Master The French Past Tenses: The Imperfect Tense Vs The Perfect Tense

Master the French past tenses

When you start learning French, you can expect to encounter grammar points that leave you feeling confused, like the French past tenses.

Those structures that just don't have a direct equivalent in your native tongue.

One particular grammatical nettle you have to grasp fairly early on is the difference between the imperfect tense (imparfait in French) and the perfect tense. And, truth be told, it can be a bit awkward at first.

The main reason for this is that it's tricky to know which one of these French past tenses to use in different situations.

But it’s not so difficult if you understand the basics clearly.

In this article, I'll compare the two French past tenses so that by the end of the post, you'll:

So let's dive in and say au revoir to any confusion about the French past tenses.

Note: Since you can find the conjugations for these tenses in any decent grammar book or online, this will article will focus on something much more subtle and difficult – how to use the French past tenses correctly. 

What Is “Tense”, Anyway?

woman looking at French vineyard

It’s best to start right at the beginning. So first, what is “tense”?

Tense is what certain languages, including English and French, use to talk about the past, present or future.

You know how we say “I drink” for the present but “I drank” for the past? That’s “tense”.

For example, in English it works as follows:

These names of the different tenses are not so important. But we’re going to be talking about them later so it’s worth mentioning them now so that you don't become overwhelmed!

So now you know what tense is let's start looking at the French past tenses.

The French Perfect Tense

Before we start talking about the French imperfect tense, first, let’s take a look at the French “perfect” tense.

The perfect tense is what’s known as a “compound tense”, meaning it is made up of an auxiliary verb plus the past participle of the main verb.

That may all sound a bit technical. But it’s quite easy since in English, we form the present perfect in much the same way.

In the English version, “have” is the auxiliary verb and “eaten” is the past participle of the verb “to eat”; in the French version, ai is the auxiliary verb (ai is the first person singular of the verb avoir, “to have”) and mangé is the past participle of the verb manger, “to eat”.

The only complication in French is that some verbs take the auxiliary verb être (to be) instead of avoir.

You don't need to know the details here – for the moment, it's enough just to be aware that in French, there are two possible auxiliary verbs.

The Biggest Mistake Beginners Make With The French Perfect Tense

The biggest mistake many beginners make with the French perfect tense (parfait or passé composé in French) is to equate it with the present perfect in English.

This makes sense since we form these tenses in the same way – and often the best translation for an English present perfect is a French perfect – but French also uses its perfect tense when English would choose the past simple.

(Many French speakers often make the same mistake in the opposite direction, so when you hear this, now you'll know why!)

In English, if you say, “I have eaten a pizza”, that action has some connection to the present. Perhaps you're explaining why you are not hungry now. Or maybe you're giving an excuse for declining a dinner invitation.

In any case, to express this in French, you would use the perfect tense:

However, in English, if you say, “I ate a pizza yesterday”, you use the past simple (“ate”) to express the idea that the action happened in the past, that it’s finished and has no connection to the present.

In French, you would express this as:

As you can see, in French we use the same structure as in the previous example. French does not distinguish between these two variations with different tenses like English does.

When Not To Use The French Perfect Tense

There are also times when English uses a present perfect tense where French requires a different tense altogether.

An important example is when talking about “how long”.

For example, the sentence “I’ve lived here for a year” expresses the idea that you have lived in a particular place for a year and that you still live there now.

In French, you would express this as:

Here, you use the present tense. Literally, this translates as “I live here since one year”.

The French Perfect Tense – A Summary

French Perfect Tense

In French, the perfect tense has two main uses:

  1. In spoken French, the perfect is used for completed events in the past that have no connection to the present:
    • J’ai mangé une pizza hier (I ate a pizza yesterday)
  2. The perfect is also used for actions in the past that have some connection to the present
    • J’ai mangé une pizza, je n’ai pas faim maintenant (I have eaten a pizza, I’m not hungry now)

Remember, the perfect is not used to say how long you have done something: “I have lived here for one year” translates as j’habite ici depuis un an, using the present tense in French.

The French Imperfect Tense 

The French imperfect tense is slightly more complicated in that it has no direct equivalent in English, either in form or in usage. However, like many aspects of language learning, it’s not difficult, it’s just different.

The imperfect is known as a “simple tense”, meaning the form of the main verb changes and there's no auxiliary verb. For example:

Perhaps the best way to understand the imperfect tense is to focus on the idea that it  expresses an action that took place for a certain duration. But the time when the action started or ended is not important.

