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.
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.
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.
Prendre → Nous 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”]
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”).
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.
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].
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?
- 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:
- Common French Verbs – The First 7 Verbs you should master
- French Conjugation with Le Passé Composé – Using both “Avoir” and “Être”
- Le Participe Passé – French Past Participle used in Passé Composé
À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!
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