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Lesson Transcript

Michael: What is the difference between the perfect and imperfect tense in French?
Aurore: And how do you know which one to use?
Michael: At FrenchPod101.com, we hear these questions often. Imagine the following scenario: Tristan Toussaint and Mark Lee are talking about their eating habits. Tristan says,
"I ate pizza yesterday."
Tristan Toussaint: Hier, j'ai mangé une pizza.
Tristan Toussaint: Hier, j'ai mangé une pizza.
Mark Lee: Moi aussi. Mais ma femme m'a appelé pendant que je mangeais ma pizza.
Michael: Once more with the English translation.
Tristan Toussaint: Hier, j'ai mangé une pizza.
Michael: "I ate pizza yesterday."
Mark Lee: Moi aussi. Mais ma femme m'a appelé pendant que je mangeais ma pizza.
Michael: "Me too. But my wife called me when I was eating pizza."

Lesson focus

Michael: You're probably familiar with the perfect and imperfect tenses of verbs in the English language. Most languages have an equivalent for these two tenses, although their uses may differ from language to language. In English, the perfect tense indicates that the action has already been completed or "perfected." The imperfect tense, on the other hand, indicates that an action is yet to be completed, thus, the term "imperfect," or, incomplete. In French, however, the rules for when to use the perfect tense and the imperfect tense are quite different. The nearest equivalent of the English perfect tense in French is the
Aurore: Passé composé
Michael: although it is also used nowadays as the equivalent of the English simple past. Just like in English, this tense is used to talk about completed events but also sequential or one-time actions in the past.
The equivalent of the English imperfect tense is the
Aurore: Imparfait
Michael: in French. Unlike in English grammar where the imperfect tense indicates an action that is yet to be completed, this one is used to describe and set the scene in a story, but also to talk about ongoing actions in the past or habits. In fact, it can correspond to the simple past and the past progressive tenses as well.
[Recall 1]
Michael: Let's take a closer look at the dialogue.
Do you remember how Tristan Toussaint says "I ate pizza yesterday."
(pause 4 seconds)
Aurore as Tristan Toussaint: Hier, j'ai mangé une pizza.
Michael: Here, Tristan is using the Past Compound, with
Aurore: J'ai mangé
Michael: The reason for this is simple. Yesterday, Tristan ate a pizza. It was a one-time event, an action that could even be put in a sequence: I ate a pizza, then I washed up and went to bed, for example. As you can see, it ticks off all the boxes for the use of the
Aurore: passé composé.
[Recall 2]
Michael: Now, let's take a look at our second sentence.
Do you remember how Mark Lee says "Me too. But my wife called me when I was eating pizza?"
(pause 4 seconds)
Aurore as Mark Lee: Moi aussi. Mais ma femme m'a appelé pendant que je mangeais ma pizza.
Michael: In this sentence, Mark Lee uses both the Past Compound with
Aurore: m'a appelé
Michael: and he also uses the Imperfect with
Aurore: Je mangeais.
Michael: Why? As you've probably understood by now, here the past compound is used to describe a one-time, and completed action: his wife called him. The imperfect is used in correlation with it to describe the action that was taking place when that action was interrupted:
Aurore: pendant que je mangais, ma femme m'a interrompu.
Michael: In other words, the pizza wasn't finished when his wife called him, so the action of eating pizza is "imperfect."
Michael: In this lesson, you have learned that both the perfect, or
Aurore: Passé composé
Michael: and the imperfect, or
Aurore: Imparfait
Michael: describe an action that was done in the past. The only difference between the two is that the perfect tense describes an action that was done at a specific time in the past. The imperfect tense, on the other hand, describes an ongoing action while it was happening in the past. That being said, both of them describe actions that do not continue in the present.
Michael: The perfect and imperfect tenses are arguably the most important past tenses in French. The tricky part for many French students is that these two tenses often work together. But, then again, the key is to understanding that the perfect tense, or the
Aurore: Passé composé
Michael: is reserved for actions that have already been totally, absolutely completed. Let's take a look at an example to make things easier for you to understand. Imagine this scenario: You're at a friend's house and you're invited to eat pizza with him and his family. They ask you "Do you want some pizza?"
Auror: Tu veux de la pizza ?
Michael: You've just eaten before coming over at your friend's place, so you respond with, "I ate already. I'm not hungry."
Aurore: J'ai déjà mangé. Je n'ai pas faim.
Michael: You can also say, "I was eating pizza when you asked me to come over."
Aurore: Je mangeais de la pizza quand tu m'as demandé de venir.
Michael: In this case, you're using the imperfect tense, explaining what was happening in the past with no indication of when it had ended. It is also unclear if you finished your pizza, thus, once again, the "imperfect" aspect.
Cultural Insight/Expansion
Michael: Did you know that the French language uses several past tenses? The good news for French learners is that, if you're just starting, you only need to master two tenses, which are the ones we've discussed— the perfect and imperfect tenses. These are the two most common tenses used in daily conversations. The simple past, or the
Aurore: passé simple,
Michael: is limited to formal writing, while the rest of the past tenses are rarely used in normal conversations. Mastering the perfect and imperfect tenses should be enough for you to express yourself well in French—at least when you're just starting.


Michael: Do you have any more questions? We're here to answer them!
Aurore: À bientôt !
Michael: See you soon!

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