French Language Blog

Let’s Talk About French Verbs Once Again Posted by on Sep 6, 2009 in Grammar

Today, we’ll begin talking about the past…the French past tense that is.  What does imparfait mean?  Well, let’s find out!

First of all, Le Robert Micro (my favorite French-French dictionary) defines the adjective imparfait as qui n’est pas achevé, pas complet; or in other words, something that is incomplete.  The definition it gives for the noun imparfait is “temps du verbe ayant essentiellement pour fonction d’énoncer une action en voie d’accomplissement dans le passé et conçue comme non achevée.  To sum this up, it is the verb tense that describes an action in the past that is not considered to have been completed.  It is often referred to as a descriptive tense.

So, how is it formed?

It is regular for all verbs.  You take the stem from the 1st person plural (nous) of the present indicative and add -ais, -ais, ait, -ions, -iez, -aient.

So, for the verb chanter, for example, the conjugation would be like this:
Nous chant-ons je chantais, tu chantais, il/elle/on chantait, nous chantions, vous chantiez, ils/elles chantaient.

And for the verb finir, for example, the conjugation would be like this:
Nous finiss-ons je finissais, tu finissais, il/elle/on finissait, nous finissions, vous finissiez, ils/elles finissaient.

And for the verb vouloir, for example, the conjugation would be like this:
Nous voul-ons →je voulais, tu voulais, il/elle/on voulait, nous voulions, vous vouliez, ils/elles voulaient.

Mais, attention ! There is an exception to this rule as the verb être is conjugated like this: J’étais, tu étais, il/elle/on était, nous étions, vous étiez, ils/elles étaient.

So, how do we use the imperfect?

Just like the present in French, the imperfect indicates an action that is in the course of being accomplished.  However, there are no specific limits.  We do not know when the action began or when it will end, it’s just a circumstance of another event.  It is used in descriptions like comments, explanations, etc.

Ex : Il pleuvait quand je suis sorti. (It was raining when I went out.)

Alice portait une robe rouge. (Alice wore a red dress.)

Monsieur Delcourt n’a pas pu participer à cette réunion parce qu’il était en voyage. (Mr. Delcourt was not able to participate in this meeting because he was on a trip.)

You can use the imperfect for things like talking about the time in the past (Il était 6 heures de l’après-midi, le vendredi quand on a frappé à ma porte).

You can also describe places or settings.  (J’étais dans la rue.  La police nous bloquait.)

You can also describe what the people were like in a story or explanation using the imperfect tense.  (Nous nous sentions très forts.)

So, in other words, you use the imperfect tense to describe physical and emotional descriptions like time, weather, age and feelings and also for actions or states with no specific duration.  Often these background descriptions and actions are used in conjunction with the passé composé.  And, be careful as the actual series of events (one after another) will be written in the passé composé.

You can also use the imperfect to express habitual actions or events in the past (usually you will see some kind of time indication in this case).  For example:
Pendant les vacances mon père nous faisait tous les jours des crêpes. (While on vacation, my father made us crepes every day.)

When you see the imperfect used with the conjunction si, this is not used to express the past.  It expresses a hypothesis or unreal situation; in other words, conditions, wishes or suggestions.  For example:
Si nous avions une voiture, nous pourrions aller visiter les monuments en province. (If we had a car, we could go visit the monuments outside Paris.)

Ah, si j’avais encore dix-huit ans! (Oh, if I were eighteen again!)

Finally, the imperfect is used as a way to express politeness with the verb vouloir.  Example:
Excusez-moi de vous déranger; je voulais vous demander un renseignement. (Excuse me for bothering you; I wanted to ask you for some information.)

You can see that it is a bit difficult to give one translation for imperfect structures in English.  Sometimes, we use the past continuous and sometimes the simple past to translate the meaning it conveys.

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