The difficulty in French with the past tenses is they do not match any English past tenses, so how to know which tense is correct?
Have a look at this video and go to below for a QUIZ on line.
Clarification: Some readers of this website wrote to me about the correct translation of the verb “to visit” in French: please see at the end of this article.
Passé Composé vs Imparfait
Imparfait: this tense is for past actions or states expressing a length or a repetition which beginning and end are not known (also used for narration).
Here is a good representation of what the imparfait is (the orange arrow):
The imparfait is the answer to the question: what was going on?
The big blue arrow is for the passé composé:
Passé Composé: for actions or states limited in the past, the beginning, then end, the length are known. For this reason it is the answer to the question: what happened?
Even is the length is 24 hours, 1 week or 1 year, because you know the length, you use the passé composé.
Important: in our line of time, events describe with le passé composé are most of the time most recent that those describe with l’imparfait.
So, now, let’s take some examples:
let’s draw this sentence using our arrows: “when I was young I used to visit my Grandma”,
we have two parts “when I was young” and “I used to visit my Grandma“.
When I was young represents a period of time which beginning and end are not important and not very clear, so we are going to use our orange arrow for the imparfait.
I used to visit my Grandma, again it is a repeating action in the past but we don’t know how many times, there is no time indicators (like 1 day, 1 month, several times…), because the most important thing is not how many time, but the fact that I visited my Grandma, so we are going to use the imparfait again.
Here is the drawing of our sentence:
The green arrow is included in the orange one, of course because it occurred when I was young, this repeated action needs the imparfait in French because what is important here, it is not the time, it is the fact that I visited my Grandma.
So, the translation in French is: Quand j’étais jeune, je rendais visite à ma grand-mère (ou je visitais ma grand-mère)!
Let’s have a look at the new sentence: “when I was young I visited my Grandma several times”
You could say that it is a repeated action in the past, that’s right, but here we have an indicator of times, we know that it was “several times” and not a real habit, for this reason, we are not going to use the imparfait here, but the passé composé.
Let’s draw our sentence:
As, you can see, the best way to draw the second part of the sentence is using blue arrows, again, because of the time indicator: “several times”.
So, the translation in French is: Quand j’étais jeune, j’ai rendu visite à ma grand-mère plusieurs fois!
Another sentence, but now, I am sure you can translate it with no help:
“I was at the supermarket when I saw my friend”
You understand that for the first part “I was at the supermarket“, it is a state in the past, the beginning and the end are not known, so we need… the imparfait of course. “When I saw my friend“, you understand too, this is a very short period of time, it did not last a long while, so, we need… the passé composé and here is the drawing:
Of course, you will see some subtleties, the imparfait tense is also used in French when we narrate a long story, but for the moment, have a look to the video to see more examples and refresh what you have just read.
Let’s have a look at this sentence:
When Peter was young, he lived with his parents.
What tenses will you use in French?
For the first part, there is no problem, the imparfait but actually the translation of the second one depends on the meaning.
If you wan t to say that Peter spent all his times with his parents: the imparfait: Quand Peter était jeune, il vivait chez ses parents.
If you want to say that he was with his parents and emphasize this point: passé composé: Quand Peter était jeune, il a vécu chez ses parents.
(I noticed that some websites do not take into consideration this difference and force you to choose one tense when both are possible depending on the meaning)
To visit in French:
Some readers of this website wrote to me about the correct translation of the verb “to visit” in French stating that “visiter quelqu’un” is not correct and should be said “rendre visite à quelqu’un”. As I already wrote, both are correct!
According to a common tendency, some French people prefer to say “rendre visite” to someone and “visiter” something, making a difference between people and things, it is correct and can be used but “visiter” someone is also perfectly correct and this is the expression used in the video.
“Visiter” comes from the Latin verb to see and can be used like it, for this reason you can find in all French – French dictionaries that “visiter quelqu’un” or someone is correct: “Visiter des amis, des parents, sa famille; visiter qqn fréquemment, rarement, régulièrement.” TLF
I suggest to advanced learners and French speakers to have a look at the excellent tool on line “le Trésor de la Langue française” about this verb.
There is another way to say it with the expression: aller voir quelqu’un.
Some expressions express a duration so may be used with the imparfait:
souvent, d’habitude, autrefois, en général, tous les jours, chaque jour/ mois/ année, le lundi
Some verbs too:
Savoir, penser, créer
Je savais que tu ne viendrais pas (something told me that you would not come)
J’ai su que tu ne viendrais pas (because someone told me)
Sometimes, without the context or depending on what you want to say both tenses are possible, and that’s a difficulty when you want to fill a quiz, because many I saw online are wrong.
Quand j’étais jeune, j’allais au supermarché du coin
Quand j’étais jeune, je suis allé au supermarché du coin
You may think that the first part of the sentence requires the imperfect also in the second part! (As explained above)
Well, it depends on what you want to say. If it was an habit to go to the local supermarket, the imparfait is correct: j’allais au supermarché du coin. But if you want just to mention you went to this supermarket and may be just once, le passé composé is perfectly correct: je suis allé au supermarché.
Tous les jours, il a mangé du chocolat en cachette (secretly)
Tous les jours, il mangeait du chocolat en cachette
The first sentence emphasises that he ate chocolate , the second that it was an habit. Comparing the two sentences, we understand that the first sentence took place in a recent past, the second on the other hand seems like the story of his childhood. You could add “la semaine dernière” to the first one but not to the second sentence.
Quand les enfants ont vu leur père, ils ont eu peur
Quand les enfant voyaient leur peur, ils avaient peur
In the first sentence, the event occurred once. In the second it is a repeated action.
I have washed the car for 20 minutes
You may think that 20 minutes is a duration, but here we use le passé composé: j’ai lavé la voiture pendant 20 minutes
(when the duration is well defined, we don´t use l’imparfait)
Quiz Imparfait vs Passé Composé
Image of imparfait vs passé composé