Using the Correct Form of the Past Tense

You can discover when to use the various past tenses by taking a look at the following information.

Passé composé

Use the passé composé:

To express specific actions or events that were started and completed at a definite time in the past (even if the time isn't mentioned):

  • Je suis allé au centre commercial. (I went to the mall.)

To express a specific action or event that occurred at a specific point in past time:

  • Je suis allé au centre commercial hier. (I went to the mall yesterday.)

To express a specific action or event that was repeated for a stated number of times:

  • Je suis allé au centre commercial deux fois. (I went to the mall twice.)

The following words and expressions often require the use of the passé composé because they specify a definite past time:

  • l'année passée (last year)
  • avant-hier (the day before yesterday)
  • d'abord (at first)
  • enfin (finally)
  • ensuite (then, next)
  • l'été passé/l'hiver passé (last summer/last winter)
  • finalement (finally)
  • une fois (one time)
  • hier (yesterday)
  • hier soir (last night)
  • l'autre jour (the other day)
  • ce jour-là (that day)
  • un jour (one day)
  • le mois passé ( dernier) (last month)
  • la semaine passée ( dernière) (last week)
  • soudain (suddenly)
  • tout à coup (suddenly)

Passé simple

The passé simple is used in the same manner as the passé composé; however, it is not used conversationally or in informal writing.

Imparfait

Use the imparfait:

To describe continuous, ongoing, habitual, or repeated actions or events in the past (which may or may not have been completed):

  • J'allais au centre commercial tous les jours. (I used to [would] go to the mall every day.)

To describe what was going on when something else happened:

  • J'allais au centre commercial quand Marie m'a téléphoné. (I was going to the mall when Marie called me.)

To describe a person, place, thing, or state of mind:

  • Le centre commercial était magnifique. (The mall was magnificent.)

To express the day, the month, or the time of day:

  • C'était vendredi. (It was Friday.)
  • C'était le mois de juin. (It was June.)
  • Il était midi. (It was noon.)

With depuis + an expression of time to describe an action or event that began in the past and continued for some time in the past:

  • Depuis combien de temps habitait-il à Paris avant son mariage? (How long had he been living in Paris before his marriage?)
  • Il y habitait depuis deux ans. (He had been living there for two years.)

With il y avait (or cela [ça] faisait … que) + expression of time + que to describe an action or event that began in the past and continued for some time in the past:

  • Combien de temps y avait-il qu'il habitait à Paris avant son mariage?
  • Ça faisait combien de temps qu'il habitait à Paris avant son mariage?
  • How long had he been living in Paris before his marriage?
  • Il y avait deux ans qu'il y habitait.
  • Ça faisait deux ans qu'il y habitait.
  • He had been living there for two years.

The following words and expressions often require the use of the imperfect because they usually imply repetitious or habitual past actions:

  • autrefois (formerly)
  • chaque jour ( semaine, mois, année) (each [every] day [week, month, year])
  • de temps à autre (from time to time)
  • de temps en temps (from time to time)
  • d'habitude (usually)
  • d'ordinaire (usually, generally)
  • en ce temps-là (at that time)
  • en général (generally)
  • fréquemment (frequently)
  • généralement (generally)
  • habituellement (habitually)
  • parfois (sometimes)
  • quelquefois (sometimes)
  • souvent (often)
  • toujours (always)
  • tous les jours (mois) (every day [month])
  • tout le temps (all the time)

Verbs that indicate a state of mind in the past are generally used in the imperfect. When the state of mind occurred at a specific time in the past, however, the passé composé is used:

  • aimer (to like, to love)
  • croire (to believe)
  • désirer (to desire)
  • espérer (to hope)
  • être (to be)
  • penser (to think)
  • pouvoir (to be able to)
  • préférer (to prefer)
  • regretter (to regret, to be sorry)
  • savoir (to know [how])
  • vouloir (to want)

Here are two examples of the imparfait used correctly:

  • Je ne voulais pas aller au gymnase. (I didn't want to go to the gym.)
  • Je n'ai pas voulu aller au gymnase hier soir. (I didn't want to go to the gym last night.)

Passé antérieur and plus-que-parfait

The passé antérieur and the plus-que-parfait both express “had” + past participle. Remember that the passé antérieur is seen only in formal writing and is never used conversationally. Normally, it may not be used with any tense other than the passé simple. The passé antérieur indicates that an action has taken place and was completed once or a specific number of times. The plus-que-parfait is used when an action has recurred an unspecified number of times or may be considered habitual:

One particular occurrence:

  • Aussitôt que le président eut signé le document, sa secrétaire l'emporta. (As soon as the president had signed the document, his secretary took it away.)

A customary occurrence:

  • Aussitôt que le président avait signé un document, sa secrétaire l'emportait. (As soon as the president had signed a document, his secretary would take it away.)