A Discussion of Techniques Used in the Teaching of the Passé Composé/Imparfait Distinction in French

by Diane Dansereau
A Discussion of Techniques Used in the Teaching of the Passé Composé/Imparfait Distinction in French
Diane Dansereau
The French Review
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A Discussion of Techniaues Used in the Teaching of the Passt ~bm~osi/lm~arfait Distinction in French

by Diane Dansereau

Rrsucrs or AN INFORMAL POLL taken recently of teachers of high school French show that one of the most difficult points of French grammar to teach to native speakers of English is the distinction between the passe' compose' and the imparfait.' Students are confused because no neat equivalent distinction exists in English. The same can be said, however, for many, perhaps most aspects of the French language. Why then the extraordmary confusion experienced by students faced with this particular structure? I belive that most of their troubles are the result of vague, incomplete, contradictory, and generally poor explana- tions found in most beginning textbooks. The aim of this article is to point out the harm in these textbook explanatio~ls and then to propose a simple yet complete alternative which eliminates most of the confusion. The traditional portion of the article is of necessity longer than the non-traditional proposal, as I must break down the complex traditional explanations and discuss the problems with each point. (These are not always immedately obvious except in the fact that they do not work well.)

Data for this study were taken from twelve current beginning and interme- diate level college textbooks.' The non-traditional explanation then proposed is in fact found in many of these books, but always mixed in with and lost among other explanations. It is a simple statement of the basic difference between Imperfective and Perfective aspect, a difference that is taught in graduate linguistic classes (hence my introduction to it) and has been discussed in linguistic articles (see Pulgram; Comrie 3, 70; Klein 98-100). I have been using the linguistic explanation exclusively in my college French classes for the past five years, with consistently excellent results.

All of the beginning French texts examined introduce the passe' compose', by giving a blanket definition of that tense, and then in subsequent chapters add sub-explanations, precisions and exceptions. This practice is unsound, confusing the student by giving him false impressions, leading him to believe one thing and then telling him just the opposite later on. It would be preferable to provide the student with one clear explanation at the outset, which holds in all cases.

An example of a totally useless general definition of the passe' compose' which is found in many textbooks is that the passe' composi is used to "indicate that an



event occurred in the past." To be sure, elaborations on this definition are always given in later chapters. But what good is this definition which could be used for literally all of the many past tenses (in the indicative as well as the conditional and subjunctive moods)?

Various elaborations on this general definition of the passe' compost, as contrasted with the imparfait, are discussed in points 1-5, below. There are two problems with these traditional explanations. First, they are ambiguous and confusing: in every single case, exceptions to the definition are easily pointed out. Second, some of the statements lead the student to believe wrongly that the difference between the two tenses is semantic (e.g. action verbs belong in the passe' compose' and verbs of state in the imperfect), when in fact it is aspectual

(i.e. any verb can be in either tense, depending on how the speaker wishes to portray the event).

Traditional terminology

1. The first of the traditional definitions invokes the idea of finished us. unfinished action. Many textbooks state that "the passe' compose'is used to express events which occurred in the past but are completed at the time of speaking." This statement is as useless as the general definition given above, since, if we assume the time of speaking to be the present, virtually all past actions have been completed. (The exception, in an affirmative sentence, an action which began in the past and continues to the present, is expressed in the present tense:" J'habite ici depuis trois ans.")

It is equally unhelpful to say that "the passe' compose' is used for actions finished in the past," since all past tense verbs are in fact completed sometime in the past. For example, in "il dormait quand quelqu'un a frappk i la porte," both events took place and ended in the past.

One could take this definition one step further (which most textbooks do not do), changing the wording to read that the "passe' compose' is used for actions finished at the point of reference in the past." This is better, but still confusing. A student operating with this definition will be obliged to keep track of his reference time point, which changes constantly. Similar difficulties are encoun- tered in traditional explanations of the imparfait.

2. A term often used to describe verbs in the imparfait is continuing (or continuous). Unfortunately, "continuing" is rather an unclear term. It gves the impression that the length of time involved in some way affects the choice of tense. The same is true of the terms durative and punctual. A student could rightly look at a sentence such as "Le roi a rigne' pendant soixante ans" and claim that sixty years is a long time. Certainly the reign "continued" a long time, so why not use the imperfect tense? By the same token, the time needed to enter a room is not long, so why is an imperfect verb used in "I1 entrait duns la pitce quand le ttle'phone a sonnt"? Since length of time has in fact nothing to do with the correct choice of tense, it is best to avoid the terms "continuing," "durative," and "punctual."

