'L'Imparfait du Subjonctif': An Important French Literary Tense

How to use the French Imperfect Subjunctive in Formal Writing

The French l'imparfait du subjonctif (the "imperfect subjunctive") is a literary tense used in formal writing, such as literature, journalism, and history texts, and for narration. Like all literary verb forms, you really only need to be able to recognize it, not to use it.

L'imparfait du subjonctif is one of five literary tenses in French. They have virtually disappeared from spoken language, unless the speaker wishes to sound erudite.

All five French literary tenses include:

  1. P​assé simple
  2. Passé antérieur
  3. L'imparfait du subjonctif                                        
  4. Plus-que-parfait du subjonctif 
  5. Seconde forme du conditionnel passé

Examples of the French Imperfect Subjunctive

The imperfect subjunctive is used in a subordinate clause when the main clause is in the past. Its nonliterary equivalent is the present subjunctive.

For example:

  • Il partit pour que nous eussions la salle à nous-mêmes. > He left so that we'd have the room to ourselves.
    Nonliterary equivalent: Il est parti pour que nous ayons la salle à nous-mêmes.
  • Je voulais qu'il parlât à son frère. > I wanted him to talk to his brother.
    Nonliterary equivalent: Je voulais qu'il parle à son frère.
  • Je craignais qu’il fût mort. > I feared he was dead.
    Nonliterary equivalent: Je craignais qu’il soit mort.
  • Elle voyagea quoiqu’elle n’eût point d’argent. > She traveled even though she didn’t have any money.
    Nonliterary equivalent: Elle a voyagé quoiqu’elle n’ait pas eu d’argent.

    How to Conjugate the French Imperfect Subjunctive Literary Tense

    Conjugation of the French l'imparfait du subjonctif is based on the French passé simple ("simple past"), also known as the "preterite" or passé défini ("definite past"). Passé simple is the literary equivalent of the everyday passé composé, and, like the imperfect subjunctive, it's used predominantly in formal writing such as literature, journalism, and history texts.

    1) For all -er verbs, including stem-changing verbs and the normally irregular verb aller, take the third person singular form of the passé simple as the stem and add the imperfect subjunctive endings. Note that spelling-change verbs like manger and lancer have their spelling irregularity in all of these conjugations.

    2) For -ir verbs-re verbs, and irregular verbs, the imperfect subjunctive is formed as follows: third person singular form of the passé simple minus the final t, plus the imperfect subjunctive endings.

    Below are the imperfect subjunctive endings and conjugations for:

    • the -er verbs parler ("to speak"), manger ("to eat"), lancer ("to throw"), and aller ("to go");
    • the regular -ir and -re verbs finir ("to finish") and rendre ("to return") respectively;
    • and the irregular verbs avoir ("to have") and venir ("to come").

    Indicative Conjugations of the French Imperfect Subjunctive Tense

    3rd person singular passé simpleil parlail mangeail lançail alla
    imperfect subjunctive stemparla-mangea-lança-alla-
     ...que je-sseparlassemangeasselançasseallasse
     ...que tu-ssesparlassesmangeasseslançassesallasses
     ...qu'il-^tparlâtmangeât  lançâtallât
     ...que nous-ssionsparlassions  mangeassions  lançassions  allassions
     ...que vous-ssiezparlassiezmangeassiezlançassiezallassiez
    3rd person singular passé simpleil finitil renditil eutil vint
    imperfect subjunctive stemfini-rendi-eu-vin-
     ...que je-ssefinisserendisseeussevinsse
     ...que tu-ssesfinissesrendisseseussesvinsses
     ...que nous-ssionsfinissionsrendissionseussionsvinssions
     ...que vous-ssiezfinissiezrendissiezeussiezvinssiez


    Additional Resources 

    French literary tenses
    P​assé simple literary tense
    Passé antérieur literary tense
    Plus-que-parfait du subjonctif literary tense 
    Seconde forme du conditionnel passé literary tense