The difference between le passé compose et l'imparfait is clearly explained to a French learner by differentiating between a 'once off' event vs. something habitual or over an extended period of time. This is relatively straight forward.

The issue I have is with the application of 'etre' and 'avoir' when used in the past as stand-alone verbs.

Example 1:

I was at the cinema : J'étais au cinéma quand tu m'as appelé.

In this basic example above, we are using the imparfait form, yet it is a 'once off' event. My being at the cinema wasn't something habitual or over a long period of time...I was there at the moment when you called. Therefore one should use passé compose (j'ai ete au cinema...) but l'imparfait still holds?

Example 2

I had two slices of cake : J'avais deux tranches de gateau parce que j'adore gateau.

Again, you had two slices at a specific point in time. You CAN say j'ai eu deux tranches de gateau but the imparfait still holds, even for something that was a 'once off'?

Can anyone explain why it is acceptable to use l'imparfait as above?

  • Imparfait is essentially used for an action that is happening (much like be +ing). For instance, in your first example, someone called me as I was at the cinema. Of course, it is also used, as you say, to express something that happened repeatedly. Passé composé is used for an action that is over and to which we know the time limits. Read more about this here or here.
    – MorganFR
    Oct 26 '16 at 11:19
  • Ok, but then take my example on the cake...the event of having two slices of cake is done and over, yet we are still using l'imparfait to describe the event?
    – Zevdan123
    Oct 26 '16 at 11:30
  • The second example is hard to analyse without more context. What does "to have" mean here? It could mean "I ate 2 slices" (in which case passé composé would be justified), "I had 2 slices in my hand" (probably imparfait), etc... or it could be the beginning of the sentence "I had two slices of cake, when..." (imparfait). Either way, it looks like part of a story you could be telling, which would justify it entirely.
    – MorganFR
    Oct 26 '16 at 11:53
  • 1
    Your second example is so incomplete that any tense can work.
    – Destal
    Oct 26 '16 at 12:41
  • Ok I understand it was incomplete, and have added a very simple second part to the sentence. I think the fact that it is 'incomplete' answers my question, which is that one has to look at context. My issue still remains though that I ate two slices of cake at one point in time, it's not equivalent to 'je vivais dans une ville' (a common example used for l'imparfait as we live in cities for a long time).
    – Zevdan123
    Oct 26 '16 at 22:25

For your first example, it's a regular use of the imparfait: it means you were doing something when something happened.

I was at the cinema can be understood as I was being at the cinema, right?

It was the situation when something happened (the phone call).

Your second example has zero context as I'm writing this, I'll edit if you precise your example.

  • Thanks I've edited the second example (though very basically). Your admission that 'I was being at the cinema' is how I should look at it is helpful.
    – Zevdan123
    Oct 26 '16 at 22:29

The imparfait is for action which are not completed yet at a moment of reference which should be clear from the context. The action itself can be a once off action or a usual action (in which case the action can in fact not be occurring at the precise time, it just had to be habitual in that time frame). The moment of reference can be determined in a lot of way including another action (usually expressed in the passé simple or the passé composé) or just be implicit. It is quite common to have a description of several phrases in the imparfait and then have the point of reference being the main action in the passé simple or the passé composé.

There is also a bunch of other usages more or less related (after si, children are using it to set up the context of their play, ...)

You first example is typical: the moment of reference is the call and you were still at the cinema at that time.

The second example does not provide enough context to choose how to translate I had two slices of cake. With the imparfait you are giving the impression that you are setting up a scene for whatever story you want to tell. With the passé composé you are giving a pretty uninteresting random fact about your past. Considering the meaning, the imparfait seems a little more probable, but the choice is not driven by grammar consideration but by a guess about the context.

Edit: your second example after edition:

I had two slices of cake : J'avais deux tranches de gateau parce que j'adore gateau.

I'd not use the imparfait here, you are not considering a uncompleted action, with the imparfait I picture you holding two slices of cake, one in each hand. And the verb to use here is not avoir but prendre. J'ai pris deux tranches de gâteau parce que j'adore les gâteaux. (It's not a case where we'd use a noun without an article in French).

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