Learn the French Imperfect Past Tense

Waiting in line for tickets
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The French imperfect (imparfait) is a descriptive past tense that indicates an ongoing state of being or a repeated or incomplete action. The beginning and end of the state of being or action are not indicated, and the imperfect is very often translated in English as "was" or "was ___-ing." The imperfect can indicate any of the following:

1. Habitual Actions or States of Being

  • Quand j'étais petit, nous allions à la plage chaque semaine. –> When I was young, we used to go to the beach every week.
  • L'année dernière, je travaillais avec mon père. –> I worked with my father last year.

2. Physical and Emotional Descriptions: Time, Weather, Age, Feelings

  • Il était midi et il faisait beau. –> It was noon and the weather was nice.
  • Quand il avait 5 ans, il avait toujours faim. –> When he was 5, he was always hungry.

3. Actions or States of an Unspecified Duration

  • Je faisais la queue parce que j'avais besoin de billets. –> I stood in line because I needed tickets.
  • Il espérait te voir avant ton départ. –> He was hoping to see you before you left.

4. Background Information in Conjunction With the Passé Composé

  • J'étais au marché et j'ai acheté des pommes. –> I was at the market and I bought some apples.
  • Il était à la banque quand il l'a trouvé. –> He was at the bank when he found it.

5. Wishes or Suggestions

  • Ah! Si j'étais riche! –> Oh, if only I were rich!
  • Si nous sortions ce soir? –> How about going out tonight?

6. Conditions in 'si' Clauses

  • Si j'avais de l'argent, j'irais avec toi. –> If I had some money, I would go with you.
  • S'il voulait venir, il trouverait le moyen. –> If he wanted to come, he would find a way.

7. The Expressions 'être en train de' and 'venir de' in the Past

  • J'étais en train de faire la vaisselle. –> I was (in the process of) doing the dishes.
  • Il venait d'arriver. –> He had just arrived.

Rules of Conjugation

French imperfect conjugations are often easier than other tenses, as the imperfect of virtually all verbs—regular and irregular—is formed the same way: dropping the -ons ending from the present indicative nous form of the verb and adding the imperfect endings.

Être ("to be") is the only irregular verb in the imperfect because the present tense nous sommes has no -ons to drop. So it has the irregular stem ét- and uses the same endings as all other verbs.

As in many other tenses, spelling change verbs, that is, verbs which end in -cer and -ger, have minor spelling changes in the imperfect.

Verbs that end in -ier have an imperfect root that ends in i, so end with double i in the nous and vous form of the imperfect.

French Imperfect Conjugations

Here are the imperfect endings and conjugations for the regular verbs parler ("to speak") and finir ("to finish"), the -ier verb étudier ("to study"), the spelling change verb manger ("to eat"), and the irregular verb être ("to be"):

Pronoun Ending parler
> parl-
> finiss-
> étudi-
> mange-
> ét-
je (j') -ais parlais finissais étudiais mangeais étais
tu -ais parlais finissais étudiais mangeais étais
il -ait parlait finissait étudiait mangeait était
nous -ions parlions finissions étudiions mangions étions
vous -iez parliez finissiez étudiiez mangiez étiez
ils -aient parlaient finissaient étudiaient mangeaient étaient
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Team, ThoughtCo. "Learn the French Imperfect Past Tense." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/imperfect-french-past-tense-1368859. Team, ThoughtCo. (2023, April 5). Learn the French Imperfect Past Tense. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/imperfect-french-past-tense-1368859 Team, ThoughtCo. "Learn the French Imperfect Past Tense." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/imperfect-french-past-tense-1368859 (accessed June 2, 2023).