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Advanced French Past Tenses

Verbs with different meanings in the passé composé and imperfect


Now that you know which verbs are usually in the imperfect, you can learn about verbs that have different meanings depending on whether they are used in the passé composé or imperfect, and verbal constructions that are always in the imperfect.

Meaning changes

There are a few verbs that have different meanings depending on whether they are used in the passé composé or imperfect. Note however that these verbs are usually used in the imperfect; the passé composé meaning is fairly uncommon.

avoir - to have

   imperfect - had
   J'avais de l'argent. - I had some money
   Je n'avais pas assez de temps. - I didn't have enough time
   J'avais faim. - I was hungry

   passé composé - had, got, received
   J'ai eu un accident. - I had / got into an accident
   J'ai eu une bonne surprise. - I got a nice surprise
   J'ai eu faim. - I got hungry

connaître - to know

   imperfect - knew, was familiar with
   Je la connaissais bien. - I knew her well

   passé composé - met
   J'ai connu Michel hier. - I met Michel (for the first time) yesterday

devoir - to have to

   imperfect - was supposed to (whether I did or not)
   Je devais partir à midi. - I was supposed to leave at noon

   passé composé - must have, had to
   J'ai dû le perdre. - I must have lost it
   J'ai dû partir à midi. - I had to leave at noon (and did)

pouvoir - to be able to

   imperfect - could, was able to (whether I did or not)
   Je pouvais mentir. - I could lie / was capable of lying

   passé composé - could, was able to, managed to; (negative) couldn't, was unable to
   J'ai pu mentir. - I was able to lie
   Je n'ai pas pu mentir. - I couldn't / was unable to lie

savoir - to know

   imperfect - knew
   Je savais l'adresse. - I knew the address
   Je savais nager. - I knew how to swim

   passé composé - learned, found out
   J'ai su la solution. - I found out / discovered the solution
   J'ai su nager. - I learned how to swim

vouloir - to want

   imperfect - wanted
   Je voulais partir. - I wanted to leave
   Je voulais plus d'argent. - I wanted more money

   passé composé - tried, decided to; (negative) refused
   J'ai voulu partir. - I tried / decided to leave
   Je n'ai pas voulu partir. - I refused to leave

Verbal constructions

Some verbs have particular constructions which, when referring to the past, are always in the imperfect:

aller + infinitive (near future)
   J'allais étudier. - I was going to study.

avoir (with age)
   J'avais 18 ans. - I was 18.

être en train de
   J'étais en train d'écrire une lettre. - I was writing a letter.

faire (with weather)
   Il faisait beau. - It was nice out.

venir de + infinitive (recent past)
   Je venais d'arriver. - I had just arrived.
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