Imperfect

French imperfect tense
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Imparfait

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:

1) Descriptions (age, feelings, health, time, weather…)

Il pleuvait mais j’avais un parapluie.   It was raining but I 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 (we would go) 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 – it’s 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.

4) Background information

J’étais au bureau quand j’ai appris la nouvelle.   I was at the office when I heard the news.

5) Indirect speech

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

a) Aller
  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.
c) Venir de
  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.

1. Questions
  Elle m’a demandé si j’étais marié. She asked if I was married.*
2. Suggestions
  Si on allait au ciné demain ? How about going to the movies tomorrow?
3. Wishes
  Si seulement je gagnais au loto ! If only I won the lottery!
4. Comme si  
  Tu parles comme si tu pouvais prédire l’avenir. You speak as though you can see the future.
5. Si clauses
  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.

   The French imperfect is often used alongside the passé composé, which can be very confusing for French students – learn more.

 French Imperfect Quizzes

Think you’ve got it? Test yourself on the French imperfect with these fill-in-the-blanks exercises

Note: You must be logged into your Progress with Lawless French account to take these tests. If you don’t have one, sign up – it’s free!

 Related lessons

French lesson plans French imperfect lesson plan

Learn Spanish En español

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French imperfect

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