Another variation on the "continuing"/"unfinished" theme is that "the impar- fait is used for an action which takes place in the past without any indication as to when it began or ended." The main problem with this definition is that an action in the imparfait had to begin and end at some time and that the beginning and ending are often implicit in the context. Take for example, "Marc s'est jeti de l'avion. Pendant qu'il tombait, il avait peur, mais lorsque ses pieds ont touchi la terre, sa peur s'est ivaporie." The action tomber, which is in the imperfect, obviously began when Marc jumped and ended when he landed.

3. Other terms which should be avoided in any definition of the passi cornposi/imparfait distinction are state, action, and description. Any so-called verb of state (such as gtre, weather and health expressions) can be in the passi compost!, when a change of state is implied: "I1 a eu peur quand il a vu le monstre." And conversely, any so-called action verb can be in the imparfait: "I1 entrait dans la piice quand. . ." By using the terms state and action, one gives the false impression that an occurrence can be seen in only one light, either as a state or as an action. This of course, is simply not true. An example of one occurrence portrayed in two different ways is: "Hier soir, j'ai e'tudii pendant quatre heures. Pendant que j'itudiais, le tiliphone a sonni cinq fois, mais j'ai enfin riussi a finir mon travail."

The word "description," which is often used to qualify a verb in the imperfect tense, is also a poor choice of terms. Many times I have seen students look at a sentence with the verb in the passi composi, such as "I1 a fermi la porte" and ask "but doesn't that describe what happened?"

Some texts elaborate further on this "description" definition, saying that the imparfait is used to describe "a past mental or physical state or a scene without reference to an exact moment of time" (hence the difference between "I1 avait peur" and "I1 a eu peur"). But this qualification of "precise time" is confusing and inaccurate. In the example"Ahuit heures, j'e'tais dans mon bureau," an imparfait is used, even though the precise time is given. So the terms "description" and "precise moment" are to be avoided in any definition of the passi compost/ imparfait distinction.

4. Yet another criterion often given for the passi cornposi/imparfait distinction is that the passi cornposi represents a single event or one event repeated a determinate number of times, while the imparfait represents an event repeated an indeterminate number of times. But as with all the preceding definitions, this one is also inaccurate. One need only examine the following examples. In "I1 tombait quand il a vu l'hilicoptire", the falling took place only once, yet the verb is in the imperfect tense. In "I1 est souvent venu me voir," the visits took place an indeterminate number of times, yet the verb is in the passe' compost, and in "Cet iti-la, il ne mangeait que deux fois par jour," the exact number of times is clear,


but the verb is in the imperfect tense. What this last definition is hinting at is the "habitual action" usage of the imperfect tense. Many texts talk of a "repeated or habitual action" usage of the imparfait. I would agree with this definition if the word "repeated" were omitted, since this term again raises the "determinate/ indeterminate number of times" issue. A repeated action can clearly be expressed in either the imparfait or the passe' compose'.

5. A final criticism I have of traditional presentations of the passe' compose'/ imparfait distinction is that many supplement the above explanations (1-4) with English translations. Thus the imparfait is often translated as "used to"/"would." But how many students know the difference between the habitual "would" and the conditional "would" in English? The imparfait also sometimes translates as "was/were doing," but this definition excludes modal and auxiliary verbs which are rarely translated into English as progressives. For example, the verbs in both "Elle avait un enfant" and "Elle a eu un enfant" come out as "she had" in English. In addition, the "habitual" usage of the imparfait can often translate as a simple past in English: the verbs in both "le dimanche, j'allais a l'e'glise" and "Dimanche, je suis alli a l'iglise" can both be translated as "Iwent." It is simply bad practice to get students dependent on English translations. All too often, the translation tricks do not work, but more importantly, in regarding the passi compose'/ imparfait distinction in terms of the English language, one is overlooking the true difference between the two French tenses, the aspectual difference.

Aspectual explanation

It should now be obvious that traditional explanations are inadequate and indeed detrimental to the teaching and learning of the passe' composi/imparfait distinction. To fill a student's head with notions of "completion," "duration," "number of times," "state," "action," and so forth is to doom him to confusion, frustration, and incorrect usage. Why not teach instead the basic aspectual difference on the first day and then stick to that definition? Students must learn that the dfference between the two tenses is not semantic but aspectual. Aspects, as defined by Comrie (1976:3) are "different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation." One occurrence in the past can be viewed from many different perspectives. In spoken French these different vantage points are expressed by the passe' compose', the imparfait, and the plus- que-parfait. Sometimes these different aspects in French translate into opposing past tense forms in English and sometimes not, so it is best to leave English out of the picture altogether.

