explaining each tense separately :


The imperfect is  a tense of the past ,it expresses a fact or an action which has already taken place at the time we are speaking, which has lasted a certain time or which has been regularly repeated.

Here’s an example :

Tous les soirs , il fermait les volets which means that every evening he closed the shutters, we notice the imperfect  is actually used in a consequential way for the expression ‘’ Tous les soirs ‘’ .

It is  often used to describe a scene, a landscape…such as :

Le soleil descendait derrière la montagne , les neiges éternelles flamboyaient de mille feux which means the sun was going down behind the mountain, the eternal snows were blazing with a thousand lights.

Physical or psychological description of a person, description of an attitude.

Examples: He was tall and wore a hat.

The imperfect is also used for an action in progress in the past and which is interrupted by another action.

Example: Je lisais le dossier quand mon client est arrivé (I was reading the file when my client has arrived).

Le passé composé

Now , let’s move to the past tense  which is used to  express an action that  has already taken place at the time of speaking, or else an action which has started but not yet finished.

For example : 

Il est parti en vacances en Espagne   (  He went on vacation to Spain) , here the past tense was used to express an action which has started but not yet finished .

En 1991, John est né ( John was born on 1991) , here the past tense  is used for action which has already taken place at the time of speaking , this tense is actually used with each and every anterior date such as this example .

The imperfect versus the past tense:

In general, we use the imperfect  to evoke memories:

Example: Quand j’étais jeune, je jouais au hockey(When I was young, I played hockey).

 We also use the  imperfect for descriptions and situations while the past tense  is  for completed events.

In general, we use the past tense  to tell an event:

Example: L’année dernière, j’ai parlé au premier ministre du Canada( Last year I spoke to the Prime Minister of Canada).

The past tense sums up the action, the imperfect  develops the action:

We use the past tense  with a defined duration (with a beginning and an end) and

The imperfect with an indefinite duration.

Example :

 De 1997 à 2001, j’ai travaillé au Nouveau-Brunswick (From 1997 to 2001, I worked at New Brunswick) , the duration in this sentence is defined .

Avant, je travaillais au NouveauBrunswick (I used to work in New Brunswick) , in this one we actually ignore the end point of the action thus the duration is indefinite.

Conjugation :

In regards of the conjugation , each of these tenses has its own and unique conjugation.

For the past tense, the general rule is : 

“To have” in the present tense + past participle of the verb.

Examples: J’ai parlé(I spoke), j’ai fait(I did), j’ai dit( I said), j’ai lu( I read), etc.

Attention : some verbs are conjugated with “to be” instead of “to have” such as “to go, to leave, to go out,come in, go back “when they don’t have by the direct object complement:

 Je suis allé(I went), je suis retourné chez moi (I  returned home).

 Reflexive verbs such as :

 Je me suis levé ( I got up).

 je me suis brossé les dents( I brushed my teeth).

While for the imperfect we take the verb conjugated with ‘’ I’’of  the present tense and we

Add  the imperfect endings  (AIS, AIS, AIT, IONS, IEZ, AIENT)

 Je fais ( I do ) 

Je faisais ( i did )

Tu faisais ( You did).

Nous faisions (We did) .

Exceptions take place in this tense such as the verb to be and the verbe to have:

J’étais (i was )

J’avais ( i had)

Similarly to english , in french  we do have regular and non regular verbs , regular verbs take one rule for their conjugation and we don’t have to learn them by heart , once we have the good structure  we are good to go , whereas for non regular verbs we do for sure have to learn them by heart because they make the exception and there is no way for a general rule for these verbs .

Time indicators :

Now , here are some expressions used with the two tenses , let’s start with the past tense :


 Hier soir(Last night)

 Hier après-midi (Yesterday afternoon)

 La semaine dernière (Last week)

Avant-hier(The day before yesterday)

 Il y a deux ans (Two years ago)

L’année dernière(Last year) 

Jusqu’à maintenant(Until now)

Il y a quelque temps(Sometime ago)

Whereas , we use these expressions for the imperfect  :


 Pendant que (While)


 Tous les soirs (Every evening)




 Tous les jours (Everyday)

Auparavant (Before)

As previously mentioned these two different tenses are mainly used to express actions in the past , the only difference remains in their conjugations depending on time indicators as the expressions  above .

We hope that  you now understand the small difference between the two tenses. In this article, we’ve tried to make grammar times simpler for you. However, if you don’t understand this concept, and still have doubts, you can always take a lesson with us online.

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