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Imperfect (imparfait)


The imperfect past tense is formed on the stem of the first person plural (nous) in the present indicative. The imperfect endings are -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient. Thus:

regarder (present: nous regardons)

je regardais
tu regardais
il regardait
nous regardions
vous regardiez
elles regardaient

Note that if the verb stem ends in “i,” the first and second person plural forms in the subjunctive will contain a double “i“:

étudier : vous étudiiez
s’écrier : nous nous écriions

The only exception to the standard formation is the verb être, whose stem is ét-:

tu étais
elle était
nous étions
vous étiez
ils étaient

Note that verbs ending in -cer or -ger (e.g., commencer, manger) will undergo a spelling change when the “c” or “g” is followed directly by an “a” or “o.” To soften the consonant, “c” will add the cedilla (ç) and “g” will be followed by “e.” So,

vous mangiez
nous commencions


ils mangeaient
je commençais


The imperfect is the tense of past description. It is used to describe settings, repeated actions in the past, or actions which are so vague as to elude any specific beginning or ending:

Il faisait beau ce jour-là. (It was nice out that day.)
Quand j’étais plus jeune, nous allions souvent à la mer. (When I was younger we often went to the coast.)

Expressions of emotion or of states of mind are frequently described in the imperfect:

Il n’était pas content du résultat. (He wasn’t happy with the results.)
Quand elle était petite, elle avait peur du noir. (When she was little, she was afraid of the dark.)

While verbs describing mental and emotional states in the past are often in the imparfait, they may be put in the passé composé when one wishes to signal a change or a reaction:

Quand le serpent lui est tombé sur la tête, il a eu peur. (When the snake fell on his head, he was frightened.)

Note that English uses three different forms to express the imperfect:

When I was young I used to dance.
I was dancing when he fell on the dancefloor.
When I was little, we would dance every Sunday.

All of these are expressed by the imperfect in French:

Quand j’étais jeune, je dansais.
Je dansais quand il est tombé sur la piste de danse.
Quand j’étais petit, nous dansions tous les dimanches.

Warning: do not confuse the imperfect with the conditiona. When “would” is used to describe a habitual action in the past, it must be written in the imperfect in French:

Quand Muriel était petite, elle faisait une sieste tous les jours. (When Muriel was little she would take a nap every day.) Note that recent past constructions (venir de + infinitive), when used in the imperfect, have the meaning of a pluperfect:

Il venait de déjeuner quand je suis arrivée. (He had just had lunch when I arrived.)

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