Now let’s look at the concept of the Imparfait:
Sometimes the above rules cannot be applied.
Elle parlait Anglais (She spoke English)
So we must understand the underlying concepts of the Imparfait
Use the Imparfait when the time span of the action is not clearly defined,
because the process is emphasized:
Il semblait la vendre aux enchères
(He seemed to be auctioning it off)
Use the imparfait when there is repetition
unless the number of repetitions itself is defined
(ie j’ai chanté une fois, deux fois…..)
Je cuisinais chaque mardi. (I cooked every Tuesday)
As a result:
The verbs vouloir, pouvoir, savoir, connaitre, penser, rêver,
songer, croire and other verbs that express actions of the mind take the
Imparfait unless the action occurs in a relatively definite time frame.
This is so because the time span of such actions is hard to define, and the
process is automatically emphasized.
Je pensais que je la connaissais
(I thought I knew her)
Descriptions take the Imparfait, again because the time span tends to be
Les nuages s’étiraient dans le ciel:
The clouds stretched out in the sky.
The verb avoir used as “to own” takes the imparfait.
J’avais une voiture.
I had a car
The verb être almost always take the imparfait.
J’étais à Paris cet été.
I was in Paris this summer
I didn’t know translates as “Je ne savais pas”.
In the present, the expressions
(I am) Going to (eat)
(I) Just (ate)
translate respectively with the verbs Aller and Venir *
Je vais manger
Je viens de manger)
The past takes the imparfait in French:
I was going to eat J’allais manger
I had just eaten Je venais de manger
The big bad Would :
In English Would has 2 usages:
She would do it if he told her to.
-And another form which is not the conditional:
She would do whatever he said.
This second form is a past form
(she did whatever he said, she used to do whatever he said)
and does not take the conditional but the imperfect:
Elle faisait tout ce qu’il lui disait de faire.
Je devais travailler hier:
I had to work yesterday (but maybe I didn't)
as the imparfait in French:
Si la lune pouvait parler, elle aurait bien des choses à dire.
If the moon could speak, she would have plenty to tell.
Si la lune pouvait parler!
If the moon could speak!
Now the verb formation :
In contrast with its usage, the Imparfait is very easy to form.
Most textbooks will say that all you need to know is the “nous” form of the
present and then you change the ending.
It does not matter whether the verb is regular or irregular,
with one exception (être):
Nous chantons……Je chantais
Nous savons…….. Je savais
Nous sommes….… J’étais
However, most students are much more familiar with the « vous » form of
the présent, so in my constant search for the practical I advise them to
use this form. Moreover, it sounds exactly like the "Je tu il elle on ils elles"
forms of the Imparfait.
The only drawback is that here you have 3 exceptions instead of just one:
(être, dire, faire).
So from Vous chantez we get:
As you can see, only nous chantions and vous chantiez
SOUND different than the présent vous CHANTEZ.
Vous Savez becomes
Je savais, tu savais, il savait, nous savions, vous saviez, elles savaient.
The exceptions :
Vous faîtes….Je faisais
Vous dîtes…….Je disais
essence to the Passé Simple, an explanation of which you will find in the
advanced section. In contrast with the Passé Composé (which we will
tackle next month), the Imparfait transports the reader to the moment
when the action was taking place.
the listener has one foot in the past and one foot in the present.
the listener is presented with a fact, a statement, an occurrence, a remark
which in no way carries him or her away from the present moment.
time span of the action involved is not clearly defined.
This is because the process rather than the
accomplishment of the action is emphasized.
Students of French, however, may think it is so named
because of the difficulty of mastering perfectly its
The equivalent of the imparfait in English are two past
1. WAS ……ING
2. USED TO…….
I was singing (Emphasizes the process)
I used to sing (Implies Repetition)
These two constructions ALWAYS
take the imparfait in French.
You will also find the imparfait in English with the
regular past construction: I sang.
If this “I sang” CAN be replaced with either
"I was singing" or
"I used to sing",
it will take the Imparfait.
-When I was young, I sang (I used to sing) in a chorus.
Quand j’étais jeune, je chantais dans un choeur.
-I sang while they listened.
(I was singing while they were listening)
Je chantais tandis qu’ils écoutaient.
The above rules cover probably more than 95 per cent
of the use of the Imparfait in French.