French Imperfect Tense

What is l’imparfait?

The imperfect tense (l’imparfait) is one of the hardest tenses to master for students of the French language. This is because the concept behind the tense doesn’t really exist in English. While the past tense (passé composé) is used to describe actions that happened in the past at specific time or moment, the imperfect describes a) things that happened over a period of time, or ‘used to’ happen and b) states of mind and and feelings.

Imperfect Endings

It’s quite easy to get the endings for the imperfect tense. Simply take the “nous” form of the verb in the present tense. Delete the “ons” ending and add the following endings: ais, ais, ait, ions, iez and aient.

Regular Verbs

-ER (Parler – To Speak) -IR (Finir – To Finish) -RE (Attendre – To Wait)
je parlais je finissais j’attendais
tu parlais tu finissais tu attendais
il parlait il finissait il attendait
nous parlions nous finissions nous attendions
vous parliez vous finissiez vous attendiez
ils parlaient ils finissaient ils attendaient

Irregular Verbs

être – To be avoir – To Have aller – To Go Savoir – To Know
j’étais j’avais j’allais je savais
tu étais tu avais tu allais tu savais
il était il avait il allait il savait
nous étions nous avions nous allions nous savions
vous étiez vous aviez vous alliez vous saviez
ils étaient ils avaient ils allaient ils savaient
Imperfect versus Passé Composé

The following are several example sentences. The first are written using the passé composé and the second are written in the imperfect. Can you see the difference between these sentences?

  • J’ai parlé en Français hier. I spoke in French to yesterday.
  • Je parlais en Français quand j’étais jeune. I used to speak French when I was young.
  • Tu est arrivé en retard hier. You arrived late yesterday.
  • Tu arrivais en retard quand tu étais étudiant. You used to arrive late when you were a student.
  • Il a mangé à sept heures. He ate at seven o’clock.
  • Il mangait vers huit heures. He used to eat around eight o’clock.
  • Il a trop bu hier soir. He drank to much last night.
  • Il buvait tous les jours. He used to drink every day.
  • J’ai trop travaillé cette semaine. I worked too much this week.
  • Je travaillais trop quand j’étais en France. I used to work too much when I was in France.
  • J’ai étudié le Français hier. I studied French yesterday.
  • J’étudais le Français à l’école. I used to study French at school.
Uses of the Imperfect

The imperfect is used for actions that have been done habitually or repeatedly. Here are some examples.

  • Je nagais tous les deux jours. I swam every two days.
  • J’allais au parc le dimache soir. I went to the park on Sunday evenings.
  • Nous étudions à la bibliothèque chaque week-end. We used to study at the library each weekend.

The imperfect is often used to describe a mental or physical state of being. Examples:

  • J’avais très faim hier soir. I was very hungry yesterday night.
  • Nous étions très étonnés quand elle est partie. We were very surprised when she left.
  • Il semblait très heureux! He looked very happy!
  • Elle avait très honte! She was very ashamed!

The imperfect is also used to express an action that was happening when another action (using the passé composé) interrupted it. Examples:

  • Elle travaillait quand son père a téléphone. She was working when her dad called.
  • Il faisait ses devoirs quand son ami est arrivé. He was doing his homework when his friend arrived.
  • Nous parlions quand quelqu’un a frappé à la porte. We were talking when somebody knocked on the door.

Imperfect Exercises

Now it’s your turn to practice the French imperfect tense. Here are some sentences below to translate. I’ll put the answers below.

  1. I used to go to the movies with my parents.
  2. She used to ride a bike in the park.
  3. I was working when the boss came in the room.
  4. The family used to go skiing every Sunday.
  5. I used to share a room with my brother.
  6. The kids used to play basketball in high school.
  7. They used to travel to Australia during summer vacation.
  8. It was hot during the summer last year.
  9. I was playing the violin when dad came home.
  10. She use to work in a shoe store during summer.
  11. We were sleeping when the car passed in front of the house.
  12. He used to go to the bar after work.
  13. She seemed very sad yesterday morning.
  14. He was skiing when his dad arrived at the mountain.
  15. He used to study French every day and now he speaks very well!

Answers:

  1. J’allais au cinéma avec mes parents.
  2. Elle faisait du vélo au parc.
  3. Je travaillais quand le patron est entré dans la salle.
  4. La famille faisait du ski le dimanche.
  5. Je partagais une chambre avec mon frère.
  6. Les enfants jouaient au basket au lycée.
  7. Ils voyagaient en Australie pendant les grands vacances.
  8. Il faisait chaud pendant l’été l’année dernière.
  9. Je jouais du violin quand papa est rentré à la maison.
  10. Nous dormions quand la voiture est passé devant la maison.
  11. Il allait au bar après le travail.
  12. Elle semblait très triste hier matin.
  13. Il faisait du ski quand son père est arrive à la montagne.
  14. Il étudiais le Français tous les jours et maintenant il parle très bien!

 

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