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Imparfait vs. Passé Composé
The passé composé and imperfect both refer to past time, but express different ways of looking at past actions and events. The imperfect tense denotes an action as going on in the past without any reference to its beginning or end. The passé composé denotes an action that the speaker sees as completed in the past or as having happened once.
Quand j’étais en France, je parlais français.
When I was in France, I spoke French.
Hier j’ai parlé français avec Caroline.
Yesterday I spoke French with Caroline.
The passé composé implies that an action is complete in the past. It also may imply that the action happened once.
Quelqu’un a sonné à la porte d’en bas.
Someone rang the downstairs doorbell.
Tout à coup la porte s’est ouverte.
Suddenly the door opened.
L’avion est arrivé en retard.
The plane arrived late.
Continuous or Repeated Action
The imperfect is used for actions that the speaker sees as going on in the past without reference to the beginning or the end of the action. The imperfect may convey that the action happened repeatedly.
Le quartier devenait de plus en blus bruyant.
The neighbourhood was getting noisier and noisier.
Les enfants faisaient leurs devoirs dans la cuisine.
The children used to do their homework in the kitchen,
Tu te couchais toujours tôt.
You always went to bed early.
Background for Past Actions or Events
The imperfect often provides the background for past actions or events that are expressed in the passé composé.
Philippe lisait quand ses amis sont arrivés.
Philippe was reading when his friends arrived.
Quand je suis entrée, tout le monde travaillait.
When I came in, everyone was working.
J’ai fermé les fenêtres parce qu’il pleuvait.
I closed the windows because it was raining.