Getting to Know the French Imperfect Tense (Imparfait)
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French Grammar Lesson: The Imperfect Tense

Reading time: 5 minutes Difficulty:  Intermediate

In case you’re racking your brain trying to recall your lessons in imperfect tense in English, chances are, you won’t remember it. Why? Because the imperfect tense is only common in the romance languages such as Latin, French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

In English, we use the past progressive to denote continuous action while the simple past is used to express a previous state.

In French, the imperfect or imparfait is the verb tense used to talk about past events, especially as descriptions. This is why it is often called a “descriptive past tense” since it is commonly used in giving a description for something that happened.

Unlike the perfect tense which is used in events that were fully completed, the imperfect tense does not imply a beginning or ending of an action. The duration of the event being talked about is unspecified, hence, it is imperfect. 

The imperfect is called such based on the Latin word imperfectus which means ‘unfinished’.

Its English counterpart would be: was  ____ , was ____- ing or used to____. 

WHEN AND HOW TO USE THE IMPERFECT TENSE

Here are the common uses of the imperfect tense:

  • To give a physical or emotional description of a past event.

Examples:

◦     She was depressed when her boyfriend left.

◦     It was raining so hard.

  • To talk about a past habitual occurrence or state of being.

  Examples:

◦     We used to run together everyday.

◦     I used to like her a lot.

  • To indicate an action that was ongoing when something else took place.

Examples:

◦     I was looking at the photos when I remembered our old house.

◦     We were walking our dog when we saw the fire.

HOW TO FORM THE IMPERFECT TENSE IN FRENCH

A possible mistake would be to literally translate the English counterpart of the imperfect by using the verb être. This is not be the case for the French imperfect tense. To conjugate a verb into the imperfect, you need only change the ending of the verb.

The Imperfect Tense for -er Verbs

  • Use the same verb stem as the one being used for the perfect tense. This is simply the infinitive, but with the -er chopped off.
  • Add the correct ending to the stem.
  • The ending would depend on the pronoun used in the sentence.

Let’s take for example the verb donner. Chop off the -er, and add the following endings based on the pronoun:

Pronoun EndingWhen added to the stemWhat it means
je (j')-aisje donnais I gave, I was giving, I used to give
tu-aistu donnaisyou gave, you were giving, you used to give
il/elle/on-aitil/elle/on donnaithe/she/one gave/was giving/used to give
nous-ionsnous donnionswe gave, we were giving, we used to give
vous-iezvous donniezyou gave, you were giving, you used to give
ils/elles-aientils/elles donnaientthey gave, they were giving, they used to give

Important: je changes to j’ when used with verbs that begin with a vowel, most words that start with h, and the pronoun y. 

The Imperfect Tense for -ir Verbs

  • Use the same verb stem as the one being used for the perfect tense. This is just the infinitive minus the -ir ending.
  • Add the correct ending to the stem.
  • The ending is also dependent on the pronoun being used in the sentence.

As an example, let’s use the verb finir. Remove the -ir and add the appropriate endings.

Pronoun EndingWhen added to the stem What it means
je (j')-issaisje finissaisI finished, I was finishing, I used to finish
tu-issaistu finissaisyou finished, you were finishing, you used to finish
il/elle/on -issaitil/elle/on finissait he/she/one finished/was finishing/used to finish
nous-issionsnous finissionswe finished, we were finishing, we used to finish
vous-issiezvous finissiezyou finished, you were finishing, you used to finish
ils/elles-issaientils/elles finissaientthey finished, they were finishing, they used to finish

The Imperfect Tense for -re Verbs

  • Use the same verb stem as the one being used for the perfect tense. To get this, use the infinitive and remove the -re ending.
  • Add the correct ending to the stem.
  • The ending depends on the pronoun being used in the sentence.

We’ll use attendre as an example. Take out the -re and add the correct endings. 

Pronoun EndingWhen added to the stemWhat it means
je (j')-aisje attendaisI waited, I was waiting, I used to wait
tu-aistu attendaisyou waited, you were waiting, you used to wait
il/elle/on-aitil/elle/on attendaithe/she/one waited/was waiting/used to wait
nous-ionsnous attendionswe waited, we were waiting, we used to wait
vous-iezvous attendiezyou waited, you were waiting, you used to wait
ils/elles-aientils/elles attendaientthey waited,they were waiting, they used to wait

Verbs with Spelling Changes

Like in other tenses, verbs that have a -cer or -ger ending have slight changes in their spelling when conjugated to the Imperfect Tense. Take note of the 1,2,3,6 pattern in the changes. Meaning, the changes occur in the first, second, and third person singular, and in the third person plural.

Some examples:

  1. lancer which means to throw – the c becomes ç when placed before a or o.

Je lançais

tu lançais

il/ elle/on lançait

nous lancions

vous lanciez

ils/elles lançaient 

  1. manger which means to eat –the letter g is changed to ge when placed before  a or o.

Je mangeais

tu mangeais

il/ elle/on mangeait

nous mangions

vous mangiez

ils/elles mangeaient

The Imperfect Tense for Irregular Verbs

Fortunately, there is only one irregular verb for the imperfect tense, and this is the verb être. More good news, it even follows the pattern to which makes our lives super simple this time.

J’étais

tu étais

il/elle/on était

nous étions

vous étiez

ils/elles étaient 

Example: J’étais heureux. (I was happy) 

See? Easy peasy.

QUICK RECAP OF THE TOPIC

Before we complete this topic, let’s take a look at the most important points discussed:

  • For -er and -re verbs, the imperfect tense endings are -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient.
  • For -ir verbs, the endings are -issais, -issais, -issait, -issions, -issiez, -issaient.
  • For -cer and -ger endings, c becomes ç and g becomes ge except for the nous and vous forms.

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About the Author Frederic Bibard

Frederic Bibard is the founder of Talk in French, a company that helps french learners to practice and improve their french. Macaron addict. Jacques Audiard fan. You can contact him on Twitter and Google +

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