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Use of passé composé and imperfect

Unlike the imperfect, which is used to describe settings or habitual actions in the past, the passé composé is the tense of choice for describing events, actions which advance the narrative. Frequently the two tenses will be used in the same passage, even in the same sentence.

In general, the passé composé recounts distinct events, while the imperfect describes more static or contextual elements. In general, the passé composé corresponds to the actions one might tell in a story, while the imperfect corresponds to decor or background:

a diagram showing the use of passé compose and the imperfect

Compare the use of passé composé and the imperfect in the following examples. In each case the passé composé signals the principal action of the phrase:

Le jour où elle est arrivée, il tombait des cordes et il faisait très froid. (The day she arrived it was raining cats and dogs and it was freezing.)
Pendant qu’elle parlait, j’ai reçu un coup de téléphone. (While she was speaking, I got a phone call.)
Elle lisait quand je suis arrivée. (She was reading when I arrived.)

Or it may be used to signal the interruption of a longer action (which will usually be placed in the imperfect):

Pendant que je dormais, le professeur m’a appelé. (While I was sleeping, the professor called on me.)

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