French Language Blog

French Grammar – Past imperfect Posted by on Apr 3, 2018 in Grammar, Vocabulary

Welcome to lesson 3 in our mini French Grammar series. After le passé récent and le futur proche, it’s time this week to look at the French tense known as l’imparfait.


L’Imparfait (The imperfect)

Like le passé composé, le passé simple, and the passé récent, l’imparfait is a tense for talking about things that happened in the past. It differs from those other past tenses though. The imparfait isn’t used for actions that just happened once in past, it is used for (1) on-going or incompleted actions in the past, (2) habitual actions in the past, and (3) descriptions of things like feelings and the weather in the past.

Forming l’imparfait

L’imparfait is a relatively easy verb tense to learn because all verbs (except for one!) are formed the same way. To form the imparfait:
begin with the present tense ‘nous’ form of the verb (the one that ends in –ons)
remove that –ons
+ and add the proper ending from the following list:


The one exception to this rule? The verb être which is conjugated as follows:

J'étaisNous étions
Tu étaisVous étiez
Il/elle/on étaitIls/elles étaient

L’Imparfait in action

Let’s look at some examples of each use mentioned above:

1. On-going or incomplete actions in the past

Je regardais la télé lorsque mon père est rentré.
I was watchng t.v. when my father got home.
C'est parce que tu n'écoutais pas quand je te l'ai dit!
<It's because you weren't listening when I told you.

2. Habitual actions in the past

Petit, mon fils allait au cinéma tous les samedis.
When he was small, my son went to the movies every Saturday.
Nous mangions de la pizza tous les vendredis soir à l'université.
We ate pizza every Friday in college.

3. Descriptions of the past

Il pleuvait le jour de notre mariage.
It rained on our wedding.
Les filles étaient triste de voir leurs amis partir à la fin de l'été.
The girls were sad to see their friends leave at the end of the summer.


Want to get fancy? You can combine the imparfait with the construction of the passé récent to talk about two things that happened in the past, one right before the other. For example:
Je venais de rentrer, quand le téléphone a sonné. [I had just come back in when the phone rang.]

Nous venions de partir quand Michel m’a dit “Je crois que j’ai laissé le fer à repasser branché!” [We had just left when Michael told me “I think I left the iron plugged in!”

À suivre…

Next week, fourth and final grammar lesson (for now!). We’ll wrap up this series with a little story that incorporates key elements of our recent discussions and will help you see how the different tenses function together.

Photo credit: Free stock photo from [CC0 license]

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About the Author: Tim Hildreth

Since my first trip to France at 16, I have been a passionate francophile. I love the language, food, music, art, people, and more that make France and la Francophonie in general such an amazing part of our global community. Having lived in France and studied the language and culture for over 35 years, it is my great pleasure to be able to share a little bit of my deep love with you through this blog.


  1. Virginia Cosgrove:

    There is an error in the first example of l’imparfait. The past participle of “dire” is “dit” not “dis”.