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I've searched the forum for this topic, but I'm still struggling with when to use which tense.

I believe Imparfait is used for the distant past, or for any time in the past when describing a repeated action or an action that took place while something else happened.  What is puzzling me is whether other verbs that follow have to be in the Imparfait if the first one is.  For example (I've written this in English, as I don't know how to make my confusion clear in French):

      When I was (Imp) young, I had (Imp?) a dog. The dog was given (PC?) to me     by my uncle.  It brought (PC?) a dead snake into the house once, and this frightened (PC? ) my mother.  I was (Imp?) 12 years old when the dog died (PC?).  Yesterday, when my daughter visited (Imp?) me, she brought (Imp?) a dog with her that looked just like my old dog.


So is a mixture of Imparfait and PC ok in the same sentence? Is there a simple way to know which is appropriate?  I'd appreciate an answer in English, if possible, since I often find grammar explanations confusing even when I understand all the words :)

Thanks for your help,



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The Passé composé is only used with être (be) or avoir (have) auxiliary.

Seebelow  what the translation of your above example gives in french

Quand j'étais plus jeune, j'ai eu un chien. Ce chien m'avait été donné par mon oncle. Une fois, on m' apporté un serpent mort à la maison, ce qui a effrayé ma mère. J'avais 12 ans lorsque le chien mourut. Hier, lorsque ma soeur m'a rendu visite, elle a apporté un chien avec elle, qui ressemblait en tout point à mon ancien chien.

It would be very difficult to give here all the distinctions between the two tenses and at the same time oversimplification would be misguiding. What makes the distinction all the more complicated is the parallel use of passé simple which will be overlooked here for better understanding.

So first  try to think of the simple past and progressive past in English and you'll find some similarities.

Just like the above English forms mentioned the imparfait and passé composé are different but have complementary purpose and so are nearly always used in conjunction.

Stories alternate between description (progressive past/ imparfait) and narration  (simple past/ passé composé or passé simple)  passé composé advances the narrative whereas imparfait stops it for description or details.

Passé simple often refers to a completed action, there is a starting point and an ending point, imparfait refers to some incompletness and is open-ended, it can also refer to habitual events in the past.

Ils essayaient (imparfait/ description) d’exprimer par des geste pour se faire comprendre,
mais le garçon n’arrivait (imparfait/ description)pas à saisir. Alors l’un des voyageurs a pris (passé composé/ action) un morceau de papier  et a fait (passé composé / action) un dessin.

Il a fait beau hier - (the weather was fine yesterday and it's probably over)

Il faisait beau hier- ( everything is possible for today: bad or nice weather)

The passé composé is used to talk about an individual event in the past.

Je suis allé à Paris à l'age de 13 ans

The imparfait is used for a general series of events in the past.

J'allais souvent à Paris lorsque j'étais adolescent.

You can also use one or the other for stylistic reason but it requires a good command of  writting, for instance things can be left hanging or unresolved with the imparfait and using the passé simple in the same context would mean less suspense :

Il est arrivé à la porte puis il a hésité à rentrer (but he did it)

Il arrivait à la porte puis il hésitait à rentrer ( there is clearly more suspense, we don't know what he 's going to do)

When I was studying in Paris, one of our texts was L'Education Sentimentale.


After what seemed like 500 pages of passé simple, one of the later chapters opens with "Il a herité."


Being the cheeky monkey I was, I asked Professor Truchet if this was perhaps incorrect. He looked down at me in disgust and then harangued us all about how could we, foreigners all, possibly ever understand the subtleties of the French language, of which this was a prime example, passé composé being used for shock value, to wake the reader up.


He then addressed me directly, finishing, "And then you, Monsieur, are not Flaubert."


So, tenses can be more subtle than the textbooks say, and reading good books will train your mind as to what tense is used when for what effect. Luck.



Sounds like you had a charming teacher...

This is the same professor who, standing at the top of one of those Sorbonne staircases that lead to the amphitheatres, looked down on the crush of students below one afternoon and said to me, completely out of the blue, "Ah, si j'avais une mitrailleuse..." And then gave me a thin, little smile just to keep me thinking.


I spent some time in French colleges too, they all did their best to discourage and dishearten students and obtained very good results in that domain.

Very amusing thread! I remember my very first French lesson. The teacher tried to shock us and shame us into wanting to learn French. His first words were something like: -

"Every French person can speak French, even the lowliest village idiot. But none of you can speak a word of it. That makes you less than an idiot. If you were to go to France now, you would have the same status as the dirt on people's shoes!"

Of all my lessons in secondary school, this is the one that most sticks in my mind. It certainly shocked us but I'm not sure it did any good, nor did it particularly endear us to "Monsieur Evans"! And we were only 11 years old!

With the political correctness of today, he'd probably lose his job if he took that attitude now!

Thanks everyone, for the responses.  Guess I'll just have to keep plugging away and hope it'll come to me eventually.

Hi Al, if you come across a way of remembering can you share it with me.....:)

I'd be glad to.  I have to say, however, that I'm doubtful of finding anything like that.  My grammar book gives some general rules, but they seem to leave plenty of room for error.


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