French The Imperfect (past tense)

Young female guide describing one of paintings

The French imperfect (imparfait) is a descriptive past tense that 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.”

Earlier, we learned how to conjugate the past tense in French. The passé composé in English is known as the “simple past” or “perfect past.” Today, we are learning how to conjugate the imperfect past. The imperfect past, or l’imparfait, is used to express a state of feeling or repeated action in the past. It also can show continual feelings or actions. These sentences do not imply an ending to the action. The following examples show what l’imparfait is equivalent to in English:

I was tired all day.                                  =     State of feeling in the past

I was walking the dog for a long time.   =     Continual action

I used to visit my grandparents often.   =     Repeated action

How to form the Imperfect tense:

  • First choose the appropriate French verb to show the action you want your sentence to express. For example, if I want to say I was talking,” I will choose the French verb, parler (to talk).
  • Then, conjugate the verb for its first person plural form in the present tense. The first personal plural form is the conjugation for Nous. For the verb parler (a regular ER verb), conjugate it as
  • Remove the “-ons ending from that conjugation.
  • Add the appropriate endings showing in the following table based on the subject of your sentence.
Subject PronounImperfect Tense Endings
Je-ais
Tu-ais
Il/Elle/On-ait
Nous-ions
Vous-iez
Ils/Elles-aient

All together, forming the imperfect tense looks like this:

English Sentence: I was dancing in the street.  

  • “was dancing” = imperfect past tense. Choose the regular -ER verb danser (to dance)
  • Nous dansons ← First person plural (Nous) conjugation
  • dans- is the new stem for the imperfect past tense after removing the “-ons.”
  • Je dansais ← Add subject and appropriate imperfect ending to stem 

                                    French Sentence: Je dansais dans la rue.

Être in the Imperfect:

The stem for être in the imperfect tense is not found by conjugating it in the first person plural (Nous) form (Step 2). Être is the only verb to have an irregular stem → ét

J’étais triste à la fête. I was sad at the party.

Nous étions frustrés avec les parents. We were frustrated by the parents.

Quand ils étaient petits, ils aimaient les jouets. When they were little, they used to like toys.

Example Sentences and Possible Meanings:

J’avais une amie aux cheveux roux.                                       avais comes from the verb avoir

Meaning: I had a friend with red hair OR I used to have a friend with red hair.

Tu faisais les vaisselles quand je suis rentré.                                     faisait comes from the verb faire

Meaning: You were doing the dishes when I got home.

*Elle savait faire du ski.                                                         savait comes from the verb savoir

She knew how to ski.

She used to know how to ski.

                        *This sentence implies that she no longer knows how to ski.

Nous ne travaillions pas ensemble. travaillions comes from the verb travailler

We were not working together.

We didn’t used to work together.  

Quand j’étais petite, on voyageait souvent.                            était comes from the verb être

When I was little, we traveled a lot.

When I was little, we used to travel a lot.

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. It is extremely important to understand the distinctions between the passé composé and imperfect in order to use them correctly and thus express past events accurately.

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