French Simple vs Imperfect Past


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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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 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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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:
Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
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Spoken Interaction:
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