Tell a story in French and use l’imparfait

Learn the imperfect tense by reading this article

L’imparfait is the second most used past tense in the French language — Le passé composé being the first. It is generally used to describe things or actions in the past, and to talk about actions having taken time in the past, like a habit. In other words, l’imparfait expresses or describes continued, repeated, habitual actions or incomplete actions, situations, or events in the past. So if you want to talk or describe what was going on at an indefinite time in the past or what used to happen repeatedly, use l’imparfait!

Before we dive into the different usages of l’imparfait and the way we form it, let us first understand the difference between le passé composé and l’imparfait. Yes, there is a difference. Otherwise, why would we have two past tenses that can be used interchangeably? It is certainly not for the beauty of the language (well, technically, if we’re being honest, it does add to the complexity and charm of the language, but let us not get off track here).

So if you have already read our previous article about le passé composé, you will remember that it is used to talk about almost anything that had happened in the near past. It is mainly a tense that we use a lot in our daily conversations. However, l’imparfait is mainly used to talk about a repeated or continued action in the past. It is also used for description in the past. 

How to form l’imparfait

We conjugate l’imparfait by adding the following endings to the root of the present tense nous form of the verb: 

  • Je – ais 
  • Tu – ais 
  • Il / elle – ait 
  • Nous – ions 
  • Vous – iez 
  • Ils / elles – aient

For example: the verb aller (to go). In the present tense we say “nous allons”. The underlined syllable in bold is the root of the verb. That’s what we are going to keep. To that, we add the endings presented above, which gives us: 

  • J’allais
  • Tu allais 
  • Il / elle allait 
  • Nous allions 
  • Vous alliez 
  • Ils / elles allaient 

Easy Peasy ! Here is another example. Let’s take a second group verb finir (to finish). We say “Nous finissons” in the present tense. In l’imparfait

  • Je finissais 
  • Tu finissais 
  • Il / elle finissait 
  • Nous finissions 
  • Vous finissiez 
  • Ils / elles finissaient

Now let’s take one final example with a third group verb apprendre (to learn). We say “Nous apprenons” in the present tense. In l’imparfait

  • J’apprenais 
  • Tu apprenais 
  • Il / elle apprenait 
  • Nous apprenions 
  • Vous appreniez 
  • Ils / elles apprenaient 

It’s no rocket science, once you understand the rule and learn the endings of imparfait, you can form any verb you want. The good news is, there aren’t many exceptions. In fact, être (to be) is the only verb that has an irregular stem in l’imparfait

Etre in l'imparfait

Since you know now how to form verbs in l’imparfait, let us see its different usage in details. 

Usage of l’imparfait
  1. L’imparfait descriptif (the descriptive imparfait): 

It is used in description. You can describe a landscape, the occurrence of a certain chain of events, or the traits of a person. For example: 

  • Elle était belle comme un jour ensoleillé (she was as beautiful as a sunny day). 
  • Les murs étaient bleus et la maison sentait l’océan (the walls were blue and the house smelled like the ocean). 
  • Quand j’étais petit, j’aimais beaucoup avoir des vacances. Toute la famille restait à la maison. Ma mère cuisinait les plats qu’on aimait. Mon père jouait avec nous et nous emmenait partout avec sa voiture. Tout était très simple quand nous étions petits. Nous voyagions, rions, parlions, et vivions sans aucun soucis.

    (When I was young, I loved to be on vacation. The whole family stayed at home. My mother cooked all the dishes we liked. My father played with us and took us everywhere in his car. Everything was so simple when we were young. We travelled, laughed, talked, and lived without any worries).

Do you see why l’imparfait is the perfect tense to talk about your memories? So touching.  

L’imparfait d’habitude (l’imparfait of habits):

L’imparfait is also used to talk habits or repeated actions in the past. For example: 

  • Tous les dimanches, elle jouait au Tennis (every sunday, she played tennis). This means that playing tennis is a past habit at the moment of speaking. She used to play tennis regularly, but she no longer does. 
  • Les voisins organisaient une fête tous les 6 mois (the neighbours organised a party every 6 months). 
  • Vous aviez l’habitude de nous appeler quand vous veniez en France (you used to call us when you came to France). 
L’imparfait d’action secondaire (second action imparfait):

L’imparfait is also used when two actions are happening at the same time in the past. It is used for background action or the first action, whereas le passé composé is used for the second one. For example: 

  • Ton collègue parlait au téléphone quand tu as toqué à la porte (your colleague was speaking on the phone when you knocked on the door). 
  • J’étais en train de dormir. Tout à coup, il a commencé à pleuvoir (I was sleeping. Suddenly, it started raining). 
  • Elle avait 12 ans quand elle a vu la neige pour la première fois (she was 12 years old when she saw snow for the first time)

It’s your turn now to form verbs in l’imparfait and start talking about your best memories. When was your first trip? How was the first cake you tried to bake? Could you tell us more about your first time having a conversation in french? What about the most beautiful landscape you saw? Feel free to talk to us about your wildest adventures in the comments below. On one condition though, use l’imparfait! To give you a push, check John Lennon’s famous quote below (Yep ! L’imparfait and le passé composé are present even in John Lennon’s quotes). 

John Lennon uses l'imparfait in his quotes

* When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.