Tex's French Grammar
close window: close
narration: passť composť vs. imparfait
page: tap8
The passé composé is used in French in answer the question 'What happened?' On the other hand, you will usually put a verb in the imparfait if it answers the question 'What was going on when something else happened?' Generally, the passé composé is used to relate events while the imparfait is used to describe what was going on in the past, states of being in the past, or past habits.

All this takes on special importance in narration of past actions, when both tenses often occur in the same story. Narrating a story entails both describing a setting (habitual actions, atmosphere, places and people) and recounting a plot or a series of events, actions, changes of feelings or thoughts. In general, all stories have a well delineated plot line of events, the foreground, and a background of supporting details and description. Some literary texts might subvert this rule but this is out of a conscious effort to surprise or unsettle their reader.

imparfait (set scene)   passé composé (event)
Avant, Tammy habitait à Fort Worth ...   et puis un jour, elle a déménagé.
Before, Tammy lived in Forth Worth ...   and then, one day, she moved.

The following adverbs are commonly associated with each of the past tenses:

adverbs/imparfait   adverbs/passé composé
tous les jours, tous les matins ...
every day, every morning
  un jour, un matin, un soir ...
one day, one morning, one evening
chaque jour, chaque matin, chaque mois ...
each day, each morning, each month
  soudain, brusquement, brutalement ...
suddenly, abruptly, brusquely
en général, généralement, d'habitude . . .
in general, usually
  tout d'un coup, tout à coup ...
all of a sudden, suddenly
autrefois, à l'époque ...
in the past, long ago, at the time
  tout de suite, immédiatement ...
right away, immediately
toujours, souvent ...
always, often
  d'abord, enfin ...
first of all, finally
rarement ...
  puis, ensuite ...
then, next

Usually, when verbs like être, avoir, pouvoir, vouloir, and savoir are in a past narration, they will be in the imparfait, since they most likely describe a past state of being or condition. However, when these verbs (and others like them) occur in the passé composé, they indicate a change of state or a change of condition. Compare these examples:

quand j'avais 15 ans ...
Tammy: Quand j'avais 15 ans, j'habitais à Fort Worth.   Tammy: When I was 15, I used to live in Fort Worth.
Quand j'ai eu 18 ans, j'ai déménagé à Austin.   When I turned 18, I moved to Austin.

The passé composé is also generally used for activities that lasted for a precise length of time, with a definite beginning and end. On the other hand, the imparfait is used for indefinite lengths of time. Look at these examples:

definite period of time:    
De 1997 à 1998,    
Pendant un an,   Tex a été vendeur de T-shirts.
Entre dix-huit et dix-neuf ans,    
indefinite period of time:    
Quand il était enfant,   Tex était dans un couvent de Lyon.
A cette époque-là,    

But ultimately it is the entire context that determines which of these two past tenses to use and not a given adverb. For example, in the sentences below, the same adverb, un jour, is used with the imperfect or the passé composé according to the context.

Un jour, Tex vendait des T-shirts à Paris quand il a été arrêté pour activité illégale.   One day, Tex was selling T-shirts in Paris when he was arrested for illegal activity. (The imparfait sets the scene to be interrupted)
Un jour, les autorités françaises ont expulsé Tex.   One day, the French authorities deported Tex. (Event)

In the following story, note how the narration opens with an extended description of Tex' early childhood in the imparfait, which serves as explanatory background to the plot-line events in the passé composé.

Quand Tex était tout petit, il habitait dans la banlieue de Houston avec sa famille. Ce petit tatou, curieux de nature, aimait toujours faire de longues promenades avec ses amis pour explorer les coins et recoins de la banlieue, surtout les autoroutes!   When Tex was very small, he lived in the suburbs of Houston with his family. This little armadillo, curious by nature, always loved to take long walks with his friends to explore the nooks and crannies of the suburbs, above all the highways!
Un jour, pendant une promenade, il s'est perdu. Heureusement, après des heures et des heures, il a trouvé l'entrée de aéroport Bush International. Fasciné par le bruit et le mouvement, il s'est précipité vers les avions. Tandis qu'il examinait un avion de plus près, un homme l'a brusquement pris et il l'a jeté à l'intérieur avec les bagages. Huit heures plus tard, l'avion est arrivé à Paris, où Tex commencerait sa nouvelle vie française!   One day, during a walk, he got lost. Fortunately, after hours and hours, he found the entrance to the Bush International Airport. Fascinated by all the noise and motion, he rushed to the planes. As he was examining a plane more closely, a man abruptly took him and threw him inside with the baggage. Eight hours later, the plane arrived in Paris, where Tex would start his new French life!
Tex a passé le reste de son enfance en France. En fait, il est devenu cent pour cent français. Quand il était adolescent, il se considérait comme un disciple de Sartre. Il ne connaissait rien au baseball et détestait tout ce qui était américain. Mais en 1998, tout d'un coup sa vie a changé quand il a découvert que ses parents étaient ... américains.   Tex spent the rest of his childhood in France. In fact, he became one hundred per cent French. When he was an adolescent, he considered himself a disciple of Sartre. He knew nothing about baseball and he detested everything American. But in 1998, all of a sudden, his life changed when he discovered that his parents were ... American.
tex se considerait comme un disciple de sartre
© 2014tex's french grammarfirst year frenchut austincontact