Which one should I use?!?

If you ever feel unsure about whether to use the imparfait or the passé composé and if you need a little a reminder on how to pronounce and how to conjugate these 2 French past tenses, which are the main ones we use, this video is for you!

We will go through all the endings, auxiliary verbs, when to match or not the past participle with the subject, and I’ll also give you lots of tips so you can more confidently choose between the imparfait and the passé composé when building your French sentences.

So, I’m going to remind you about the conjugation and then I want to make sure you remember the major differences between these 2 tenses to help you choose in case you ever are in doubt.

Let’s start with the endings

The endings for imparfait with the verb comprendre, to understand. I randomly chose this verb and it doesn’t matter which one anyway since the endings for imparfait are regular, they’re always the same, they never change.

Je comprenAIS

Tu comprenAIS

Elle, il, on comprenAIT

Nous comprenIONS

Vous comprenIEZ

Elles, ils comprenAIENT

So the endings for imparfait are: ais, ais, ait, ions, iez, aient

The endings for passé composé with…

-first the verb habiter, to live, which uses the auxiliaire avoir

-second the verb tomber, to fall, which uses the auxiliaire être

Let’s begin with habiter and the auxiliaire avoir

J’ai habitÉ

Tu as habitÉ

Elle, il, on a habitÉ

Nous avons habitÉ

Vous avez habitÉ

Elles, ils ont habitÉ

So easy it’s just habité with é at the end it doesn’t change YES! Ok that’s a little lie…

Sometimes it does change. If it can make you feel better I will tell you now, most French people get it wrong, so not the end of the world if you too get it wrong. Still I have to teach it to you properly.

You need to match the past participle with the gender (feminine or masculine) and the number (singular or plural) of the complement, when this complement is placed before the verb. Sounds like Gibberish?!? That’s normal but I’m sure you’ll understand with a few examples.

J’ai mangé une pomme = I ate an apple

The complement is une pomme. It is placed after the verb so you don’t touch the past participle mangé.

La pomme que j’ai mangée = the apple that I ate

The complement is la pomme. It is placed before the verb so you match the gender (feminine) and the number (singular) of la pomme with the past participle, which becomes mangée.

Je les ai mangées = I ate them (them being the apples)

The complement is les, the pronoun replacing the apples. It is placed before the verb so you match the gender (feminine) and the number (plural) of les with the past participle, which becomes mangées.

Makes sense?

Let’s continue with tomber and the auxiliaire être

Je suis tombÉ(E)

Tu es tombÉ(E)

Elle, il, on est tombÉ(E)

Nous sommes tombÉ(E)S

Vous êtes tombÉ(E)(S)

Elles, ils sont tombÉ(E)S

When you use the auxiliaire être, you need to match the past participle with the gender (feminine or masculine) and the number (singular or plural) of the subject. Examples:

Je (Bruno) suis tombé = I fell

The subject je is someone called Bruno so you match the gender (masculine) and the number (singular it’s only one man called Bruno) of je with the past participle, which becomes tombé, you don’t need to add anything because masculine singular is the standard form for French.

Je (Sophie) suis tombée = I fell

The subject je is someone called Sophie so you match the gender (feminine) and the number (singular again it’s only one Sophie) of je with the past participle, which becomes tombée.

Bruno et Sophie sont tombés = They fell

The subject is Bruno et Sophie so you match the gender (masculine since mixed always becomes masculine) and the number (plural we have 2 people now) of Bruno et Sophie with the past participle, which becomes tombés.

Makes sense?

Ok now we’re done with endings let’s help you figure out which tense, imparfait or passé composé, to choose.

In general it’s safe to associate passé composé with a specific event or an action that has a clear beginning and a clear ending. Now imparfait is associated with a description in the past or a lasting action. Here’s an image to help you remember these 2 opposite elements. Imagine a painting or a picture. The foreground of the painting is passe compose: it’s the storyline where the action takes place. The background of the painting is imparfait: it sets the scene. I know what you’re thinking, that’s a little abstract, so how about I give examples?

Je me douchais quand soudainement le téléphone a sonné = I was taking a shower when suddenly the phone rang.

Je me douchais = imparfait

le téléphone a sonné = passé composé

I was taking a shower sets the scene, suddenly the phone rang is the action. Very important and helpful thing for you to notice here, the format was + ing I was taking. Any time you need to use this format I was eating, she was thinking, we were wondering, etc. it must become a reflex in your brains IMPARFAIT. And you see they all express something that lasts in time.

Second example:

J’habitais aux États-Unis et puis je suis rentrée en France = I used to live in the US and then I came back to France.

J’habitais = imparfait

je suis rentrée = passé composé

I used to live in the US again makes you feel the length of time while I came back to France is clearly the storyline.

Very important and helpful thing for you to notice here, the format used to I used to live in the US. Any time you need to use this format I used to go to yoga every day, she used to like me, they used to work here, etc it must become a reflex in your brains IMPARFAIT. Again they all express something that lasted in time, without necessarily a clear beginning or a clear ending.

Descriptions also require the imparfait. You could describe the weather, how you feel, if you’re happy or sad or sick. None of these have a clear beginning or ending. I’m not happy from 8am to 8:30am immediately followed by sad from 8:30am to 9am, etc. you get the idea.

Examples of descriptions:

Hier il faisait chaud = Yesterday it was hot

J’étais heureuse = I was happy

Il semblait triste = He seemed sad

Now let’s have a look at examples of sentences with passé composé so you clearly see the difference:

Ce matin, je suis arrivée en retard au travail = this morning I arrived late at work

Je n’ai pas compris ce que vous avez dit = I did not understand what you said

All of these events happened at a specific time and then they were over. I didn’t remain late all day, I arrived late and that was it then I went along with my day. I did not understand what you said, it’s the one time you said that one thing, then you explained it and I understood it. Makes sense?

If you look back at our initial examples again:

Je me douchais quand soudainement le téléphone a sonné = I was taking a shower when suddenly the phone rang.

The phone rang, it didn’t use to ring, it wasn’t ringing for 3 hours, it rang then I got out of my shower I picked up the phone it was over.

J’habitais aux États-Unis et puis je suis partie = I used to live in the US and then I left.

I left. I just left and then I was gone. I wasn’t lingering there for years wondering what to do half leaving coming back, leaving again. No I left and that was it.

I really hope that was clear and helpful. I could go in much more details but I believe this is good enough for now and if you master what I just passed on and if you feel truly comfortable with this, the rest will come naturally.

 

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