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Imparfait versus Passé Composé

In addition to le passé composé (perfect or compound past tense), you can also use l'imparfait (imperfect tense) to talk about things that occurred in the past. So, when should you choose l'imparfait over le passé composé? Let's explore both tenses.


Before we embark on the specific uses of l'imparfait, let's find out how to form this past tense. Just take the nous (we) form of the present tense, as in nous faisons (we do/are doing), remove the -ons, and add the ending -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, or -aient. So, nous faisons (we do/are doing) becomes nous faisions (we were doing/used to do). Margaux and Manon will show you how to conjugate the rest of the verb faire in the imparfait:


Je faisais... Tu faisais. Il ou elle faisait.

I was doing... You were doing. He or she was doing.

Nous faisions. Vous faisiez.

We were doing. You [pl. or formal] were doing.

Ils ou elles faisaient.

They [masc.] or they [fem.] were doing.

Captions 31-33, Margaux et Manon - Conjugaison du verbe faire

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Now that you know how to form the imperfect tense, let's discuss how to use it. Usually, l'imparfait indicates ongoing actions in the past that have a stronger connection to the present than le passé composé, which describes a completed action. In his conversation with Lea in the video below, Lionel uses the imperfect form tu me parlais (you were telling me) as a subtle cue that he wants to hear more about the animals in the park. It's an invitation to Lea to elaborate:


Tu me parlais aussi tout à l'heure de la

You were also telling me earlier about the

présence d'animaux dans ces parcs.

presence of animals in these parks.

Caption 43, Lea & Lionel L - Le parc de Bercy - Part 2

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If Lionel wanted to say something like “you already told me earlier” and then changed the subject, he would have used passé composé:


Ah oui, tu m’en as déjà parlé tout à l’heure.

Oh yes, you already told me about that earlier.


But l'imparfait is not only used to evoke an ongoing action drifting into the present. It's also the ideal tense for talking about things you used to do or describing repeated actions. In the following video, Claire remembers how elle allait (she used to go) to the park with her daughter:


Oh,  j'y allais beaucoup avec ma fille, il y a quelques années.

Oh, I used to go there a lot with my daughter a few years ago.

Caption 47, Claire et Philippe - La campagne

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L'imparfait is very helpful for setting a background and creating a mood. In his poem "Barbara," Jacques Prévert sets the scene by describing the incessant rain in the city of Brest, which was destroyed during the Second World War:


Il pleuvait sans cesse sur Brest ce jour-là

It was raining nonstop in Brest that day

Caption 2, Le saviez-vous? - "Barbara" de Jacques Prévert

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Later on, the poet uses the imparfait again to describe the romantic encounter that follows:


Tu souriais

You were smiling

Et moi je souriais de même

And I smiled back

Captions 9-10, Le saviez-vous? - "Barbara" de Jacques Prévert

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(Note that we used the perfect tense in English for je souriais [I smiled]. The French imparfait does not always correspond to the English imperfect, as we'll discuss further below.)


Prévert then adds more to the background: a man who s’abritait (was taking shelter) under a porch and interrupted the scene with a shout. Whereas the imparfait is used for background or habitual actions, single actions interrupting an ongoing action are usually expressed in passé composé:


Un homme sous un porche s'abritait

A man was taking shelter under a porch

Et il a crié ton nom

And he shouted your name

Captions 17-18, Le saviez-vous? - "Barbara" de Jacques Prévert

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While all verbs can be conjugated in both the passé composé and the imparfait, certain verbs by their very nature express a state of mind, an attitude, a condition, or a desire, thus lending themselves better to the use of the imparfait. These verbs include avoir (to have), croire (to believe), désirer (to desire), espérer (to hope), être (to be), penser (to think), pouvoir (to be able to), savoir (to know), vouloir (to want). Note that some of these verbs don’t usually take the imperfect in English. For example, we can say on savait, but we don’t really say “we were knowing” in English. In the video below, on ne savait pas translates as "we didn't know":


On ne savait pas que le marché de Noël ouvrait aujourd'hui

We didn't know that the Christmas market was opening today

Caption 8, Alsace 20 - Ouverture du marché de Noël de Colmar

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In another example using the verb penser (to think), the imperfect form is necessary for expressing repetition in French, but not in English:


Je pensais souvent à toi.

