French Simple vs Imperfect Past

Overview

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.

Highlighted Author:

France, Paris, Smiling woman standing on a bridge with the Eiffel tower in the background
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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.
Specific Capabilities at this Level
Writing:
I can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate needs. I can write a very simple personal letter, for example thanking someone for something.
Spoken Production:
I can use a series of phrases and sentences to describe in simple terms my family and other people, living conditions, my educational background and my present or most recent job.
Spoken Interaction:
I can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself.
Reading:
I can read very short, simple texts. I can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus and timetables and I can understand short simple personal letters.
Listening:
I can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.