Table of Contents
- I. Verbs That Prefer the Compound Past
- II. Verbs That Prefer the Imperfect
- III. General Rule for Semi-Auxiliary Verbs
- IV. Verbs of Changeable Meaning Depending on Tense
Deciding whether to put a verb into the French passé composé or the imperfect can be very difficult for the native English speaker (whose own language has a different way of dividing up the verbal pie of the past). This file is meant to reduce anglophone stress in this matter by giving a few rules of thumb for certain classes of verbs.
If you haven’t already, at some point you should also see what I have to say about aspect and the French past tenses in the file fittingly named Aspects of French Past Tenses. On the passé composé itself, see Compound Past.
I. Verbs That Prefer the Compound Past
If an action has to be completed before the next action in a sequence can occur, a perfective verb tense (passé composé or passé simple) must be used. (This matter is discussed in Part III of “Aspects of French Past Tenses.”)
Certain groups of verbs of similar meaning, when used in the past, will typically be of this kind, that is, denote actions that must be completed.
A. Verbs Indicating the Moments of a Conversation
In conversations in which the participants are actually listening and responding to each other, Person A has to have finished what shurree is saying, before Person B can reply. Hence, verbs such as “said, replied, asked, answered,” when they relate the successive moments of a dialogue, will have completed aspect and must appear in the appropriate tense. (These verbs of saying will often appear in what the French call propositions incises, with inversion of subject and verb.)
« Que veux-tu faire ce soir? a demandé Georges. (“What do you want to do tonight?” George asked.)
—Rien. Je veux me reposer, a répondu Marthe. (“Nothing. I want to rest,” Martha answered.)
—C’est toujours la même chose, a-t-il dit. Jamais tu ne veux sortir. (“It’s always the same thing,” he said. “You never want to go out.)
—Sortir, je le veux bien, a-t-elle répliqué, mais pas avec toi. » (“I’m perfectly willing to go out,” she shot back, “just not with you.”)
Here is the same dialogue, with the verbs of saying in the passé simple:
« Que veux-tu faire ce soir? demanda Georges.
—Rien. Je veux me reposer, répondit Marthe.
—C’est toujours la même chose, dit-il.1 Jamais tu ne veux sortir.
—Sortir, je le veux bien, répliqua-t-elle, mais pas avec toi. »
B. Verbs of Passage
Verbs of entering and leaving and the like have to be completed in order for you to be in the new place and able to perform whatever you are going to do there. For example, you have to have finished entering the dining room in order to be able to sit down at the table and have your meal.
- Elle est entrée (passé simple: entra) dans la salle à manger, a choisi une place parmi celles qui était encore libres et s’est assise sans dire un mot à personne. (She entered the dining room, chose a seat among those that were still free, and sat down without saying a word to anyone.)
- Elle a quitté (ps: entra) Paris et habite maintenant Strasbourg. (She left Paris and now lives in Strasbourg.)
- Elle est tombée (ps: tomba) d’une échelle et s’est cassé une jambe. (She fell off a ladder and broke a leg.)
See the House of Being Verbs.
C. Verbs of Beginning & Ending
You have finish beginning to do something, in order actually to be doing it. Likewise, you have to finish finishing an action in order no longer to be doing it.
- Nous avons commencé (ps: commençâmes) à apprendre l’espagnol. (We have begun learning Spanish.)
- J’ai fini (ps: finis) de lire ce roman (= J’ai fini la lecture de ce roman = J’ai fini ce roman). (I finished reading that novel.)
- Estelle a arrêté (ps: arrêta) de fumer. (Estelle stopped smoking.)
D. Verbs of Deciding
You have to have finished deciding on something, in order to have or do the thing you have decided on.
- Nous avons décidé (ps: décidâmes) de passer les vacances en Suède. (We decided to spend our vacation in Sweden.)
- Il a choisi (ps: choisit) de solliciter ce poste. (He has chosen to ask for this post.)
- Elle a choisi (ps: choisit) la robe à rayons. (She chose the dress with stripes.)
- Elle a pris (ps: prit) le parti de ne rien dire. (She opted for saying nothing.)
E. Verbs of Attempting
An attempt, even one that fails, usually has to be finished with before you can go on to something else.
- Nous avons essayé (ps: essayâmes) de le contacter. (We tried to contact him.)
- Il a tâché (ps: tâcha) de les empêcher d’entrer. (He tried to stop them from entering.)
