How do you know when to use the imperfect tense and when to use the perfect?

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The imperfect tense is used for an action that was ongoing in the past (Je lisais un roman = I was reading a novel). These verbs are often incomplete, hence, imperfect. An example of this is the sentence:

Je lisais un roman lorsque tout d'un coup, la téléphone a sonné. (I was reading a novel when all of a sudden, the telephone rang). 

The reading of the novel was interrupted by the other past action (la téléphone a sonné). This action is a complete action in the past so it takes the perfect form.

Matthew L. GCSE French tutor, GCSE Spanish tutor

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