Imperfect French Past Tense

French Classes

Imperfect French Past Tense

The French imperfect (imparfait) is a descriptive past tense which indicates an ongoing state of being or a repeated or incomplete action. The beginning and end of the state of being or action are not indicated, and the imperfect is very often translated in English as “was” or “was ___-ing.” The imperfect can indicate any of the following: I. Habitual actions or states of being Quand j’étais petit, nous allions à la plage chaque semaine. When I was young, we used to go to the beach every week.
   L’année dernière, je travaillais avec mon père. I worked with my father last year.II. Physical and emotional descriptions: time, weather, age, feelingsIl était midi et il faisait beau. It was noon and the weather was nice.Quand il avait 5 ans, il avait toujours faim. When he was five, he was always hungry.III. Actions or states of an unspecified duration Je faisais la queue parce que j’avais besoin de billets. I stood in line because I needed tickets. Il espérait te voir avant ton départ. He was hoping to see you before you left. IV. Background information in conjunction with the passé composé J’étais au marché et j’ai acheté des pommes. I was at the market and I bought some apples. Il était à la banque quand il l’a trouvé. He was at the bank when he found it. V. Wishes or suggestions Ah ! Si j’étais riche ! Oh, if only I were rich! Si nous sortions ce soir ? How about going out tonight? VI. Conditions in si clauses Si j’avais de l’argent, j’irais avec toi.
If I had some money, I would go with you. S’il voulait venir, il trouverait le moyen. If he wanted to come, he would find a way. VII. The expressions être en train de andvenir de in the past J’étais en train de faire la vaisselle. I was (in the process of) doing the dishes. Il venait d’arriver. He had just arrived.

Main Differences Between Passé Composé and Imparfait

I suggest you learn by heart the 2 sentences below. Don’t think in term of actions: actions can be in both PC or imperfect.
  • Imparfait = what was happening all around you (including you), background. Also ongoing events, habits, what used to be.
  • Passé composé = what took place at that very moment: a specific event or a succession of specific events, the main storyline.
Now let’s be more specific about the differences between Passé Composé and Imparfait:

A – Habits Versus Specific Events

The imperfect describes habitual actions in the past ≠ The PC describes what took place, specific events. Le lundi, je dînais chez ma soeur ≠ Un lundi, nous avons dîné au restaurant. On Mondays, I used to have dinner at my sister’s ≠ One Monday, we dined in a restaurant. In this case, what you need to look for are the time setting words : “le lundi” (habit) versus “un lundi”(specific).

B – When You Are Telling A Story

The passé composé describes actions that constitute the storyline. It tells the series of specific events that took place. Imagine that you are taking a selfie: the camera zooms on you and show what you are doing specifically at that very moment, and “ignore” the wider background. I took a selfie and I smiled for the picture – j’ai pris un selfie et j’ai souri pour la photo. The imperfect describes the background, it sets the scene:
  • the date, the time of the day, the weather, the scene (what people were doing)….. external circumstances,
  • age, appearance, physical traits, physical condition, feelings, attitudes…. personal circumstances.
In other words, exactly the contrary than the selfie: it’s a wide angle camera capturing the global scene: It was a grey day, people were watching a guy who was dancing. Another guy took several pictures. People were captivated – Il faisait gris, des gens regardaient un type qui dansait. Un autre type prenait des photos. Les gens étaient captivés. Of course, it’s all a question of perspective: were you smiling for your selfie when suddenly a bike ran into you? Then the smiling part would be the background… Are you the guy taking picture of the dance artist and describing the series of specific event? Then it would most likely be passé-composé. You cannot just translate. You have to understand the situation.

C – In The Same Sentence

  • The Imparfait describes ongoing background actions, what was happening at that time (often with a “to be + ing” construction in English) – these actions had started before, and may continue after. ≠ The PC will describe a specific action that took place at a precise time as the background action was going on: Ils sont entrés (specific event – short in length) pendant que nous dormions (ongoing action – longer in length).They came in as we were sleeping.
  • Sometimes, the same tense is used for the 2 actions if they are of same length: – 2 actions that went on for some time: Pendant que j’étudiais, tu regardais la télé. While I was studying, you were watching TV. – or 2 specific shorter actions: Tu es rentrée quand je suis sortie. You came in as I was going out.

