L’imparfait: When and how to use it in everyday French

Je marchais dans la rue. = I was walking down the street.

In this sentence, “marchais” is in l’imparfait – the “imperfect tense” in French.
It’s used everywhere both in French culture and in everyday French conversations – it’s one of the main ways to talk about the past.

What does it look like? When should you use it?
What’s the difference with le passé composé ?
How can you train your ear to l’imparfait – and stay confident when you hear it in French conversations?

Let’s dive in.

Want all the vocabulary of the lesson ?

1) L’imparfait: What is it?

L’imparfait is the French version of the “past progressive” or “past continuous” tense: “was [verb]+-ing” etc.

For instance:
Je pensais à toi. = I was thinking about you.
→ Here the verb “penser” (= to think) is in l’imparfait. It makes “Je pensais.” = I was thinking

This is the gist of it. Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that, and we’ll get to some of that below.

But first, let’s take a look at its easy conjugation!

2) L’imparfait: Easy conjugation

All French verbs have the same endings in l’imparfait! That’s very unusual in French conjugation, where there’s usually a ton of irregular endings.

They’re:

For example, for “I was walking / You were walking / …” you would use:

And it can also work for verbs that are usually irregular (third group), such as “Aller” = to go, or “Avoir” = to have. Even for Être = to be, even though it’s the only verb where the stem is technically irregular.

** Le truc en plus **
In everyday spoken French conversations, “Tu allais” / “Tu avais” / “Tu étais” often gets shortened into “T’allais” / “T’avais” / “T’étais”, because French people “eat” letters.
****************

You can do the same thing for almost any other verb!

  • Take the stem (= the verb in the infintive but without -ir or -er)
  • Add the endings for l’imparfait
  • Voilà !

3) L’imparfait: Deeper Conjugation (The extra mile that you can skip)

a) Root of 2nd-group verbs

Actually, there’s a bit of complication in “take the stem (or root) of the verb.” It’s not simply the infinitive without -er, it’s actually:

Root = verb in the present for “Nous,” but without “-ons”

It’s usually the same thing.

But it gives a better rule for verbs such as prendre = to take, for instance.

PrendreNous prenons (= we take) [present] → Je prenais, tu prenais, il prenait… [imparfait]

That rule also gives use the imperfect for second-group verbs. Second-group verbs are verbs like grandir (= to grow up, to get taller):

  • They have an infinitive in -ir
  • With “nous” in the present, they make nous grandissons (= we are growing up.)

Take out the “-ons” and you have their root in the imperfect: grandiss-
So it makes:

Fortunately, there aren’t many second-group verbs in everyday French (grandir, nourrir = to feed…) – most verbs in -ir are 3rd-group (like courir = to run, dormir = to sleep…) Unfortunately, there’s no real shortcut; you have to learn the group of each verb in -ir you see.

b) Tweaks in first-group verbs, for pronunciation reasons

Verbs in -ger add an -e before the endings of l’imparfait, with all subjects except “nous” and “vous.” Basically, we don’t want to hear the hard “g” sound that would appear with “g + ais.” So we turn it into “-geais” [sounds like “jjay”]

Most notably:
Manger (= to eat) → Nous mangeons (= we eat)
→ In l’imparfait:
Je mangeais            Nous mangions
Tu mangeais            Vous mangiez
Elle mangeait          Elles mangeaient

Same thing with verbs in -cer. We add la cédille (ç) for all subjects with -ai-.
So it always sounds like “ss” (as in “ça” or “ce”) and never like “k” (as in “ca” or “co”).

Most notably:
Commencer (= to start) → Nous commençons (= we start, present)
→ In l’imparfait:
Je commençais       Nous commencions
Tu commençais      Vous commenciez
Elle commençait    Elles commençaient 

c) Impersonal verbs

Some impersonal verbs don’t always have a present form with “nous” yet we still use them in l’imparfait. Most commonly:

Il y a (there is) → il y avait (there was / there used to be)
Il faut (Someone needs to…) → Il fallait (Someone needed to…)
Il pleut (it’s raining) → il pleuvait (it was raining)
Il neige (it’s snowing) → il neigeait (it was snowing)

4) Other uses for l’imparfait

Did you notice? In the examples above, I sometimes translated l’imparfait with “used to [+ verb].

Well, that’s the second meaning of l’imparfait : a habit, in the past.

For example:

J’allais au bureau en voiture tous les matins. = I used to drive to the office every morning.
J’avais une voiture, avant. = I used to have a car, before.

More generally, it’s used for situations in the past (that lasted some time).
Like: J’étais déjà à Grenoble l’année dernière. = I was already in Grenoble last year.

And for long actions in the past:
Elle allait à la boulangerie, quand elle a vu Michel.
= She was going to the bakery when she saw Michel.

→ Here, “Elle allait” is a long action compared to “elle a vu.” “Seeing Michel” cut short her action of “going to the bakery.” That’s why we use l’imparfait for “elle allait,” and le passé composé for “elle a vu Michel.
Le passé composé is the other main French tense for the past, and it’s used for short actions (that we take as a whole, rather than as a period of time.)

*** Le truc en plus ***
For long actions (= progressive tenses), you can also use the everyday expression “être en train de” = to be in the middle of [doing something].
For instance:
Je suis en train de manger. = I am currently in the middle of eating.
Elle était en train de sortir de la boulangerie. = She was in the middle of walking out of the bakery.
***** *****

(For the extra-extra-mile, as a simple French curiosity, there’s one last use of l’imparfait: l’imparfait “hypocoristique” = using l’imparfait in place of the present tense, to sound like you’re talking like a child, for endearment.)

5) L’imparfait: Your Turn Now

And now you can get confident in using l’imparfait!

How would you say in that tense:

  • Elle pense à lui. = She’s thinking about him.    [penser = to think]
  • Ils vont à l’école. = They’re going to school.     [aller = to go]
  • Je suis sûre qu’il est là. = I’m sure he’s there.   [être = to be]

Take your time to answer!

Did you get it?

Yes, it’s:

  • Elle pensait à lui. = She was thinking about him. / She used to think about him.
  • Ils allaient à l’école. = They were going to school.
  • J’étais sûre qu’il était là. = I was sure he was there.

Congrats! Keep practicing and you’ll get more confident with l’imparfait in no time.

You can dive deeper with other lessons too, such as:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!

And now:

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Join the conversation!

  • It’s lovely revision for me at 74. I remember so much. Started French aged 7. Can’t sign up for your recent offer as am a haphazard learner not wanting anything intense and requiring too much effort. Enjoy you immensely.

    • Snap Vanessa! I too am of a certain age and I am not able to give my all. Geraldine’s course is wonderful though. learning French is and always has been my favourite pastime.

      • Yes me too. I have for many years wanted to do a French course and was able to join one in my village but it has closed as our teacher was ill. Geraldine’s course is great. I had planned last year to go to Tours on s language course but Covid has out paid to that. I wanted to recapture those student years again but I do wonder if it is too late to fix new words in my brain!

  • Merci Geraldine! J’ai étudié le français dans l’école, mais plusieurs années plus tard, j’avais une amie française qui m’a appris plus que le lycée. Elle est morte maintenant. C’est dommage. Elle me manque beaucoup.

  • Just a note: your video lesson had “vous étions” on the screen in the conjugation slide. You read it as “vous étiez,” so I thought you may want to correct it for future viewings. Hope this helps👍

  • Do you (from Grenoble) pronounce “allais” and “allé” differently? I think I hear a little difference but I’m not sure. I’ve read some sources online that suggest that in Metropolitan French they tend to be pronounced the same but differently in Quebec.

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