What is the Imparfait?
The imparfait is one of the main past tenses used in the French Language. Its name translate to "imperfect," and while we do have an imperfect tense in English, it is not the same. The imparfait is used for descriptions, circumstances, general facts, or recurring events in the past. It is not, however, used for single events. The easiest way to understand its purpose is to think of a play taking place in the past. At the beginning of each scene, there is usually a description of what was happening, and often in French, the verbs would be in the imparfait.
Forming the imparfait consists of two parts, the verb stem (called la racine), and the verb ending (called la terminaison). As I'm sure most French students are happy to learn, the imparfait is quite possibly the easiest tense in the French language to learn. To find the stem of the verb, you must first conjugate the verb in the present tense, and take the nous form. Parler (to speak), for example, conjugates as nous parlons. At this point, you drop the -ons at the end, and you have your stem. It does not matter how irregular the verb is in the present tense, all you need is the nous form, minus the -ons at the end. Avoir (to have) conjugates in the present as nous avons, drop the -ons, you have av- as your stem.
At this point, you need the endings. The endings are the same for all verbs in the imparfait, and they are as follows:
je –> -ais
tu –> -ais
il/elle/on –> -ait
nous –> ions
vous –> iez
ils/elles –> aient
So to form the imparfait, you simply combine the stem of the verb with the appropriate ending. Take our earlier example, parler. It conjugates in the present as nous parlons. Drop the -ons, we have parl-, and then add the endings, and you get the following:
As you can see, there are only two steps to this tense, making up the following simple rule:
verb stem [nous form in present tense, minus -ons] + ending [-ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient] = imparfait
Earlier, I told you that the imparfait just might be the easiest verb in the French language, and I was telling the truth. One of the hardest parts of most conjugations is learning the many irregular forms and stems. With the imparfait, however, the endings are the same for every verb, and the stem is formed with the same pattern, as discussed in the previous section. However, in conjugating some of the verbs you have worked with before, you might run across the following situation:
être (to be)
Ok, we have the nous form, so we drop the -ons…except, there is not an -ons to drop! In fact, être is the only verb in the French language whose present tense nous form does not end in -ons. It is, therefore, the only irregular imparfait conjugation in the French language. Because we cannot find a stem with our normal methods, we use the stem ét- instead. Être conjugates in the imparfait as follows:
The endings are the same as all the regular verbs, the stem is the only change. Just remember the ét- stem, and you will be fine. I always found it useful to remember the common phrase "Quand j'étais jeune…" which begins many stories.
Sample Imparfait Sentences
Here are some sentences using verbs in the imparfait, as well as their translations:
Il y avait beaucoup de gens au cinéma. (There were many people at the movies.)
J’aimais beaucoup lire des romans policiers. (I really liked to read detective novels.)
Le ciel était couvert, et il pleuvait. (It was cloudy, and it was raining.)
Nous parlions le latin avec notre professeur. (We were speaking Latin with our teacher.)
Elles regardaient la télé après le dîner. (They used to watch TV after dinner.)
For more on the use of the imparfait compared to other past tenses, see French Tenses: Passé Composé and Imparfait.