 Some Expressions are Usually followed by theImperfect

Some time expressions are usually followed by the imperfect since they introduce habitual events: I suggest you memorize them, it’s a big help.
  • le lundi, le soir, le matin… On Mondays, in the evening, in the morning…
  • tous les lundis (tous les matins, tous les soirs, tous les jours…) Every Monday, every morning, every evening, everyday…
  • chaque jour (chaque mois, chaque année…), Each day, month, year…
  • d’habitude, habituellement – usually, habitually
  • généralement, en général – in general
  • normalement – usually
  • parfois, quelques fois – sometimes
  • de temps en temps – from time to time
  • rarement – rarely, seldom
  • autrefois – in the past, formerly (pretty formal).

 Some Expressions TEND TO be followed by the Passé Composé

Some expressions of time tend to be followed by the Passé Composé since they usually introduce specific events.
  • d’abord, premièrement – first
  • puis, ensuite – then
  • enfin, finalement – finally
  • soudain – suddenly
  • tout à coup – all of a sudden
  • tout de suite – right away

 Here is a Typical Story with the Explanation for the Tenses

C’était le 3 juillet (background). Il faisait beau (background). Les oiseaux chantaient (background), le soleil brillait (background). J’avais vingt ans (background) et je me promenais dans Paris (background). Généralement (habit so imparfait will follow), je passais mes vacances avec mes parents. Mais cette année-là (specific time so PC will follow), je suis allée à Paris avec des amis. Je ne parlais pas très bien français (background), et j’étais un peu timide (background). Il était midi (background), et j’avais faim (background). Je suis allée dans un café, et je me suis assise à une table (succession of specific events/storyline). C’était un petit café typiquement parisien (background) : on entendait un air de musique à la radio (background), quelques personnes déjeunaient et parlaient tranquillement sur la terrasse (background). Le serveur est venu à ma table, et j’ai passé ma commande (succession of specific events/storyline). Le serveur est tout de suite revenu avec mon café (specific event). Pendant que j’attendais mon repas, et que je  buvais tranquillement mon café (ongoing events), j’ai commencé à me sentir mal (specific event). Soudainement (introduces PC), je me suis évanouie et je suis tombée par terre (succession of specific events, storyline). Le serveur a téléphoné aux pompiers (specific event, storyline). Ils sont arrivés très vite (specific event, storyline). Je me suis réveillée (specific event), mais je me sentais encore faible (ongoing). Alors, les pompiers ont décidé (specific event/storyline) de m’emmener à l’hôpital où les médecins ont fait des tests (specific event). Je suis sortie de l’hôpital le soir (specific event) et après cette aventure, mon séjour à Paris s’est passé sans problème (specific event).

French imperfect conjugations

French imperfect conjugations are very easy, as the imperfect of virtually all verbs—regular and irregular—is formed the same way: drop the -ons ending from the present indicative nous form of the verb and adding the imperfect endings. Être is the only irregular verb in the imperfect, because the present tense nous sommeshas no -ons to drop. So it has the irregular stemét-and uses the same endings as all other verbs As in many other tenses, spelling change verbs, that is, verb which end in -cer and -ger, have minor spelling changes in the imperfect. Verbs that end in -ier have an imperfect root that ends in i, so end with double i in thenous and vous form of the imperfect. This isn’t irregular, but it looks kind of weird.
French imperfect conjugations
Here are the imperfect endings and conjugations for the regular verbs parler (to speak) and finir (to finish), the -ier verb étudier (to study), the spelling change verb manger (to eat), and the irregular verb être (to be):
Pronoun Ending parler > parl- finir > finiss- étudier > étudi- manger > mange- être > ét-
 je (j’)  -ais parlais finissais étudiais mangeais étais
 tu  -ais parlais finissais étudiais mangeais étais
 il  -ait parlait finissait étudiait mangeait était
 nous  -ions parlions finissions étudiions mangions étions
 vous  -iez parliez finissiez étudiiez mangiez étiez
 ils  -aient parlaient finissaient étudiaient mangeaient étaient

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