French Simple vs Imperfect Past

Beginner French - Level A2

The imparfait is an easier French tense because it is consistent. Most of the time, if you have a past progressive tense, so a verb + ING in English like in “I was speaking”, you can translate this past progressive into imparfait. However, the imperfect can also correspond to the English simple past tense.
The passé composé is a French tense used for the past. The passé composé corresponds mostly to the English simple past or the present perfect. In spoken French language, the passé composé is always used instead of the passé simple.
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French A2


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French Simple vs Imperfect Past

One of the most difficult decisions a beginner French learner has to make when talking in the past tense is whether to use the simple past tense or the imperfect past tense. To review the passé composé, see A2.1 Modules 3 and 4. To review l’imparfait, see A2.2 Module 2. Review the chart below to read about the different contexts that the passé composé and l’imparfait tenses are used.

Chart from: Cliff Notes 

Chart Discussion:

The passé composé is used to express an action that happens at a specific moment. This action/moment has an implied beginning and ending. For example, the sentence provided (Je suis sortie I went out) implies that at some point, the subject/speaker returned from going out.  

The imperfect tense is used to express an action that was taking place over a period of time, with no indication of the action stopping. This can include actions that are simply repetitive or descriptive. In the example sentence, it is implying that the subject/speaker was talking fast over a period of time. If that sentence was put into the passé composé (Il a parlé viteHe talked quickly), then it is implied that at some point, the speaker stopped talking quickly altogether or changed pace.

The distinction between the two tenses is very tricky, especially for beginner learners. Do not be discouraged! If you mistake one tense for the other, a native speaker will still understand your sentence and be able to communicate with you.

Key Words:

Key indicator words can be helpful in identifying which tense to use in your sentence. See the Reading link of this Module to study these French clue words.

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Directions: Say whether the beginning of each sentence would lead to the passé composé or l’imparfait.

  • Fréquemment, je...
  • Hier, nous
  • De temps en temps, mes amis
  • Une fois, mon frère…


Directions: Conjugate the given verb in either the passé composé or limparfait

  • Chaque année, nous __________ des cadeaux à nos voisins. (donner)
  • Tout à coup, Marie _____________ ! (tomber)
  • Quand j’étais plus jeune, je _________ la musique classique. (préférer)


Answers and Translation:

  • Imperfect / Frequently, I…. (repeated action)
  • Passé Composé / Yesterday, we… (specific action, one time yesterday)
  • Imperfect / From time to time, my friends (repeated action)
  • Passé Composé / One time, my brother (specific action, one time)
  • donnions / Each year, we used to give presents to our neighbors. (repeated action = imperfect tense)
  • est tombée / All of a sudden, Marie fell ! (Action at an instant = passé composé)
  • préférais / When I was younger, I preferred/used to prefer classical music. (state of mind in the past = imperfect tense)

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