Categories: French tenses

Imparfait vs Passé Composé

Comparaison: Imparfait vs Passé Composé

I was tired may be translated by J’étais fatigué or J’ai été fatigué depending on the context and what you want to say.
How to know which one we can use?

J’étais fatigué expresses a duration, an undetermined period of time.
J’ai été fatigué, here you don’t mind about the duration, you want people to know how tired you were.

Undetermined timing:
I was at school  J’étais à l’école (the beginning and the end are not specified, you are just describing a fact)
J’ai été à l’école (you don’t insist on the period of time, but on the fact you were at school and now you are not), usually along with a word like yesterday, last week…

I loved Paris  J’aimais Paris (a long time ago but it still may be true)
J’ai aimé Paris (but now no!)

Repeated action:
I used to visit my grand-mother every day J’allais voir ma grand-mère tous les jours (a long time ago)
Je suis allé voir ma grand-mère tous les jours (last week)
Here, the difference comes from when the event took place, recently or not.

1. Expressions usually requiring the imparfait

Tous les jours, tous les matins: every day, every morning  Tous les jours j’allais à la plage
Chaque jour, chaque matin, chaque mois: each day, each morning, each month  Chaque jour nous achetions une baguette
Le lundi, le mardi: on Mondays, on Tuesdays  Le lundi, on allait faire du sport.
En général, généralement, d’habitude: in general, usually  En général, je me levais tard
Autrefois, à l’époque: in the past, long ago, at the time  Autrefois, c’était facile
Toujours, souvent: always, often  J’étais toujours malade.
Rarement: rarely  J’allais rarement au cinéma
De temps en temps: from time to time  De temps en temps, nous allions au cinéma

Who was it? (after a phone call): C’était qui ? or Qui était-ce ?

2. Expressions usually requiring the passé composé

Un jour, un matin, un soir: one day, one morning, one evening  Un jour, il est rentré très tard.
Soudain, brusquement, brutalement: suddenly, abruptly, brusquely  Soudain, il s’est mis en colère
Tout d’un coup, tout à coup: all of a sudden, suddenly  Tout d’un coup, le meuble est tombé
Tout de suite, immédiatement: right away, immediately  Il a couru tout de suite vers lui.
D’abord, enfin, finalement: first of all, finally  D’abord, j’ai descendu le meuble
Puis, ensuite: then, next  Puis je suis allé me rafraîchir.

Some verbs according to their meaning, for example TO DECIDE, if you don’t take hours to decide something, for a past event, we will use le passé composé, j’ai décidé que…. It can depend on the context.
I studied French: if you want to insist on French, you will use the passé composé, j’ai étudié le français quand j’étais jeune.
But for a repeated action, j’étais le français tous les jours.

3. Date and Time: imparfait

It was January 10th: C’était le 10 janvier
We were on February 15: Nous étions le 15 février

It was noon: il était midi
It was 3.30 pm: il était 15 heures 30

4. Description

C’était une belle journée de printemps (you are describing a far past event)
Ça été une belle journée (but now the day is finished)
Describing things that won’t change: imparfait
Mountains for example, they were big and are still big so
C’était très grand, elles étaient très grandes
Marseille (a city), c’était beau (and it is still beautiful, you use the imparfait because you are not in Marseille right now)

Weather with the verb Faire:
Il faisait beau (the weather was nice) or Il a fait beau, both are correct, the first sentence with the imparfait expresses a duration, the second one with the passé composé emphasize the word Nice!

5. Both are possible

Tu es venu quand je suis parti or tu es venu quand je partais
Tu venais quand je suis parti or tu venais quand je partais

Pour Pierre, c’était un peu difficile or pour Pierre, ça a été un peu difficile

When I was 20 (several months), I used to live in Paris: Quand j’avais 20 ans, je vivais à Paris.
When I turned 20 (just at this age), I moved to Paris: Quand j’ai eu 20 ans, j’ai déménagé à Paris.

He wanted some apples, but there were no one left: Il voulait des pommes (Il a voulu des pommes), mais il n’y en avait plus (we imagine that this situation lasted a while so imparfait)


I had(1) a terrible weekend! On Saturday I was(2) so tired that I slept(3) all morning. When I woke(4) up I had(5) a head ache and my throat was(6) sore. My body ached(7) all over. My nose ran(8) and I coughed(9) a lot. My mother took(10) my temperature but I did not have(11) a fever.


Last night I went(1) to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was(2) a beautiful summer evening. It was(3) warm and sunny. Lots of people were(4) there because of the Tower. I stood(5) and watched(6) the crowd.

Pascal Dherve

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