The Imperfect Tense - L'Imparfait

The imperfect tense is a tense used to express on-going or habitual actions of the past. It can correspond to the English "used to" or "would". A more expansive explanation of its usage is given below.


Usage

1. To indicate that an action was repeated in the past. This corresponds to the English "would" or "used to".

Nous allions souvent au cinéma.      We would often go to the movies.

Les magasins fermaient à 18h.      The stores used to close at 18:00 (6:00 PM).


2. To express a state of being, a.k.a. emotional and physical descriptons, feelings, and the weather.

Je n'y pensais pas.      I wasn't thinking about it.


3. To describe the setting of a situation at the time something happened. This corresponds to the English "was ________ing" construction.

Quand nous l'avons vu, il faisait du shopping.      We we saw him, he was shopping.


There are a number of verbs that are always used in the imperfect instead of le passé composé.

aller (santé), aller (vêtements), aller + infinitif
venir de
compter + infinitif
se trouver
ressembler
c'est, c'est + pronom
être en train de, être sur, être prêt à
tenir à + nom
il s'agit de
il se fait tard

And some verbs are almost always in the imperfect instead of le passé composé..

vouloir
espérer
savoir
connaître
être
avoir
penser + infinitif
il reste
il manque

Formation

The imperfect tense is formed by dropping the 'ons' ending from the first person plural form ("nous" form) of the present tense, and adding the following endings:

singular plural
1st-person -ais -ions
2nd-person  -ais -iez
3rd-person -ait -aient


Examples of Stems

Infinitive 1st-person plural in the Present Stem
aller
prendre
avoir
allons
prenons
avons
all-
pren-
av-


Example Conjugations

aller    
  j'allais nous allions
  tu allais vous alliez
  il allait ils allaient
prendre    
  prenais prenions
  prenais preniez
  prenait prenaient

Irregular Verbs in the Imperfect Tense

Good news! There is only one irregular verb in the imperfect tense, which is être. Its conjugations are listed below.

  singular plural
1st-person j'étais nous étions
2nd-person tu étais vous étiez
3rd-person il était ils étaient


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