What then are the two aspects expressed by the passi compose' and the imparfait? I make no claim to having discovered them: many texts do include them, in one form or another, but only in conjunction with the laborious, confusing special case explanations given above. If the superfluous traditional terminology is eliminated, the simple explanation (as explained in Pulgram 1984) is as follows:

The imparfait is used to relate what the conditions werelwhat was going on ("Quelles e'taient les conditions?"), and the passe' compose' to relate what happenedlwhat happened next ("Qu'est-ce qui s'est passi?").

This basic definition, accompanied by examples and exercises, works well because it admits virtually no exceptions. (Specialized uses such as the imparfait narratif or the imparfait in the si clause of conditional sentences are saved for more advanced study.) With lots of practice, students can learn to approach all verbs in a past context with this &stinstion in mind, and to choose the correct past tense form. Their choice will be easier than if they had learned the traditional explanations because none of the confusion about duration, number of times, etc. can occur, since these conditional terms are never used.

From a practical standpoint, I readily admit that the aspectual definition is most easily understood through the use of examples. Thus, at the outset, the instructor should point out the two sub-categories of the "what were the conditions" part of the definition. That is, he should take the imperfect tense as a point of departure and explain, with examples, that this tense is found in two, and only two, contexts, both of which answer the question concerning "what the conditions were." First, there is the "habitual action" usage, which is always in the imperfect tense: "a cette ipoque-la, les gens vivaient moins bien." Second, and most importantly, the imparfait is used to set the scene, create an atmos- phere, relate what the conditions were as background to a verb in the passe' compose', which answers the question: "and so, what happened?": "11 marchait dans la forit quand il a vu la soucoupe." (It is helpful to add here that accordingly, all physical description in the past-as opposed to description of something that happened-is in the imperfect). In this way, students learn that unless the verb in question pertains to habitual action, the imparfait is used virtually always as a background to a verb in the passe' compose'. In other words, a verb in the imparfait in the second context is almost never complete: it leaves one hanging, waiting to hear what happened (passe' compost!). An example of a verb in the imperfect not signaling habitual usage, yet complete without a verb in the passe' compose' is "Aujourd'kui il fait beau, mais hier, il pleuvait." Yet this usage follows the aspectual definition: one is comparing weather conditions. The same sen- tence, but with the second verb in the passe' compose', is equally correct, if one chooses to present the rain as something that happened. Examples such as these should be studied carefully whenever they come up in the classroom because they underline the fact that any event can be perceived and presented as either a background condition or as something that happened, and that it is up to the speaker to convey one aspect or the other by choosing one of the past tenses. However, since the concept of past aspect is so foreign to students of French, during the first several weeks (or months) of past tense study, it is best to do


exercises that involve only clear-cut aspectual choices: "I1 dormait quand le tiliphone a sonni" or "Elle a crii quand elle a uu le serpent." Once students have become somewhat used to thinking in aspectual terms, then the instructor should begin including sentences with two interpretations: "Elle a fermi la porte quand elle a remarqui qu'il neigeait" or "Elle fermait la porte quand elle a remarqui qu'il neigeait."


Having presented the passi composi/irnparfait distinction in the manner outlined above, the instructor must stick to this definition at all times, stressing the importance of the students' perception of the event. He must never fall back on any of the traditional terminology, such as "duration" or "repetition," which has been shown to be at best confusing and at worst inaccurate. The aspectual distinction must be kept clear in the students' minds. And then, for the rest, the students must do many, many exercises (chiefly paragraphs to be put into the past tense). In this way, most of the panic and confusion surrounding the study of the past tense distinctions in French can be avoided.


' Poll taken by me upon presentation of a paper on this same topic at the spring 1986 meeting of the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers. All of the thirty-five members of the audience agreed on the point, and many later shared with me specific problems they had encountered in teaching past tenses in French.

The textbooks examined were:

BraggerlRice. Allons-y. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1984.

Fanelli. Aujourd'hui. 3rd ed. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath & Co., 1980.

Hagiwaralde Rocher. Thimes et Variations. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1981.


Invitation. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981.

Jian. Decouverte et Criation. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Lenard. Elan. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980.

Muyskens. Rendez-vous. 2nd ed. New York: Random House, 1986.

Ollivier/Morran/Howard. Appel: Initiation au Frangais. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1983.

Ostyn/LeTexier. Fluent Spoken French. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Rassias. Le Fran~ais: Dipart-ArrivPe. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

St. OngelTeny. Vous y gtes. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1986.

Valette/Valette. Contacts. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Works Cited

Comrie, Bernard. Aspect. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976. 
Klein, H. G. Tempus, Aspekt, Aktionsart. Tiibingen: Niemeyer, 1974. 
Pulgram, Ernst. 'The Function of Past Tenses: Greek, Latin, Italian, French." Language Sciences 6 

(1984): 239-269.

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