L’imparfait: The Imperfect Tense In French

The imperfect tense in French (l’imparfait) is one of the two past tenses in French, and it is used to talk about past habits that was usual in a period of time in the past, and to describe people, things or places in the past.

In this lesson, we will talk about the use and difference between the Imperfect Tense (l’imparfait) and the Passé composé, and the conjugation of each verb type (-er, -ir and -re) then give some examples.

l'imparfait the imperfect tense in french

The Imperfect Tense In French

We use l’imparfait to talk about past habits:

J’allais à l’école tous les jours: I used to go to school every day

And to describe people or things in the past:

J’avais les cheveux longs quand j’étais petit: I had long hair when i was a kid

To conjugate a verb in the French imperfect tense l’imparfait, follow these steps:

  • Take the “nous” form of the present tense
  • Remove the “-ons” ending
  • Add the imperfect endings: -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient.

The endings are:

SubjectEnding
jeais
tuais
il/elle/onait
nousions
vousiez
ils/ellesaient

Conjugating -er verbs in the imperfect

Let’s take the verb Parler (to speak) for example, in the present tense it is nous parlons, remove the ons, you get parl, now add the endings and voilà:

jeparlais
tuparlais
il/elle/onparlait
nousparlions
vousparliez
ils/ellesparlaient

Verbs ending with -ier, étudier for example:

This may look weird but, -ier verbs keep both two i in both nous and vous:

jeétudiais
tuétudiais
il/elle/onétudiait
nousétudiions
vousétudiiez
ils/ellesétudiaient

Note: you can practice what you’ve learned here, and learn how to pronounce each of the words in our Memrise course here, don’t know how to use the platform or sign up? we’ve got you covered in this easy-to-follow tutorial here.

Conjugating -ir verbs in the imperfect

Example: Finir (to finish)

jefinissais
tufinissais
il/elle/onfinissait
nousfinissions
vousfinissiez
ils/ellesfinissaient

Conjugating -re verbs in the imperfect

Example: Apprendre (to learn)

jeapprenais
tuapprenais
il/elle/onapprenait
nousapprenions
vousappreniez
ils/ellesapprenaient

Conjugating the verb être in the imperfect

j’étais
tuétais
il/elle/onétait
nousétions
vousétiez
ils/ellesétaient
THE IMPERFECT TENSE IN FRENCH L'IMPARFAIT visual

Some Exceptions

Luckily there are only a few exceptions to take care of, like the verbs ending in –cer or –ger, these verbs follow the same rule as –er verbs, however we need to make some little changes to maintain the pronunciation.

Verbs ending in –cer have a cedilla in the c, and it remains in all the pronouns in the imperfect except for nous and vous.

Example: commencer (to start):

jecommençais
tucommençais
il/elle/oncommençait
nouscommencions
vouscommenciez
ils/ellescommençaient

Verbs ending in -ger, we add e after g to maintain the pronunciation in all the pronouns in the imperfect except for nous and vous.

Example: manger (to eat)

jemangeais
tumangeais
il/elle/onmangeait
nousmangions
vousmangiez
ils/ellesmangeaient

Le passé composé vs l’imparfait

We use “le passé composé” to talk about specific events that have finished in the past, while we use the “l’imparfait” to describe people, habits and things in the past.

Sometimes we use both in the same sentence, if for example, we were doing something when another action happened, look at this sentence:

Je mangeais quand tu m’as appelé (I was eating when you called me)

Related: le passé composé in French

le passé composé vs l'imparfait in french visual

Happy learning

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