How to Know Which Past Tense to Use in French: Passé composé vs imparfait vs passé simple

Let’s say your friend has been to France recently. How can you talk about it in French? First, you need a tense for the past. But there are many you could use! Such as:

  • L’imparfait : Elle allait en France.
  • Le passé composé : Elle est allée en France.
  • Le passé simple : Elle alla en France.
  • Le passé récent : Elle vient d’aller en France.

Which one should you use?

Well, it depends on the situation, but some of these are more correct than others.

Let’s dive in.

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1) Le passé récent

Le passé récent (= “recent past”) is using Venir de (+ infinitif).

We use it a lot, especially in spoken French. It’s used for “I just did something.”

Je viens de marcher. = I just walked. / I just finished walking. / I was walking a few moments ago…

It’s not slang or really colloquial, either. I made a whole lesson on it:

Click here to learn more: Using “Venir de” in French

2) Le passé simple

Le passé simple (= “simple past”) only really appears in written French.

This past tense is actually far from simple. You know, it’s like:

  • “Nous fûmes” (= We were,)
  • “Vous fîtes.” (= You did,)
  • “Ils purent” (= They could)…

This tense is NEVER used in modern spoken French.
You might still find it in books (especially old novels), songs, poetry or in period pieces. (And you might enjoy learning “passé simple” to understand them.) But they’re either old or poetic or formal.

So basically, you won’t need to use it.

3) L’imparfait

L’imparfait (= imperfect tense) is very widely used in modern French. It works alongside the passé composé that we’ll see below.

L’imparfait = habits (“used to”) or long actions in the past (“was + -ing”)

For instance:
Je marchais = “I was walking” or “I used to walk.”

I made a whole lesson on this tense, by the way.

Click here to learn more: L’imparfait: When and how to use it in everyday French

Before diving into other examples, here’s the conjugation:

Imparfait = root of the verb + sound “ay” [“è”] (except for “nous” and “vous”)

  • Je marchais. = I was walking / I used to walk.
  • Tu marchais. = You were walking. / You used to walk.
  • Elle marchait. = She was walking. / She used to walk…
  • Nous marchions. = We were walking
  • Vous marchiez. = You were walking.
  • Elles marchaient. = They were walking.

Actually, amazingly for a French conjugation, the endings are the same for all verbs!

Je → – ais Nous → – ions
Tu → – ais Vous → – iez
Il / Elle → – ait Ils / Elles → -aient

You can also translate a progressive tense (“be + -ing”) with “être en train de + infinitif” (= “being in the middle of”).
J’étais en train de marcher. = I was (in the middle of) walking.
Elle est en train de manger. = She is (in the middle of) eating.

4) Le passé composé (and “l’imparfait” again)

Finally, le passé composé (= “compound past”) is built with “être” or “avoir” in the present, and a past participle.

For instance: J’ai mangé = I ate. → J’ai (= I have) + mangé (= eaten)

It’s used for specific actions, taking place at a precise time.

But really, think of it as the English simple past, and present perfect.

J’ai vécu en France en 2012 = I lived / I’ve lived in France in 2012.

Meanwhile, l’imparfait is more like the progressive past / continuous past.

En 2012, je vivais en France. = In 2012, I was living in France.

That’s the main technique you can use to quickly decide whether to use the passé composé or l’imparfait.

Both tenses are very common in both written and especially spoken French.

Je suis allée en France. = I went to France.
(“Je suis” = I am, “allée” = gone)

J’ai acheté un souvenir. = I bought a souvenir.
(“J’ai” = I have, “acheté” = bought)

It’s not that hard, especially since it’s so close to the present perfect in its construction. But it can be intimidating. French schoolchildren can take a long time to master this tense, when we first learn about it!

Next week, you’ll get a full lesson on the passé composé, its conjugation, exceptions and special cases.

5) Going deeper: Passé composé or imparfait ?

In detail now, we use le passé composé for past actions or events with a definite starting point, and/or ending point. Even if it’s not explicitly mentioned.

Nous sommes partis en vacances. = We went on holidays.
There was a day where we packed our bags and left our home to go there.

J’ai commencé à apprendre le français au collège. = I started to learn French in middle school.

Sometimes, le passé composé is used to cut a longer action in l’imparfait, especially with quand (= when) :

Je dormais quand tu as appelé. = I was sleeping when you called.
Quand elle a commencé, elle était optimiste. = When she started, she was optimistic. (= “…She was being optimistic.”)

Meanwhile, there’s an ambiguity over long actions in the past. It usually comes in l’imparfait, but it can also be passé composé, depending on intent:

J’écoutais beaucoup cette chanson en 2004. = I was listening to that song a lot in 2004. (= I was a big fan back then.)
J’ai beaucoup écouté cette chanson en 2004. = I listened to that song a lot in 2004. (= So much that now I’m done with it, now it’s done.)

Or:
Il y a deux ans, tu allais en France. = Two years ago, you were going to France. (= Exactly two years ago, you were on your way between here and France, remember?)
Il y a deux ans, tu es allé en France. = You went to France two years ago. (= Now it’s done, but that happened at that time.)

The explanation is complex, but it doesn’t really matter: think about it the same way you think about “went” vs “was going.

I made a whole lesson on this topic, a long time ago:
Click here to learn more: How to Choose a Past Tense in French

6) The extra mile : plus-que-parfait, imparfait du subjonctif

Le plus-que-parfait (literally “more than perfect”!) has a strange and poetic name, but it’s not that complex. Basically, it’s:
“Être” / “avoir” in the imperfect + past participle
= passé composé but the auxiliary is in the imperfect past
= past perfect (“had” + past participle)

For instance:
J’avais mangé. = I had eaten.
Elle était allée. = She had been.

It’s relatively common in modern French. It’s not formal or anything. However, the occasions to use it don’t come up that often, compared to imparfait or passé composé.

Meanwhile, l’imparfait du subjonctif is the most formal French tense. It’s the subjunctive, but used for the past. For instance:

Il voulait que je fusse présent. = He wanted me to be present.

But nobody talks like this in modern spoken French (except very rarely as a joke.) Use the subjunctive present instead: Il voulait que je sois présent.

I made a whole lesson on the French subjunctive:
Click here to learn more: French Subjunctive Made Easy

Next week, we’ll dive deeper into the passé composé : how do you build it? What’s the past participle in French, anyway? What are the exceptions?

Meanwhile, check out one of the other lessons I mentioned today:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!


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Join the conversation!

  • Brièvement, clairement, précisément ; c’est mon style. Merci, Géraldine, et passez une bonne fin de semaine.

  • Merci beaucoup, Géraldine, pour votre leçon sur le temps passé. Je l’ai étudié quand j’étais au lycée.

  • I think I’m right in saying that the
    imperfect tense – imparfait – expresses
    also the same idea as “used to” in English.

    Your example Géraldine of j’écoutais
    beaucoup cette chanson en 2004 works
    very well in English as I used to listen to
    that song a lot in 2004.

    Practice makes perfect I suppose ~ 🙂

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