The imperfect tense in French

The imperfect tense is generally used to say "was doing" or "used to". For example:

il travaillait très dur
he used to work very hard
j'y allais souvent
I used to go there often
avant d'avoir la voiture, je prenais le train
before I got the car, I used to use the train
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How to form the imperfect tense

As you can see from the above examples, the imperfect tense in French is a single word, like the present tense. It is generally formed as follows:

  • Take the nous form of the present tense and remove the -ons to form the stem;
  • Add the appropriate ending -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient.

Here is a complete example with the verb donner:

Here is an example of an -ir verb. Note that all of the forms of the imperfect tense have -ss- (as does the nous present tense form nous finissons).

Here is an example of an irregular verb. The verb dormir (to sleep) has the nous present tense form nous dormons, and so its imperfect tense is as follows:

In fact, the imperfect tense of most irregular verbs turns out to be quite simple, because the nous present tense form is often quite simple:

  • With the majority of verbs, regular or irregular, the imperfect tense is based on the infinitive minus the 'ending' (-er, -re, -oir, -ire etc).
  • With regular -ir verbs, remember the -ss-; with irregular -ir verbs, you generally just remove the -ir.

Imperfect tense of être

This verb is a notable and important exception. Its nous present tense form is nous sommes (we are), but the imperfect tense is based on the stem ét-. So here is the imperfect tense form in full:

Usage and practice

You can practice forming the imperfect tense with the interactive exercises on the following pages:

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.