The French imperfect tense (l'imparfait) demystified

Updated: Oct 27, 2021




L'imparfait or the imperfect tense in English is one of the most commonly used tenses in the French language. You've certainly heard phrases like J'étais, j'avais, je prenais, ... Well, this is the imparfait tense.

Knowing how to use it and conjugate it properly will open the doors to your fluency as you will be able to describe past situations or habits with ease.

In this post, the use and conjugation of the French imperfect tense will be demystified to help you better understand. So, keep reading to learn more!



The French imperfect tense unlocked

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When to use imparfait tense in French?

L'Imparfait is one of the commonly used past tenses in French. It is used for

  • describing past situations; e.g. quand j’étais petit, je voyageais souvent avec mon père.

  • describing people in the past; e.g. Ma soeur était très gentille => My sister was very kind.

  • giving the context or circumstances; e.g. Il roulait doucement quand on a percuté sa voiture. => He was driving slowly when someone crashed into his car.

  • describing past habits; e.g. Quand j’étais petit, j’allais toujours faire du vélo avec mon père.=> When I was a child, I used to do cycling with my father.

  • simultneous actions in the past; e.g. Quand je travaillais, ma fille lisait un livre. => When I was working, my daughter was reading a book.


As you should have noticed, translating the French imperfect tense to English can be sometimes a tough task. For instance, the word j'avais can be translated as " I used to have" or "I was having" depending on the context.


Example :

  • Quand j'étais plus jeune, j'avais un chien. => When I was younger, I used to have a dog.

  • J'avais cours, quand il a commencé a pleuvoir. => I was having class when it started raining.

So, the best way to know would be to understand the use of imperfect depending on the situation it refers to.


How to conjugate imparfait tense (imperfect )in French?

To be able to use the French imperfect tense, you should know well your present tense or regular verbs and irregular as this will be the reference for your stem. The conjugated form of the first person of plural (nous) without the endings will be your stem.

Let’s take as the example of the verb avoir. In present tense the conjugation of nous is “nous avons” = Av+ ons). So, Av will be the stem for your imperfect tense.

To the stem, you should add the imperfect endings depending on the subject.: ais-ais-ait-ions -iez-aient.


Here is how to conjugate the verb avoir (to have) in the imperfect tense.

Present tense


J'ai

Tu as

Il/elle a

Nous avons

Vous avez

Ils/elles ont


Imparfait

J'avais

Tu avais

Il/elle avait

Nous avions

Vous aviez

Ils/elles avaient




How to conjugate Irregular verbs in imparfait tense?

The only irregular verb is être. However, its conjugation remains easy as the endings are the same as seen previously. You should always remember that the stem is ét.

This is how to conjugate the verb être in the French imperfect tense.


J’étais

Tu étais

Il/elle était

Nous étions

Vous étiez

Ils/elles étaient

Some verbs are regular, but their conjugation has specific patterns for some subjects.

For instance, for verbs ending with IER like crier, étudier, prier, or with YER like envoyer, s'ennuyer, when using personal pronouns nous and vous, you would be having the following endings: IIONS/IIEZ or YIONS/YIEZ.

I know, it seems weird but that’s the correct way.


Example :

  • Nous étudiions souvent ensemble. => We used to study together.

  • Vous vous ennuyiez souvent. => You used to get bored.


For verbs ending with Ger like manger, ranger, you should add an e for the personal pronouns je-tu-il-elle-ils-elles, before adding the endings. For the pronoun nous, there is no need to add an e before.

  • je mangeais

  • Nous mangions


French imperfect tense Verbe manger to eat

Practice your French imperfect with this quiz


Here is a quiz to practice what you have learned so far. You are supposed to conjugate the verb between brackets imperfect tense. Bonne chance !






To wrap it up


The imperfect tense is used whether for remembering past habits, describing past situations, people in the past.

In my point of view, the imparfait tense is one of the easiest tenses conjugation in French. The real challenge is understanding when to use it. Once mastered, you’ll be more at ease since it is commonly used and you really need it to shine in your daily conversations.


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