When do we use the perfect and imperfect tense and what is the difference between the two?

Unfortunately one of the hardest things when it comes to learning about the past tense in French is learning the difference between the perfect and imperfect tense and when to use each of them. 

Put simply, the perfect tense translates to the English past tense "I ate/He saw" OR the English present perfect "I have eaten/He has seen", whereas the imperfect tense translates to the English imperfect "I was eating/He was seeing". Knowing the difference between these two tenses is essential in order to accurately express what you are trying to say when talking or writing about events in the past.

The perfect tense/passé composé

This is the most common past tense in French and it used when referring to:

1. actions in the past that have been completed (eg. J'ai déjà fait mes devoirs)

2. actions in the past that have been repeated a number of times (eg. Je suis allée au cinéma deux fois hier)

3. a series of actions completed in the past (eg. Lundi dernier, il a parlé avec sa mère, est allé au parc et a fait le ménage)

The imperfect tense

The imperfect tense in French is a descriptive past tense and is used when referring to:

1. Habitual actions (eg. Quand j'étais jeune, j'allais au Canada toutes les étés)

2. Physical and emotional descriptions: time, weather, age, feelings (eg. Hier il faisait beau)

3. Actions or states of unspecified duration (eg. Je restais longtemps au parc avant de rentrer chez moi)

4. Background information regarding passé composé (eg. Ils étaient à la plage quand il a commencé à pleuvoir)

5. Wishes or suggestions (eg. Ah! Si j'étais riche!)

6. Conditions in si clauses (eg. S'il faisait beau, j'irais à la plage)

7. The expressions être en train de and venir de in the past (eg. Il venait d'arriver)


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