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When do you use the imperfect, as opposed to the passe compose?

Does anyone have any way to keep these two verb tenses separate? I have difficulty knowing when to use them in speech. Also, it seems that French speakers tend to 'clip' and use liason frequently with the imperfect- how do you know when they are actually using it and not the past or present tense?

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I'm not sure this will help you, but I think this is a clear explanation of differences between "imparfait" and "passé simple (ou composé)":
http://www.french.ch/Lecon_16_imparfait_et_passe_simple.htm

One remark: I feel that in every day's usage, we use more the "passé composé" than the "passé simple" and I have to confess that I never realy understood the difference between these 2 tenses. By the way, it's perhaps a personal habit and not a general rule...

Sorry for my English (I'm a French guy who doesn't even know the difference between tenses in his own language... How usefull can I be ?)
Re your comment about the passé simple: I don't think it's just your personal habit. In general, the passé simple is no longer the "default" tense in many narratives where it used to be. Take a look at any 19th century novel and it's practically certain that it will use the P.S. as the narrative tense. In 20th and 21st century novels, it's more down to the taste of the writer.

The slight difference between the two tenses is that the P.S. is often seeing as marking a more "punctual" moment or emphasising the termination of a state (so that in newspaper/TV news reports, where the general narrative tense is the P.C., you'll occasionally see common forms such as fut among the other tense), and that a sequence of verbs in the P.S. is usually interpreted occurring in chronological order. In other words, in Le professeur vit l'élève; elle entra en retard, usually the implication is that the teacher saw the pupil before she entered the classroom; in Le professeur a vu l'élève; elle est entrée en retard, the two actions could occur in either order.
The imperfect generally carries the notion of "was/were ...ing". So je travaillais would generally be interpreted as "I was working", whereas j'ai travaillé is closer to "I worked" or "I have worked". Of course if you look hard enough you'll find exceptions, but that's the general idea.

In the right context, the imperfect can also carry the notion of "used to", or even "I was about to...".

In everyday speech, I actually don't think liaison (e.g. pronouncing the t on Il travaillait alors) is very common, although in emphatic reading it would be possible.

As for how you decide which is being used... really the slightly glib answer is "listen carefully". Gradually as you get more fluent in French, you'll pick up the clues, as to how to tell if the verb marking the perfect tense (ai, a etc) is there or not.
When i was very young, my teacher says us that the 'je travaillais' is an action more old than the 'j'ai travaillé'...

Exemple :
- 'j'ai travaillé à l'usine il y a 2 semaines'
- 'je travaillais à l'usine quand j'étais jeune'

But you can use the two expressions, every body will understand you.

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