L’imparfait: The imperfect tense in French

What is l’imparfait?

L’imparfait (the imperfect) is a French past tense. It describes states and actions that were ongoing or repeated in the past. The imperfect can correspond to the English simple past tense, but also to structures such as used to and would and even the past progressive. L’imparfait is used to tell stories and report on past actions, mostly in written contexts. We conjugate the imperfect by adding the endings -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez and -aient to the root of the present tense nous form of the verb.

Learn everything you need to know to use the imperfect tense successfully with Lingolia’s quick and easy examples, then put your knowledge to the test in the free exercises.

Example

Zeichnung

Quand il était petit, Lucas aimait beaucoup les gâteaux.

Tous les jours, il faisait un gâteau avec son amie Florence.

Pendant qu'il regardait la recette, Florence préparait la pâte.

Ils cuisaient le gâteau puis mangeaient une part au dessert.

When to use the imperfect tense in French

We use the imperfect tense in the following situations:

  • to describe a situation in the past
    Example:
    Quand il était petit, Lucas aimait beaucoup les gâteaux.When he was young, Lucas really liked cake.
  • to describe a person, a property, a comment or an explanation in the past
    Example :
    Lucas était un enfant très gourmand.When Lucas was a kid, he was a big eater.
  • to talk about a repeated action in the past
    Example:
    Tous les jours, il faisait un gâteau avec son amie Florence.Every day he would bake a cake with his friend Florence.
  • to talk about simultaneously occurring actions in the past
    Example:
    Pendant qu’il regardait la recette, Florence préparait la pâte.While he was reading the recipe, Florence was preparing the cake batter.
  • to emphasise the duration of an action
    Example:
    Ils cuisaient le gâteau puis mangeaient une part au dessert.They baked the cake and then ate a piece for dessert.

Learners of French often find it difficult to know when to use the imperfect tense and when to use the passé composé. Go to our dedicated page on imparfait vs. passé composé to learn when to use which tense, then test yourself in the free exercises.

How to conjugate the imperfect tense in French

To conjugate the imperfect tense in French, we take the present-tense stem of the 1st person plural form of the verb (the nous form), and add the following endings (identical for verbs of all groups):

Person er-verbs
(nous aimons)
ir-verbs
(nous finissons)*
ir-verbs
(nous dormons)**
re-verbs
(nous vendons)
1st person singular (I) j’aimais je finissais je dormais je vendais
2nd person singular (you) tu aimais tu finissais tu dormais tu vendais
3rd person singular (he/she/it) il/elle/on aimait il/elle/on finissait il/elle/on dormait il/elle/on vendait
1st person plural (we) nous aimions nous finissions nous dormions nous vendions
2nd person plural (you) vous aimiez vous finissiez vous dormiez vous vendiez
3rd person plural (they) ils/elles aimaient ils/elles finissaient ils/elles dormaient ils/elles vendaient

* Most ir-verbs are conjugated like finir. Choisir, réagir, réfléchir and réussir belong to this group. Here we add an -iss- to the word stem in the plural forms.

** The ir-verbs that are not conjugated like finir, are conjugated like dormir. Mentir, partir and sentir are part of this group. We do not add -iss- to form the plural.

The verb avoir is regular in the imperfect; only être has an irregular conjugation in this tense.

Person avoir être
1st person singular (I) j’avais j’étais
2nd person singular (you) tu avais tu étais
3rd person singular (he/she/it) il/elle/on avait il/elle/on était
1st person plural (we) nous avions nous étions
2nd person plural (you) vous aviez vous étiez
3rd person plural (they) ils/elles avaient ils/elles étaient

To see the conjugation of any French verb in the imparfait, go to our verb conjugator.

Exceptions to the conjugation rules

  • For verbs that end in -cer, the present form in the 1st person plural is constructed with ç (in order to preserve the soft c sound). This ç remains unchanged in the imparfait (except in the 1st and 2nd person plural forms).
    Example:
    lancer - nous lançons
    je lançais, tu lançais, il lançait, nous lancions, vous lanciez, ils lançaient
  • For verbs that end in -ger, the present form in the 1st person plural is constructed with e (in order to preserve the soft g sound). This e remains unchanged in the imparfait (except in the 1st and 2nd person plural forms).
    Example:
    manger – nous mangeons
    je mangeais, tu mangeais, il mangeait, nous mangions, vous mangiez, ils mangeaient
  • The verbs falloir and pleuvoir, which are only used in the 3rd person singular, are conjugated as follows in the imparfait:
    Example:
    falloir → il fallait
    pleuvoir → il pleuvait