The imperfect tense (or imparfait in French) is very useful and also very commonly used. It talks about incomplete or ongoing actions and states of being in the past, unlike the passé composé which expresses completed actions in the past. The imperfect is generally translated as the English past progressive “was + __-ing”.
How to form the imperfect?
Let’s start with the conjugation of the imperfect tense because it’s one of the easiest in French. The rule is the same for all verbs: you just have to drop the “-ons” ending from the present tense “nous” form and then add the imperfect endings (-ais ; –ais ; –ait ; –ions ; –iez ; –aient). So it’s important to know the present tense if you want to master the imperfect.
1st group verbs (in “-er”)
Chanter, to sing, in the present tense is “nous chantons”
In the imperfect:
Je chantais, I was singing
Tu chantais, You were singing
Il/Elle chantait, He/She was singing
Nous chantions, We were singing
Vous chantiez, You were singing
Ils/Elles chantaient, They were singing
Note that the first three endings and the last one (ais, ais, ait, aient) are pronounced the same.
2nd group verbs (in “-ir”)
Finir, to finish, in the present tense is “nous finissons”
In the imperfect:
Je finissais, I was finishing
Tu finissais, You were finishing
Il/Elle finissait, He/She was finishing
Nous finissions, You were finishing
Vous finissiez, We were finishing
Ils/Elles finissaient, They were finishing
3rd group verbs (irregular)
Since these verbs are irregular, they are all different in the present tense, but they still follow the same rule in the imperfect: drop the “-ons” and add the imperfect endings to the stem.
Dire, to say, in the present tense is “nous disons”
In the imperfect:
Je disais, I was saying
Tu disais, You were saying
Il/Elle disait, He/She was saying
Nous disions, We were saying
Vous disiez, You were saying
Ils/Elles disaient, They were saying
The only exception: the verb “être, to be”
Être is the only verb not following the rule, because it doesn’t have the ending “-ons” to drop in the present tense “nous sommes, we are”. So it has an irregular stem “ét” and use the same endings as the other verbs.
J’étais, I was
Tu étais, You were
Il/Elle était, He/She was
Nous étions, He/She were
Vous étiez, You were
Ils/Elles étaient, They were
One more thing, note a quite weird graphical particularity with verbs ending in “-ier”. Because their imperfect root ends with an “ i ”, the “nous and vous” forms of the imperfect have a double “ i ”. So if you ever happen to see this in a book, it’s not a mistake, but it’s the imperfect tense.
Étudier, to study, in the present tense is “nous étudions”
J’étudiais, I was studying
Tu étudiais, You were studying
Il/Elle étudiait, He/She was studying
Nous étudiions, We were studying
Vous étudiiez, You were studying
Ils/Elles étudiaient, They were studying
When do we use the imperfect?
1) For a duration or a repeated action
When I was younger, I was always dancing > Quand j’étais jeune, je dansais tout le temps
We could also have said:
“When I was younger, I used to dance”. It’s the same thing, it’s a habitual (hence ongoing) action in the past.
Last year, I had dance classes > L’année dernière, j’avais des cours de danse
You had these classes the entire time of this last year, so we’re talking about a duration here again.
If you say for example:
I had dance classes every Sunday > J’avais des cours de danse tous les dimanches
For the first part of the sentence (I had dance classes) you don’t really know which tense to use in French, but thanks to the end (every Sunday), it means we have a repeated action in the past, therefore we use the imperfect.
So the imperfect can be used to translate a past progressive (was dancing) and also a preterit (had).
2) With the expression “venir de” in the past (had just + verb)
He had just left > Il venait de partir
I had just arrived > Je venais d’arriver
3) With conditions beginning with “ si ” ( if )
If I had a dog, I would play with him all the time
Si j’avais un chien, je jouerais avec lui tout le temps
If you bought this car, you would be broke
Si tu achetais cette voiture, tu serais ruiné
4) To describe the weather, time, age, feelings…
Il était minuit et il faisait tout noir > It was midnight and it was completely dark
Quand il avait 4 ans, il avait toujours peur du noir > When he was 4, he was always scared of the dark
5) To make a wish or a suggestion
It’s often introduced by the expression “Et si…”
Et si on allait au restaurant ce soir ? > How about going to the restaurant this evening?
Et si tu chantais une chanson pour nous ? > How about you sing a song for us?