French Imperfect Tense

What is the imperfect tense in French?

The French imperfect tense (l’imparfait) is a French past tense that is used to describe situations and actions that were ongoing or repeated in the past. English equivalents are the simple past (e.g., I ate) and past progressive (e.g., I was eating).

The imparfait is used to express “used to” and “would” for past events, as well as provide background information when telling stories. The imperfect is formed by dropping the -ons from the present tense nous form of the verb and adding the following endings:  -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez and -aient.

How to conjugate the imparfait

To conjugate the imperfect tense, remove the -ons from the nous (third-person plural) form of the present tense and add the imperfect endings.

For regular -ir verbs such as finir, drop the -ons from the nous form “nous finissons” and add -ais: “Je finissais”. For -ir verbs such as partir (to leave), drop the -ons from the nous form, “nous partons” and add -ais: “Je partais”.

parler (to speak
nous parlons
finir (to finish)
nous finissons
partir (to leave)
nous partons
vendre (to finish)
nous venons
je parlais
tu parlais
il parlait
nous parlions
vous parliez
ils parlaient
je finissais
tu finissais
il finissait
nous finissions
vous finissiez
ils finissaient
je partais
tu partais
il partait
nous partions
vous partiez
ils partaient
je vendais
tu vendais
il vendait
nous vendions
vous vendiez
ils vendaient

Imperfect conjugations of avoir and être

The verb avoir (to have) follows the same conjugation pattern of the verbs listed above. Drop the -ons from “nous avons” and add the imparfait endings.

However, être (to be) takes an irregular imperfect stem “ét”.

avoir (to have)
nous avons
etre(to be)
irregular stem ét
j'avais
tu avais
il avait
nous avions
vous aviez
ils avaient
j'étais
tu étais
il était
nous étions
vous étiez
ils étaient

General uses of the imparfait

Describing past situations

  • Quand j’étais un enfant, j’aimais boire le chocolat chaud. When I was little I like to drink hot chocolate.

Describing people and places in the past

  • Mon père etait dentiste. My father was a dentist.
  • La maison était située sur une colline. The house was located on a hill.

Describing actions that took place repeatedly in the past

  • Quand j’étais un enfant, je faisais du ski chaque weekend. When I was a child, I skied every weekend.

Describing background to stories

  • Il faisait très beau ce matin-la. It was very nice out that morning.
  • L’homme portait de vieux vêtements. The man was wearing old clothes.

Imperfect vs. passé composé: More on imparfait usage

Both the imperfect and the passé composé are used as French past tenses with the imperfect expressing ongoing and repeated actions and the passé composé expressing one-time events.

Habitual vs. one-time events

The French language distinguishes very clearly between past events which occurred multiple times past events which only occurred once.

  • Imperfect: Habituellement, je regardais les matchs de foot. Usually, I watched soccer games.
  • Passé composé: Un jour, J’ai regardé un match de tennis. One day, I watched a tennis game.

The imperfect is used to describe past habitual actions and conditions: What people “used to” be and how past situations “used to be”.

Specific past actions are described with the passé composé. These are “storyline” or “plot” actions describing what people did and what occurred.

  • Imperfect: Quand Pierre habitait à Paris, il allait au cafe tous les jours. When Pierre lived in Paris, he went (used to go) to the café every day.
  • Passé composé: Le 28 mars, Pierre a dine au restaurant avec son ami. On March 28, Pierre ate at restaurant with a friend.

Imperfect vs. conditional tense

In French, to describe “used to”, only the imperfect tense must be used. In English, “would” is used to describe “used to”. In French, however, the conditional (French would tense), cannot be used to describe “used to”.

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  • Correct: Quand j’étais un enfant je faisais du ski chaque weekend. When I was little I used to go skiing every weekend.
  • Incorrect: Quand j’étais un enfant je ferais du ski chaque weekend. When I was little I would (okay in English) go skiing every weekend.

Progressive actions

The imperfect is used to describe actions that were in progress at a certain point in time. It expresses what people were doing or what was going on.

The passé composé describes specific actions that occurred at a precise moment in in time. It describes what people did or what happened.

  • Imperfect: A huit heures je faisais mes devoirs. At eight o’clock I was doing my homework.
  • Passé composé: A neuf heures quelqu’un est arrive. At nine o’clock somebody arrived.

Conditions when telling story

When telling a story, the imperfect is used to describe conditions and circumstances as well as provide background.

These conditions and circumstances can be put into categories including time and date, weather, outward appearances and actions which were in progress.

The passé composé is used to describe well-defined actions that occurred at a specific time. These are actions that occurred in the story’s plot.

  • Imparfait: C’était le 2 décembre. Il faisait beau et les enfants jouaient. It was December 2. It was nice weather out and the kids were playing.
  • Passé composé: Soudain, le gardien est arrivé au parc et a grondé les enfants. Suddenly, the caretaker arrived at the park and scolded the kids.

Imperfect and passé composé occurring in the same sentence

There are times when the passé composé and imperfect can occur in the same sentence. In these sentences, a specific action occurs in the passé composé (what happened in an instant), while an ongoing action occurs in the imperfect.

  • Je faisais mes devoirs quand tu as téléphoné. I was doing my homework when you called.
  • Maman préparait le diner quand papa est arrivé a la maison. Mom was making dinner when dad got home.

Si clauses with the imperfect and conditional

The imperfect can be used to express hypothetical “if…then” scenarios. The grammatical structure is: Si + imperfect, then + conditional.

  • Si j’avais vingt million de dollars, j’achèterais un avion. If I had 20 million dollars, I’d buy an airplane.

Si + imperfect and Si + seulement

The construction “si + imperfect” is used to express “What about”. The construction “si seulement + imperfect” is used to describe “If only”.

  • Si on allait au cinéma ? What about going to the movies?
  • Si seulement j’avais plus d’argent ! If only I had more money!

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