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Tense

The Past

The passé composé (see passé composé conjugations) is used to report activities as they are completed.

Elle a donné un coup de pied dans le ballon. Le camion a heurté l'arbre. Il a mangé une groseille.
She kicked the ball. The truck hit the tree. He ate a redcurrant.

Some activities occur in the background and are continuous. These activities are expressed using the imperfect (see imperfect conjugations).

Pierre a plongé1 dans l'eau froide et a nagé1 jusqu'au bateau bien que la mer etait 2 agitée et que les vagues martelaient 2 le rivage.
Pierre dove into the cold water and swam to the boat even though the sea was violent and the waves pounded the shore.

1 passé composé
2 imperfect

The imperfect is used in expressing enduring qualities or characteristics. (This makes sense of course because enduring qualities are ongoing.)

Le bateau était en bois blanc. C'était un bateau de pêche.
The boat was white and wooden. It was a fishing boat.

The imperfect is also used to paint the background, to describe ongoing actions that take place continuously as actions are completed.

Les tomates mijotaient dans l'huile d'olive. Magalie sentait la chaleur du feu. Rapidement, elle y a jeté le basilic et l'origan.
The tomatoes simmered in the olive oil. Magalie felt the heat of the fire. Quickly, she threw in the basil and the oregano.

The passé simple (see passé simple conjugations) is used instead of the passé composé in formal writing.

Le Français fit ce que qu'en toute occasion font les français, il se mit à rire.
The Frenchman did what on all occasions the French do, he begins to laugh.
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