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They say practice makes perfect, so how can one of the most common French past tenses be imperfect? In grammatical terms, "perfect" means "complete," so the French imperfect tense is used to describe an incomplete or ongoing action or state of being.
The imparfait is usually equivalent to "was" or "was ___-ing" in English (past progressive) and is used for all of the following:
|Il pleuvait mais elle avait un parapluie.||It was raining but she had an umbrella.|
|Quand j’avais 6 ans, j’étais souvent malade et je craignais les chiens.||When I was 6 years old, I was often sick and I was afraid of dogs.|
2) Habitual actions or states of being
|L’année dernière, nous allions au ciné chaque vendredi.||Last year, we went to the movies every Friday.|
|Je m’ennuyais souvent.||I was often bored.|
There’s an odd quirk in English with regard to the word “would.” In the "Last year …" example just above, we can use "would" to refer to this habitual action in the past: "we would go to the movies" is perfectly correct and grammatical. In French, this example requires the imperfect. In contrast, when we use “would” for something that could or might happen in the future (I would leave if I were you), French requires the conditional mood. So when you see the word "would" in English, it’s vital to know whether you’re talking about the past or the future in order to choose the correct French verb form.
Pro tip: if you can replace "would" with "used to," you need the imperfect.
3) Actions or states of being with unspecified endings
|J’allais au parc parce que je voulais me promener.||I was going to the park because I wanted to take a walk.|
|Quand je travaillais, je m’ennuyais toujours.||When I worked, I was always bored.|
4) Background information
|Où étais-tu quand tu as appris la nouvelle ?||Where were you when you heard the news?|
|J’étais au bureau.||I was at the office.|
|Il m’a dit qu’il allait à la banque.||He told me he was going to the bank.|
6) Most verbs followed by the infinitive
|J’allais te téléphoner.||I was going to call you.|
|b)||Être en train de|
|J’étais en train de rénover le garage.||I was (in the process of) renovating the garage.|
|Je venais de rentrer quand tu as appelé.||I had just gotten home when you called.|
|d)||Vouloir (polite request)|
|Je voulais vous poser une question.||I wanted / I would like to ask you a question.|
French imperfect after si
The imperfect is often used with si, in which case it’s not a past tense. Instead, it expresses something that is unknown or unreal in the present or future.
|Elle m’a demandé si j’étais marié.||She asked if I was married.*|
|Si on allait au ciné demain ?||How about going to the movies tomorrow?|
|Si seulement je gagnais au loto !||If only I won the lottery!|
|Tu parles comme si tu pouvais prédire l’avenir.||You speak as though you can see the future.|
|Si tu avais un emploi, tu pourrais acheter une voiture.||If you had a job, you could buy a car.|
* I know this sounds like it’s in the past, but at the time, it wasn’t. She wanted to know if I was married in the present tense of her asking.
French Imperfect Quizzes
Think you’ve got it? Test yourself on the French imperfect with these fill-in-the-blanks exercises
- Les dimanches avec Papi
- Mes souvenirs d’Halloween
- Mes vacances à la ferme
- Mon prof préféré
- Nos vacances au ski
- La télé de mon enfance
- Imperfect conjugations
- Using the imperfect – PwLF super list
- Passé composé vs imparfait
- Si clauses
- Imperfect subjunctive
- Introduction to verbs
- French present and imperfect (Worksheet, 4th-12th grade)
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