French Imperfect Tense

One major difference between English and French is that French has a special verb tense to describe things that used to happen in the past. This is called the imperfect tense or “l’imparfait“. Basically, the imperfect is used when you’re talking about something that occurred over an unspecified period of time. This tense is different from the passé composé (also called the past tense), which describes actions that occurred at a specific moment in time.

French Impefect Vs. Passé Composé

To make things clear please look at the two sentences below. The first one uses the passé composé and the second one uses the imperfect. Can you see the difference?

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.

Verb Endings

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

French Imparfait Examples

Below I’ll give five example sentences. The first is written in the passé composé and the second is written in the imperfect. You can practice saying the sentences are watching the video. After this you should have a clear understanding of the difference between the two.

Example 1

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.

Example 2

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.

Example 3

Il a trop bu hier soir.
He drank to much last night.

Il buvait tous les jours avant.
He used to drink every day.

Example 4

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.

Example 5

J’ai étudié le Français hier.
I studied French yesterday.

J’étudais le Français à l’école.
I used to study French at school.

More Resources: Imperfect vs. Passé composé | Quiz (Quizlet) | Practice Page (BBC French Site)
Back To Main Verbs Page | Next Lesson: Subjunctive Mood