One of the most striking differences between French and English is in verb tenses. Learning how to use the various past tenses can be very tricky, because English has several tenses which either do not exist in or do not translate literally into French – and vice versa.
During the first year of French study, every student becomes aware of the troublesome relationship between the two main past tenses. The imperfect [je mangeais] translates to the English imperfect [I was eating] while the passé composé [j'ai mangé] literally translates to the English present perfect [I have eaten] but can also be translated as the English simple past [I ate] or the emphatic past [I did eat].
It is extremely important to understand the distinctions between the passé composé and imperfect in order to use them correctly and thus express past events accurately. Before you can compare them, however, be sure that you understand each tense individually, as this will make it a lot easier to figure out how they work together.
By Laura K. Lawless, About.com
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