Of course, we can express the same idea in English, we just say it in a number of different ways.

French imperfect tense uses

Use #1: When Something That Was Happening Gets Interrupted

One common use of the imperfect in French is in a narrative where something's happening and then something else happens, often interrupting the first action. Let’s think of some examples:

In all of these examples, something was happening when something else happened. For the first verb in the sentence, French uses the imperfect; for the second, it uses the perfect. 

Sometimes, if you need to insist on the fact that the first action was being done at that moment, you can add the expression en train de (for example: le garçon était en train de courir quand il est tombé) – but it isn’t necessary.

In this type of sentence, the idea of “was doing something” is already part of the imperfect verb.

Use #2: Describing Continuous Actions In The Past

Another similar use, and one that is fairly easy to understand, is simply to describe a continuous action in the past – this time without another action happening to interrupt it. For example:

In French, you express these examples as:

Use #3: Expressing The Concept Of “Used To Do Something”

A final common use is to express something that happened habitually for a period of time. Again, let’s look at an example:

In this sentence, we can clearly see that we are talking about a period of time (“when I was young”). And that we are talking about something that happened habitually. The addition of the word “often” reinforces this idea.

In English, we could also express this as:

In fact, both versions of this sentence contain the idea of “used to”, even though it is only the second version states it explicitly. 

In any case, when we wish to express the idea of “used to” in French, the idea that you did something habitually over a period of time, you use the imperfect tense:

French Past Tenses – How To Know Which One To Use?

the French past tenses

To finish up, let’s compare the perfect and imperfect tenses in French to highlight some further uses. And hopefully clear up any confusion that may remain.

A common misconception is to assume that for any instantaneous action, you should use the perfect, while for a longer action, you should choose the imperfect. However, the duration of the action is never the deciding factor in whether you use the perfect or imperfect in French.

Think about these three sentences:

Since “all afternoon” is a period of time, you might be tempted to use an imperfect tense in French. However, all of these sentences require the perfect:

Choosing Between The French Past Tenses: Why It's All Perfectly Logical

french cafeunsp

Sometimes grammatical terms can be strange. But here, the words “perfect” and “imperfect” are actually quite logical if you understand what they mean.

The perfect describes a precisely defined (“perfectly” defined) period of time while the imperfect describes vaguely or imprecisely defined (“imperfectly” defined) periods of time.

Since “this afternoon” is a precise time period, all three sentences are expressed using the perfect tense.

Let’s take some other examples to make this even clearer:

Since “two hours” and “all afternoon” are clearly defined, the verb should be perfect.

Since “when I was young” is imprecisely (“imperfectly”) defined. Compare these sentences:

Because “when I was a child” is imprecisely defined, but:

Because “a year” is precisely defined (and the sentence is focusing on “a year” rather than “when I was a child”), in the second example we choose the perfect tense.

Master The Most Subtle Example: When Both French Past Tenses Are Possible

To finish, we can look at a slightly different example to illustrate another point.

Sometimes, you can use either the perfect tense or the imperfect tense to translate an English sentence correctly. 

However, in these cases, the choice shows something about how the speaker views the situation or what they want to focus on. For example:

Both are correct, so what’s the difference?

In this case, the difference has nothing to do the period of time since, for both, we are talking about “last year”. Here we're dealing with something else, and the difference is quite subtle.

As we've seen, the imperfect expresses a habitual action. In contrast, here the perfect expresses a repeated action. 

Here, if the speaker chooses the first example, what they wish to express is the idea that last year, they worked hard all the time and that it was considered normal and habitual to work hard every day for the entirety of the year.

If the speaker chooses the second option using the perfect, the idea is that every day, they worked hard over and over again.

The distinction is slight. A native speaker would instinctively know which one to choose to express their meaning. But it’s fairly certain he or she would have a hard time explaining why if you pressed them to do so!

French Past Tenses: Don’t Think Too Much – Just Practise!

french people

When learning French tenses, grammar rules like these are similar to stabilisers on a bike. They help you start speaking, and at the beginning, you may rely on them, but with practice,you'll forget about the rules as you start speaking more naturally.

Mastering the past tenses in French requires familiarising yourself with the rules. But the real learning is done through spending lots of and lots of time with the language. This way, you see the French imperfect and perfect tenses over and over again in context.

The more you can do this, the faster you'll develop a “natural feel” for when you should use each of the French past tenses.

With regular practice, soon enough, you will instinctively choose the right tense without even realising it – just like a native speaker!

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