Mastering the Imparfait Tense in French Grammar

The Imparfait tense is an essential aspect of French grammar that you need to understand and use correctly. It is one of the most common past tenses in the French language, and mastering it will greatly improve your ability to communicate effectively in French. In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about the Imparfait tense, including its formation, usage, and helpful tips for mastering it.

Table of Contents

Understanding the Imparfait Tense

The Imparfait tense, also known as the Imperfect tense, is used to describe past situations and events that were ongoing, habitual, or not completed. Unlike the Passé Composé, which is used for completed past actions, the Imparfait tense focuses on the duration or background of past events.

In English, the Imparfait tense can be translated as “was/were + verb-ing,” “used to + verb,” or “would + verb” depending on the context. It is important to understand the nuances of the Imparfait tense to accurately convey your intended meaning in French.

Formation of the Imparfait Tense

Regular Verbs

To form the Imparfait tense of regular verbs, follow these steps:

  1. Remove the infinitive ending (-er, -ir, or -re) from the verb.
  2. Add the appropriate Imparfait endings based on the subject pronoun:
  • je: -ais
  • tu: -ais
  • il/elle/on: -ait
  • nous: -ions
  • vous: -iez
  • ils/elles: -aient

For example, the Imparfait tense of the verb “parler” (to speak) would be:

  • Je parlais (I was speaking)
  • Tu parlais (You were speaking)
  • Il/Elle parlait (He/She was speaking)
  • Nous parlions (We were speaking)
  • Vous parliez (You were speaking)
  • Ils/Elles parlaient (They were speaking)

Irregular Verbs

While most verbs follow the regular formation pattern, there are a few irregular verbs in the Imparfait tense. The most common irregular verb is “être” (to be), which has the following Imparfait conjugations:

  • J’étais (I was)
  • Tu étais (You were)
  • Il/Elle était (He/She was)
  • Nous étions (We were)
  • Vous étiez (You were)
  • Ils/Elles étaient (They were)

Other irregular verbs include those ending in -ier, such as “envoyer” (to send) and “nettoyer” (to clean). These verbs take the regular Imparfait endings but require minor spelling adjustments to maintain pronunciation consistency.

Using the Imparfait Tense

Describing Ongoing Past Actions

The Imparfait tense is used to describe actions that were ongoing or in progress in the past. These actions may have been interrupted or not completed.


  • Je lisais un livre quand le téléphone a sonné. (I was reading a book when the phone rang.)

Habitual Past Actions

Use the Imparfait tense to describe repeated or habitual past actions, often translated as “used to” or “would” in English.


  • Quand j’étais enfant, je jouais au tennis tous les week-ends. (When I was a child, I used to play tennis every weekend.)

Describing Past States

The Imparfait tense is used to describe past states, feelings, or conditions.


  • Il faisait froid hier. (It was cold yesterday.)

Simultaneous Past Actions

When two past actions happened simultaneously, use the Imparfait tense for both verbs.


  • Pendant qu’elle cuisinait, il faisait la vaisselle. (While she was cooking, he was doing the dishes.)

Conditional Sentences

In conditional sentences, use the Imparfait tense in the “if” clause to express an unreal or hypothetical condition.


  • Si j’avais de l’argent, je voyagerais autour du monde. (If I had money, I would travel around the world.)

Negation and Interrogation in the Imparfait Tense

To form negative sentences in the Imparfait tense, place “ne” before the conjugated verb and “pas” after it.


  • Je ne travaillais pas le week-end. (I did not work on weekends.)

To form questions in the Imparfait tense, use inversion or “est-ce que”:

  • Inversion: Travaillais-tu le week-end? (Did you work on weekends?)
  • Est-ce que: Est-ce que tu travaillais le week-end? (Did you work on weekends?)

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

  • Confusing the Imparfait and Passé Composé: Remember that the Imparfait tense is used for ongoing, habitual, or background actions, while the Passé Composé is used for completed actions.
  • Incorrectly conjugating irregular verbs: Pay attention to the conjugation rules for irregular verbs like “être” and verbs ending in -ier.
  • Incorrect use of negation or interrogation: Follow the rules for forming negative sentences and questions in the Imparfait tense.

Tips for Mastering the Imparfait Tense

  • Practice conjugating regular and irregular verbs in the Imparfait tense.
  • Use context clues to determine whether to use the Imparfait or Passé Composé.
  • Pay attention to the nuances of using the Imparfait tense in different situations.
  • Practice listening and reading exercises to familiarize yourself with the Imparfait tense in authentic contexts.


Mastering the Imparfait tense is crucial for effective communication in French. By understanding its formation, usage, and nuances, you will be better equipped to express yourself in past situations and convey your intended meaning accurately. With practice and attention to detail, you can become proficient in using the Imparfait tense and enhance your overall French language skills.

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