Imparfait French, also referred to as the French imperfect tense, is one of the main tenses relating to past events. The other main past tense in French is the passé composé.
One of the key differences between the imperfect tense in French and its equivalent in English is the fact that in French we express the tense with a single word, while in English you use a compound construction with “was / were + -ing” (as in, “you were walking while I was talking”). This English version is known as the past continuous or past progressive tense.
In both languages, we use this tense to talk about something that was continuous or ongoing, rather than an event that started and finished. In this post we’ll take a close look at the French imparfait, starting with when and how to use it, and then going into imparfait conjugation for both regular and irregular French verbs. Let’s get started!
When to use the French imparfait tense
L’imparfait is a form of past tense in French mainly used to describe continuous actions, repetitive actions, or existing states. In this section we’ll cover some of the contexts where we’ll use imparfait French rather than the passé composé, with plenty of examples.
Note that the passé composé is also present in many of these examples, so you can see the difference in when each should be used.
Simultaneously occurring activities
- Le chiot déjeunait pendant que le chaton jouait. – The puppy was eating lunch while the kitten was playing.
- Tim lisait et sa mère cuisinait un gâteau. – Tim was reading and his mother was baking a cake.
An activity which was ongoing when another occurred
- Nous regardions un film quand Ellen a appelé. – We were watching a movie when Ellen called.
- Je tondais la pelouse quand un orage a éclaté. – I was mowing the lawn when a storm broke out.
Past habits or actions carried out continuously in the past
- Chaque soir, il buvait un verre de son vin préféré. – He used to drink a glass of his favorite wine each evening.
- Quand elle était plus jeune, elle croyait à la petite souris. – She believed in the tooth fairy when she was younger.
Moods or states of mind or being
- Il était de mauvaise humeur quand il est rentré du travail hier soir. – He was in a bad mood when he returned from work last night.
- Je sentais heureuse de voir que tu avais échappé à l’attaque indemne. – I felt happy to see you had escaped the attack unharmed.
The appearance of places or individuals
- La fille que j’ai vue au lac avait les cheveux noirs épais. – The girl I saw at the lake had dark thick hair.
- Le bâtiment était dans un état de délabrement quand je l’ai inspecté. – The building was in a state of neglect when I inspected it.
Describing the date, time, or weather
- Le soleil brillait quand elle s’est réveillée. – The sun was shining when she awakened.
- Il neigeait quand il est arrivé. – It was snowing when he arrived.
French imparfait conjugation
Now that we’ve covered the contexts where we use imparfait French, let’s go over its conjugation.
This past tense in French is formed by taking the stem from its first-person plural présent conjugation, and appending the following endings:
Note that in a lot of cases, particularly for regular -er and -ir verbs, the stem of the infinitive and of the first-person présent conjugations are identical. They’re not always the same though! To form the imparfait conjugation, it’s vital that we always take the stem from the first-person plural présent conjugation.
Let’s see this applied to the most common verb forms through some typical verbs for each type.
Imparfait conjugation: verbs ending in -er
We’ll use the verb parler as our example of a regular -er verb. The first-person plural conjugation of the verb in présent is nous parlons, from which we get our stem parl-.
|Subject||Parler imparfait conjugation|
Imparfait conjugation: verbs ending in -re
We’ll use the verb rendre as our example of a regular -re verb. The first-person plural conjugation of the verb in présent is nous rendons, from which we get our stem rend-.
|Subject||Rendre imparfait conjugation|
Imparfait conjugation: verbs ending in -ir
We’ll use the verb choisir as our example of a regular -ir verb. The first-person plural form of the verb in présent is nous choisissons. This is a clear case where it’s vital that we choose this conjugation to get our stem, rather than using the infinitive or the first-person singular which would give us “chois-.” The stem we need for the imperfect tense is therefore choisiss-.
|Subject||Choisir imparfait conjugation|
Imparfait conjugation: Irregular verbs
Irregular verbs change their stems in their present conjugations, though in most cases the same rule applies to get our imparfait stem. Irregular verbs are therefore another ideal example of why we need to start with the first-person plural form as the basis for our imparfait French conjugation.
We’ll start with a few French irregular verbs that indeed follow this rule, before ending with the imparfait conjugation for the highly-irregular but vital French verb être.
We’ll start by looking at the irregular French verb coudre. From this infinitive, the first-person singular form in présent is je couds, whereas its first-person plural form has a different stem: nous cousons. Hence the stem for the imperfect tense is cous-.
|Subject||Coudre imparfait conjugation|
The next example of an irregular French verb that we’ll consider looks similar to the previous one, but the imparfait stem is indeed different. From the infinitive moudre our présent first-person singular conjugation is je mouds, whereas the stem changes in first-person plural form: nous moulons. The stem for the imperfect tense is therefore moul-.
|Subject||Moudre imparfait conjugation|
Avoir is one of the most-important verbs in the French language, so it’s a good one to know in multiple tenses. It follows the same rule for imparfait conjugation we’ve seen so far. Though its conjugations in présent are quite irregular, with j’ai in first-person singular and nous avons in first-person plural, we still get our imparfait stem the same way: av-.
|Subject||Avoir imparfait conjugation|
We include aller here not only because it’s one of the most-important verbs in the French language, but also because while it’s highly irregular in présent, it still follows the same rule for the imparfait conjugation that we’ve seen so far. Though the first-person singular conjugation in présent is a very irregular je vais, the first-person plural conjugation is nous allons. We form our aller imparfait conjugations using this stem: all-.
|Subject||Aller imparfait conjugation|
We’ll end our French irregular imparfait conjugations with this highly-irregular but fundamental verb. In the case of être, despite the présent conjugations of je suis and nous sommes, the imparfait has a completely different stem: ét-. Fortunately, the imparfait endings all remain regular!
|Subject||Être imparfait conjugation|
Since être is such an important verb in French, while also being one of the most irregular verbs, we have a dedicated post with all the être conjugations.
Conclusion: Imparfait French
There you have it, a straightforward introduction to the French imparfait, also known as French imperfect.
We started off with a basic comparison with its English counterpart, known as the continuous past or past progressive tense. The main difference between the two languages is that the French version uses just one word, as opposed to the English equivalent which generally uses the construction: “was / were + -ing.”
Then we looked at the various contexts where we use imparfait French rather than the other common past tense, the passé composé. The imparfait is used to describe past actions that were continuous or ongoing, as opposed to having a clear starting and ending point. We saw a handful of circumstances where we can apply l’imparfait in French:
- An activity which was ongoing when another occurred
- Past habits or actions carried out over a period of time
- Moods, or states of mind or being
- The appearance of places or individuals
- The date, time, or weather
Finally, we saw how to form the imparfait French conjugations, starting with the stem of the verb from its first-person plural présent conjugation. We then simply add the following endings: –ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient. We looked at plenty of examples both of regular and irregular French verbs where we applied these imparfait endings.
The two French past tenses you’ll encounter most are l’imparfait and le passé composé. Through the examples you saw here, and the contexts of what you read or hear, you’ll soon get the hang of when to use imparfait French. Between knowing when to use it, and applying the conjugation rules we laid out here, you’re well on your way to being able to use the past tense in French!