- Elles ont cherché (ps: cherchèrent) à l’apaiser. (They attempted to pacify him.)
The verb vouloir (about which see also below in Part III) in the passé composé, especially in the negative, can indicate a (failed) attempt.
- J’ai voulu l’avertir, mais je n’ai pas pu le rejoindre. (I tried to warn him, but I couldn’t get him on the phone.)
But Don’t Forget…
Of course, all the above types of verbs (of saying, passage, beginning, ending, and deciding) will under the right circumstances appear in the imperfect – that is to say, when the aspect called for is incomplete:
- Habitual Aspect: Elle disait la même chose à tout le monde. (She used to say the same thing to everyone.)
- Interrupted Activity: Nous quittions la maison quand le téléphone a sonné. (We were leaving the house with the telephone rang.)
- Habitual Aspect: Il choisissait toujours la plus grande part. (He always chose the biggest portion.)
- Ongoing: Nous entrions dans le plus mystérieux des royaumes. (We were entering the most mysterious of realms.)
…and so forth.
II. Verbs That Prefer the Imperfect
As stated in Functions of the Imperfect, verbs indicating emotions and mental states in the past will typically be in the imparfait, because normally these states remain the same over time and we are not interested in precisely when they began or ended.
- Je croyais que vous étiez mon ami. (I thought you were my friend.)
- Je savais que vous alliez dire cela. (I knew you were going to say that.)
- Elle craignait le pire. (She feared the worst.)
- Le gouvernement voulait lancer une enquête. (The government wanted to begin an investigation.)
However, when you want to emphasize the moment an emotion begins, or to indicate a momentary feeling, use a perfective tense:
- Quand les loups se sont mis (ps: se mirent) à hurler, et j’ai eu (ps: eus) peur. (When the wolves began to howl, I got scared [OR was afraid for a moment].)
See also the next two sections.
III. General Rule for Semi-Auxiliary Verbs
The semi-auxiliaries are verbs used, very regularly, with dependent infinitives, to give a flavoring to another verb. They are: devoir, falloir, savoir, pouvoir, vouloir, valoir. Now, an English-speaker might be tempted to think: things like knowledge of how to do some thing (savoir), desire to do something (vouloir), ability to do something (pouvoir), obligation to do something (falloir, devoir) – are these not ongoing; and do they not, consequently, in the past, call for the imperfect tense?
Not necessarily. In fact, the following rule (of thumb!) is fairly reliable:
Put the semi-auxiliary into the same tense (passé composé or imperfect) as you would have put the action verb, if you had not used a semi-auxiliary at all.
See also Part IV below for special cases involving semi-auxiliaries.
IV. Verbs of Changeable Meaning Depending on Tense
Sometimes a verb must be translated with different English word (not just the same word in a different tense), depending on whether it is in the passé composé or the imperfect. Here are important cases. (You will note that the verbs here are all either auxiliaries [être, avoir] or semi-auxiliaries.)
J’avais vingt ans. = “I was twenty (years old)”
J’ai eu vingt ans. = “I turned twenty.”
J’étais à l’hôtel. = “I was at the hotel.”
J’ai été à l’hôtel. = “I went (I have been) to the hotel.”
Je devais aller voir ma tante. = “I was supposed, I was intending, to go see my aunt.”
(I had the obligation, but would not or did not fulfill it.)
J’ai dû aller voir ma tante. = “I had to go see my aunt.”
(I had the obligation and I fulfilled it.)
For more on this semi-auxiliary, see the Language file Devoir.
Je voulais manger. = “I wanted to eat.”
Je ne voulais pas manger. = “I didn’t want to eat.”
J’ai voulu manger. = (sometimes:) “I tried to eat” (but didn’t succeed).
Je n’ai pas voulu manger. = (sometimes:) “I refused to eat.”
Savoir Followed by a Noun
Je savais son nom. = “I knew his name.”
J’ai su son nom. = “I learned his name.”
Savoir in the passé composé indicates passage from ignorance to knowledge.
Savoir Followed by an Infinitive
Je savais ouvrir la porte. = “I knew how to open the door.”
J’ai su ouvrir la porte. = “I figured out how to open the door.”
Je pouvais venir. = “I was able to come.”
(general, ongoing ability)
J’ai pu venir. = “I managed to come.”
(ie, I was able to come and did come.)
- This “dit” is the passé simple “dit,” not the present “dit.” An elegant usage is to use “fit” (passé simple of “faire”) rather than “dit.”