I often thought of you.

Caption 38, Le Jour où tout a basculé - Ma femme est-elle réellement morte ?

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However, just like in English, when referring to a completed action, we switch to passé composé in French. In the example below, the action was completed hier (yesterday), hence the use of the perfect tense (j’ai pensé). So, paying attention to adverbs in French can help you choose the correct tense:


J’ai pensé à toi hier.

I thought of you yesterday.


In some rare cases, a verb's meaning can change depending on what tense it's in. For example, the verb connaître (to know) usually means “to know” in the imparfait but "to meet" in the passé composé:


Je l'avais fréquenté pendant plusieurs années et je le connaissais.

I had socialized with him for several years, and I knew him.

Caption 63, Le Jour où tout a basculé - Mes parents se préparent à la fin du monde

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J'ai connu Gérard y a une dizaine d'années.

I met Gérard about ten years ago.

Caption 39, Le Jour où tout a basculé - J'ai escroqué mon assurance !

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In the first example, the speaker uses the imparfait to describe an old acquaintance she has known for a long time—something in the past that has an effect on the present. In the second example, we're dealing with a singular event that can't be repeated, when the speaker first met Gérard. So the passé composé is in order here. 


Sometimes certain grammatical structures dictate which tense you should use. For example, to describe hypothetical situations, we use the construction si + imparfait. Zaz uses this construction throughout her song "Si" (If):


Si j'étais l'amie du bon Dieu

If I were the good Lord's friend

Caption 1, Zaz - Si

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Now that you’re familiar with the imparfait and passé composé, why not write your own story in the past tense using both forms? Yabla videos are at your disposal for inspiration.



Just Kidding!

The verb se moquer is used in two recent videos, in two slightly different senses:


Et il n'est pas le seul à se moquer.

And he's not the only one making fun.

Caption 40, d'Art d'Art - "Impression, soleil levant" - Monet

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Non mais tu te moques de moi?

No but are you kidding me?

Caption 61, Le Jour où tout a basculé - Ma fille et mon mari se sont fait berner

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Se moquer means to make or poke fun, or to kid. If it takes an object, as in the second example, you have to add de after it (to make fun of someone). It's cognate with "to mock" in English, and can also have that sense, depending on context: 


Se moquer gentiment de personnages célèbres est très courant

Gently mocking famous people is very common

pendant la période de carnaval.

during the carnival period.

Caption 20, Le saviez-vous? - Le carnaval en France

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But se moquer has another meaning that isn't quite as obvious. It's the verb you use when you don't care about something, or more precisely, when you couldn't care less:


Je me moque des règles. 

I couldn't care less about the rules.


In more informal speech, se ficher is often used instead of se moquer in most of its senses:


On se fiche de nous ou quoi?

Are you kidding us or what?

Caption 5, Actus Quartier - Devant la SNCF

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Je me fiche des règles.

I couldn't care less about the rules.


Another way of saying "to make/poke fun" is taquiner (to tease):


Ne taquine pas ta sœur.

Don't tease your sister.


There are a few other verbs for "to kid" in French. If you want to say "I'm kidding" or "just kidding," use plaisanter or rigoler:


Je plaisante, pas du tout.

I'm kidding, not at all.

Caption 22, Elisa et Mashal - Mon chien Roméo

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Je ne ferai pas l'idiote. Non, je rigole.

I will not act like an idiot. No, I'm kidding.

Caption 52, Margaux et Manon - Conjugaison du verbe faire

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Rigoler is an informal synonym of rire (to laugh). So you can think of je rigole as "I'm just having a laugh." Plaisanter, the verb form of une plaisanterie (a joke), means "to joke" or "joke around." So je plaisante is more along the lines of "I'm just joking around."


If you want to say "you're kidding," as an exclamation, you can say, Tu plaisantes! Or, you can even just say, Tu parles! (literally, "You're talking!")


Tu parles. Impôts?

You're kidding. Taxes?

Caption 37, Patricia - Pas de crédit dans le monde des clones

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And for the phrase "no kidding," you can use the phrase sans blague (no joke). For more on that and other joke-related expressions, see our lesson Telling Jokes in French.