Easy Learning French

The imperfect tense - Easy Learning Grammar French

What is the imperfect tense?
The imperfect tense is one of the verb tenses used to talk about the past, especially in descriptions, and to say what used to happen, for example, I used to walk to school; It was sunny at the weekend.

1 Using the imperfect tense

  • The imperfect tense is used:
  • to describe what things were like and how people felt in the past
  • I was very sad when she left.
  • It was pouring with rain.
  • to say what used to happen or what you used to do regularly in the past
  • We used to get up very early in those days.
  • I never used to like milk.
  • to indicate things that were happening or something that was true when something else took place
  • I was watching TV when the phone rang.
  • As we were looking out of the window, we saw someone walk across the lawn.
  • Note that if you want to talk about an event or action that took place and was completed in the past, you use the perfect tense.
  • You can often recognize an imperfect tense in English because it uses a form like were looking or was raining. The words used to also show an imperfect tense.
TipRemember that you NEVER use the verb être to translate was or were in forms like was raining or were looking and so on. You change the French verb ending instead.

2 Forming the imperfect tense of -er verbs

  • To form the imperfect tense of -er verbs, you use the same stem of the verb as for the present tense. Then you add the correct ending, depending on whether you are referring to je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils or elles.
PronounEndingAdd to stem,
e.g.
donn-
Meanings
je (j’)-aisje donnaisI gave
I was giving
I used to give
tu-aistu donnaisyou gave
you were giving
you used to give
il
elle
on
-aitil donnait
elle donnait
on donnait
he/she/it/one gave
he/she/it/one was giving
he/she/it/one used to give
nous-ionsnous donnionswe gave
we were giving
we used to give
vous-iezvous donniezyou gave
you were giving
you used to give
ils
elles
-aientils donnaient
elles donnaient
they gave
they were giving
they used to give
Il portait toujours un grand chapeau noir.He always wore a big black hat.
Nous habitions à Paris à cette époque.We were living in Paris at that time.
Pour gagner un peu d’argent, je donnais des cours de français.To earn a little money I used to give French lessons.
Tipje changes to j’ in front of a word starting with a vowel, most words starting with h, and the French word y.

3 Forming the imperfect tense of -ir verbs

  • To form the imperfect tense of -ir verbs, you use the same stem of the verb as for the present tense. Then you add the correct ending, depending on whether you are referring to je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils or elles.
PronounEndingAdd to stem, e.g. fin-Meanings
je (j’)-issaisje finissaisI finished
I was finishing
I used to finish
tu-issaistu finissaisyou finished
you were finishing
you used to finish
il
elle
on
-issaitil finissait
elle finissait
on finissait
he/she/it/one finished
he/she/it/one was finishing
he/she/it/one used to finish
nous-issionsnous finissionswe finished
we were finishing
we used to finish
vous-issiezvous finissiezyou finished
you were finishing
you used to finish
ils
elles
-issaientils finissaient
elles finissaient
they finished
they were finishing
they used to finish
Il finissait souvent ses devoirs avant le dîner.He often finished his homework before dinner.
Cet après-midi-là ils choisissaient une bague de fiançailles.That afternoon they were choosing an engagement ring.

4 Forming the imperfect tense of -re verbs

  • To form the imperfect tense of -re verbs, you use the same stem of the verb as for the present tense. Then you add the correct ending, depending on whether you are referring to je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils or elles. These endings are the same as for -er verbs.
PronounEndingAdd to stem, e.g. attend-Meanings
je (j’)-aisj’attendaisI waited
I was waiting
I used to wait
tu-aistu attendaisyou waited
you were waiting
you used to wait
il
elle
on
-aitil attendait
elle attendait
on attendait
he/she/it/one waited
he/she/it/one was waiting
he/she/it/one used to wait
nous-ionsnous attendionswe waited
we were waiting
we used to wait
vous-iezvous attendiezyou waited
you were waiting
you used to wait
ils
elles
-aientils attendaient
elles attendaient
they waited
they were waiting
they used to wait
Christine m’attendait tous les soirs à la sortie.Christine used to wait for me every evening at the exit.
Je vivais seule après mon divorce.I was living alone after my divorce.

5 Spelling changes in -er verbs

  • As with the present tense, a few -er verbs change their spellings slightly when they are used in the imperfect tense. The forms with spelling changes have been underlined in the tables.
  • With verbs such as lancer (meaning to throw), which end in -cer, c becomes ç before an a or an o. This is so that the letter c is still pronounced as in the English word ice.
PronounExample verb: lancer
jelançais
tulançais
il
elle
on
lançait
nouslancions
vouslanciez
ils
elles
lançaient
  • With verbs such as manger (meaning to eat), which end in -ger, g becomes ge before an a or an o. This is so the letter g is still pronounced like the s in the English word leisure.
PronounExample verb: manger
jemangeais
tumangeais
il
elle
on
mangeait
nousmangions
vousmangiez
ils
elles
mangeaient
  • These verbs follow the 1,2,3,6 pattern. That is, they change in the first, second and third person singular, and in the third person plural.

6 Reflexive verbs in the imperfect tense

  • The imperfect tense of reflexive verbs is formed just as for ordinary verbs, except that you add the reflexive pronoun (me, te, se, nous, vous, se).
Subject pronounReflexive pronounExample with laverMeaning
jeme (m’)lavaisI washed
I was washing
I used to wash
tute (t’)lavaisyou washed
you were washing
you used to wash
il
elle
on
se (s’)lavaithe/she/it/one washed
he/she/it/one was washing
he/she/it/one used to wash
nousnouslavionswe washed
we were washing
we used to wash
vousvouslaviezyou washed
you were washing
you used to wash
ils
elles
se (s’)lavaientthey washed
they were washing
they used to wash
Tipme changes to m’, te to t’ and se to s’ before a vowel, most words starting with h and the French word y.

7 Irregular verbs in the imperfect tense

  • The only verb that is irregular in the imperfect tense is être.
PronounêtreMeaning
j’étaisI was
tuétaisyou were
il
elle
on
étaithe/she/it/one was
nousétionswe were
vousétiezyou were
ils
elles
étaientthey were
J’étais heureux.I was happy.
Mon père était instituteur.My father was a primary school teacher.
Key points
  • The imperfect tense endings for -er and -re verbs are:
    -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient.
  • The imperfect tense endings for -ir verbs are:
    -issais, -issais, -issait, -issions, -issiez, -issaient.
  • In verbs ending in -cer and -ger:
    cç and gge in all but the nous and vous forms.
  • être is irregular in the imperfect tense.

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