Learn the French Past Tense (Imperfect / Imparfait)

The incomplete French past tense

Waiting in line for tickets
Je faisais la queue parce que j'avais besoin de billets (I stood in line because I needed tickets.). Dan Mullan / Getty Images

The French imperfect (imparfait) is a descriptive past tense which 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 five, 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.

    French imperfect conjugations are very easy, as the imperfect of virtually all verbs—regular and irregular—is formed the same way: drop the -ons ending from the present indicative nous form of the verb and adding the imperfect endings.

    Être 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, verb 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. This isn't irregular, but it looks kind of weird.

    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):
     
    PronounEndingparler
    parl-
    finir
    finiss-
    étudier
    étudi-
    manger
    mange-
    être
    ét-
     je (j') -aisparlaisfinissaisétudiaismangeaisétais
     tu -aisparlaisfinissaisétudiaismangeaisétais
     il -aitparlaitfinissaitétudiaitmangeaitétait
     nous -ionsparlionsfinissionsétudiionsmangionsétions
     vous -iezparliezfinissiezétudiiezmangiezétiez
     ils -aient parlaient finissaient étudiaient mangeaient étaient