How to form and use the passé composé vs. the imparfait

How to form and use the passé composé vs. the imparfait

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated August 25, 2023

When it comes to French tenses, learning the difference between the passé composé and the imparfait is an essential step to reaching an intermediate level. While these are both past tenses, they differ in their forms and use. The passé composé is a compound tense used to describe unique events completed in the past. Meanwhile, the imparfait is a simple, very regular tense that expresses past habits or repeated actions and describes people, objects or places in the past. In this article, we’ll review all you need to know about the passé composé vs. imparfait.

Learn languages at your pace

How to form the passé composé

In French, the passé composé is a compound tense made of two elements: the auxiliary verb avoir (to have) or être (to be) in the present tense, followed by the past participle of the verb. Let’s review the structure and rules for each auxiliary verb.

The passé composé with the auxiliary verb avoir

Most verbs in the passé composé require the auxiliary verb avoir in the present tense. Only the form of the past participle may differ according to the category of the verb. 

The past participle of French -er verbs ends in. For -ir verbs like finir (to finish), the past participle ends with -i. The endings of the past participles of -re verbs vary, but a common ending is -u. The following table gives you an overview of the passé composé for the three categories of verbs:

-er verbs(parler)-ir verbs(finir)-re verbs(attendre)
J’ai parléI spokeJ’ai finiI finishedJ’ai attenduI waited
Tu as parléYou spokeTu as finiYou finishedTu as attenduYou waited
Il/elle a parléHe/she spokeIl/elle a finiHe/she finishedIl/elle a attenduHe/she waited
Nous avons parléWe spokeNous avons finiWe finishedNous avons attenduWe waited
Vous avez parléYou spokeVous avez finiYou finishedVous avez attenduYou waited
Ils/elles ont parléThey spokeIls/elles ont finiThey finishedIls/elles ont attenduThey waited

The passé composé with the auxiliary verb être

In comparison, only a handful of verbs required être in the passé composé. Fortunately, these are easy to remember with the mnemonic name Dr. Mrs. Van Der Tramp.” Each letter of this name corresponds to the first letter of a verb that requires être in the passé composé. Here is the full list, including each verb’s past participle: 

VerbPast Participle
Devenir (to become) 
Revenir (to come back) 
Monter (to go up)
Retourner (to return)
Sortir (to go out) 
Venir (to come)
Aller (to go)
Naître (to be born)
Descendre (to go down)
Entrer (to enter)
Rentrer (to go home/to return) 
Tomber (to fall)
Rester (to remain)
Arriver (to arrive)
Mourir (to die)
Partir (to leave)

As they are used with être, these past participles work in a similar way to adjectives in French and take on different endings depending on the gender and the number of the subject they are linked to. The feminine form requires the addition of an -e, while the plural form is signaled by an extra final -s. The table below illustrates this with the example of the verb aller (to go):

Learn languages at your pace

Je suis allé (for a male)
Je suis allée (for a female)
I went 
Tu es allé (for a male)
Tu es allée (for a female)
You went 
Il est allé
Elle est allée
He went 
She went 
Nous sommes allés (for a male or mixed group)
Nous sommes allées (for an all-female group)
We went 
Vous êtes allé (formal for a male)
Vous êtes allée (formal for a female)
Vous êtes allés (for a male or mixed group)
Vous êtes allées (for an all-female group)
You went 
Ils sont allés (for a male or mixed group)
Elles sont allées (for an all-female group)
They went 
They went 

How to form the imparfait

The imparfait is one of the simplest and most regular French tenses. Here is the recipe you need to follow:

  1. Take the nous form of the verb in the present tense
  2. Remove the -ons ending
  3. Add the ending for the relevant subject pronoun, like so:

Je (I) >> -ais

Tu (you) >> -ais 

Il/elle (heshe) >> -ait

Nous (we) >> -ions

Vous (you) >> -iez

Ils/elles (they) >> -aient

Let’s see this in action with the same -er, -ir and -re verb examples as before:

parler (to speak)finir (to finish)attendre (to wait)
nous form in the present tense: nous parlonsnous form in the present tense: nous finissonsnous form in the present tense: nous attendons
Je parlaisI was speakingJe finissaisI was finishingJ’attendaisI was waiting
Tu parlaisYou were speakingTu finissaisYou were finishingTu attendaisYou were waiting
Il/elle parlaitHe/she was speakingIl/elle finissaitHe/she was finishingIl/elle attendaitHe/she was waiting
Nous parlionsWe were speakingNous finissionsWe were finishingNous attendonsWe were waiting
Vous parliezYou were speakingVous finissiezYou were finishingVous attendiezYou were waiting
Ils/elles parlaientThey were speakingIls/elles finissaientThey were finishingIls/elles attendaientThey were waiting

Even verbs that are commonly irregular follow the same pattern in the imparfait. The verb être (to be) is the only exception. It doesn’t take its stem from its nous form in the present tense — nous sommes (we are) — in order to form the imparfait. But once you know its stem is -ét, you can attach the standard endings for the imparfait:

J’étaisI was
Tu étaisYou were
Il/elle étaitHe/she was
Nous étionsWe were
Vous étiezYou were
Ils/elles étaientThey were

Learn languages at your pace

When to use the passé composé vs. the imparfait

It’s one thing to know how to conjugate the two main past tenses in French. It’s quite another to decide which one you need, depending on what you want to say. Let’s look at the usage and examples that oppose the passé composé vs. the imparfait.

The role of the passé composé

The passé composé is used to talk about completed one-time actions. As such, it corresponds either to the simple past tense or to the present perfect in English:

  • J’ai mangé au restaurant hier soir. (I ate at the restaurant yesterday evening.)
  • J’ai vu Marc au bureau. ( I’ve seen Mark in the office.)

The roles of the imparfait

By opposition, the imparfait is used to talk about anything in the past that’s not a one-time action. This translates into three main use cases.

1. To talk about past habits or repeated actions

First, the imparfait can be used to talk about past habits or repeated actions, as opposed to the unique actions expressed by the passé composé. This is why you’ll often notice adverbs of frequency being used with the imparfait:

Dans mon enfance, j’allais souvent au cinéma avec mes parents. (In my childhood, I often used to go to the cinema with my parents.)

2. To talk about continuous actions or actions taking place over a certain period of time

In a similar way, continuous actions or actions taking place over a certain period of time in the past are expressed by the imparfait. This is often translated into the past progressive tense in English:

  • À l’université, j’étudiais la finance. (At university, I was studying finance.)

This is a scenario in which you’ll regularly find the imparfait and the passé composé together. The imparfait refers to what you were doing when the unique action expressed by the passé composé occurred:

  • Je mangeais quand le téléphone a sonné. (I was eating when the phone rang.)

3. To describe a past event or action

Finally, the imparfait can be used not just to talk about a past action, but also to provide a description. It’s very useful to paint the setting when telling a story in the past, for instance by depicting the weather, a physical state or emotions.

  • Après le marathon, j’étais très fatigué mais j’étais heureux d’avoir participé. (After the marathon, I was very tired but I was happy to have taken part.)
  • Il pleuvait beaucoup hier et il y avait peu de monde dans les rues. (It was raining a lot yesterday and there were few people in the streets.)

Be it the imparfait or the passé composé, it’s all a thing of the past

Contrary to what you may have feared, the passé composé and (even more so) the imparfait are fairly easy tenses to conjugate in French. But once you master their forms, you’ll need to learn how to use them. In the passé composé vs. imparfait face-off, the former relates one-time actions in the past, while the latter expresses continuous, repeated or habitual actions as well as descriptions. Just one thing is sure: It’s all a thing of the past!

Learn languages at your pace

Anne-Lise Vassoille

Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries… Settled down in London, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

Anne-Lise Vassoille
Start your 7-day free trial

Related articles