The uses of the imparfait (imperfect) are some of the most difficult aspects of French grammar to master. While the passé composé is used to talk about an action that took place on a specific occasion in the past, the imparfait plays a different role.
It is used to describe a state of mind and being in the past as well as continuous, repeated, or habitual past actions.
To form the imperfect, take the nous form of the present tense
and remove the -ons ending, which gives you the stem. Then add the imparfait endings (-ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient) to this stem.
Parler - to speak
nous parlons -> parl-
je parlais - I spoke
tu parlais - you spoke
il/elle parlait - he/she spoke
nous parlions - we spoke
vous parliez - you spoke
ils/elles parlaient - they spoke
Note that the -ais, -ait, -aient endings are pronounced alike. Verbs with spelling changes in the present tense nous form, such as manger and commencer (see Chapter 1), retain the spelling change only for the je, tu, il, elle, ils, and elles subject pronouns.
j’encourageais - I encouraged
elle exigeait - she demanded
ils partageaient - they shared
il avançait - he moved forward
elle remplaçait - she replaced
elles annonçaient - they announced
The extra e or the ç are not needed in the nous and vous forms of the imparfait.
nous nagions - we swam
nous protégions - we protected
nous commencions - we started
vous effaciez - you erased
Depending on the context, the imparfait can be the equivalent of several past equivalents in English.
She was doing . . .
She used to do . . .
She did . . .
Note that the verb être has an irregular stem in the imparfait.
j’étais - I was
tu étais - you were
il/elle était - he/she was
nous étions - we were
vous étiez - you were
ils/elles étaient - they were
Let’s look at the different uses of the imparfait. It is used for background and description. It describes a situation that existed in the past, a state of mind or being.
Les rues étaient embouteillées.
The streets were jammed.
La circulation était fluide.
The traffic was flowing.
Il faisait trop chaud.
It was too hot.
Il avait faim.
He was hungry.
Elle ne savait pas quoi faire.
She did not know what to do.
The imparfait versus the passé composé
As they express a mental or physical state of being, some verbs tend to be used more often in the imparfait than in the passé composé. Among these verbs are: être (to be), avoir (to have), penser (to think), croire (to believe), savoir (to know), espérer (to hope), sembler (to seem), paraître (to appear). However, when these verbs are used in the passé composé, they may take on a different meaning.
Il semblait déprimé.
He looked depressed.
Tout à coup il a semblé comprendre Suddenly la situation.
he seemed to understand the situation.
Je savais qu’il avait raison.
I knew he was right.
Immédiatement, j’ai su qu’il était Immediately, innocent.
I realized he was innocent.
Another use of the imparfait is to express habitual, repetitive action. It describes past events that were repeated. Used to and would (meaning habitually) are translated into French by the imparfait.
Autrefois, elle faisait partie de la chorale.
In the past, she used to belong to the choir.
Ils allaient en Inde chaque année.
They used to go (would go) to India every year.
Il jouait au tennis le mardi.
He used to (would) play tennis on Tuesdays.
As you can see in the previous examples, some expressions of time or repetition may be an indication of the imparfait:
Souvent - often
Fréquemment - frequently
Toujours - always
le mardi - on Tuesdays
le vendredi - on Fridays
chaque jour - every day
tous les jours - every day
chaque semaine - every week
chaque mois - every month
chaque année - every year
d’ordinaire - ordinarily
d’habitude - usually
habituellement - usually
régulièrement - regularly
comme à l’accoutumée - as usual
autrefois - formerly
jadis - in times past
The imparfait is also used to describe a continuous action that was going on in the past when another action (expressed in the passé composé) interrupted it.
Elle regardait la télévision quand
She was watching television when suddenly
soudain elle a entendu un grand bruit.
she heard a loud noise. Il faisait ses devoirs quand son frère est arrivé.
He was doing his homework when his brother arrived.
To express the idea that an action had been going on for a period of time before being interrupted, use the imparfait with depuis. This is the equivalent to the past of depuis +present tense you studied in Chapter 1.
Ils étaient à la montagne depuis une semaine quand ils ont décidé d’aller au bord de la mer.
They had been in the mountains for a week when they decided to go to the seashore.
Il randonnait depuis trois jours quand il a trouvé cette belle auberge.
He had been hiking for three days when he found this beautiful inn.
The imparfait with special constructions
With a si +on construction, the imparfait is used to make a suggestion or to invite someone to do something. The informal on refers to two or more people and is conjugated in the third-person
Si on allait en France cet été?
What about going to France this summer?
Si on achetait des billets?
What about buying tickets?
Si on allait nager dans le lac?
What about going swimming in the lake?
Si on allait rendre visite à Léo?
What about paying a visit to Léo?
You will encounter the imparfait in other idiomatic constructions, for instance, preceded by si seulement, to express a wish or a regret.
Si seulement on pouvait prendre des vacances!
If only we could take a vacation!
Si seulement elle était à l’heure!
If only she were on time!
Si seulement ils habitaient plus près!
If only they lived closer!
Si seulement vous saviez!
If only you knew!
In Chapter 4, you studied the immediate past with the verb venir+de + infinitive. The immediate past can also be used in the imparfait to describe an action that had just happened.