Perfect or Imperfect Tense?

This article focuses on an area that may cause difficulty for intermediate learners of French. Having learned two verb tenses that refer to the past, students are often confused as to when to use each one. The confusion may be increased by the fact that each of these two tenses covers the use of more than one tense or verb form in English.

PERFECT TENSE or PASSE COMPOSE

The perfect tense in French is the equivalent of both the present perfect and the simple past tenses in English. In other words, for example, j’ai fini can mean either I have finished, I finished or I did finish.

IMPERFECT TENSE

The imperfect tense in French is the equivalent of the imperfect tense in English, in other words je finissais means I was finishing. It is, however, also the equivalent of the English form ‘used to do …’, so je finissais could also mean I used to finish.

When deciding which is the correct tense to use in certain instances, remember that the perfect tense (passé composé) is used for actions that are complete and happened at a certain time. The imperfect tense is used for actions that take place over a period of time – not necessarily a very long one – that are perhaps interrupted by another action. In this case, the action that interrupts would be in the perfect tense, as in these examples:

Je faisais mes devoirs quand l’accident s’est passé. – I was doing my homework when the accident happened.

Il se promenait au bord de la mer quand il a eu la crise cardiaque. – He was wallking by the sea when he had the heart attack.

Elle vivait à Paris quand elle s’est mariée. – She was living in Paris when she got married.

Nous avons acheté la maison pendant que nous étions en vacances en France. – We bought the house while we were on holiday in France.

Here are some examples of the imperfect tense having the meaning ‘used to do …’

Quand j’étais jeune, j’aimais les bonbons. – When I was young, I used to like sweets. (Notice that the imperfect tense is used in both clauses.)

Nous faisions toujours nos propres cartes de voeux. – We always used to make our own greetings cards.

It is perhaps important to point out here as well that the perfect tense is not used in French to say ‘I have been doing something for x amount of time/since a particular date.’ The present tense is used in French, which is in fact logical, as the action or situation is still taking place. For example:

J’habite Londres depuis trois ans. – I have been living in London for three years (and I still live there).

Elle travaille chez Maxime depuis 2002. – She has been working at Maxime’s since 2002 (and she still works there).

Elizabeth Allen
February 2007