Usually when students of French are learning to speak about events in the past, they’re first taught passé composé. And it’s easy to mistakenly think that once you’ve learned passé composé, you’re pretty much covered for past tenses (with the exception of plus que parfait, talking about one event that happened before another past event). After all, in English, you’re pretty much either talking in past tense or you’re not, right?

However, French past verb tenses are a little more complicated than that. In normal, everyday speaking and writing, you need to distinguish between two types of past tenses: the passé composé and the French imperfect tense.

When do you use imparfait instead of passé composé?

Every time it is necessary to use the past tense in French, you will need to decide which past tense to use. The imparfait tense is used for…

  • Verbs that “set the scene” before specific event verbs happen
  • Verbs that don’t relate directly to the chronology of the story
  • Verbs that happened continually or habitually
  • Verbs that are referring to something that “used to” happen
  • Verbs referring to events that were interrupted (Example: “I was reading [imparfait] , when the phone rang [passé composé].)

How do you conjugate the imperfect tense?

Luckily, conjugating imparfait is very simple. It’s formed from the nous form of a present tense verb: drop the -ons ending and add on the imparfait endings instead.

As you can see from the animation to the right, the imparfait verb endings are:

je: root + ais nous: root + ions
tu: root + ais vous: root + iez
il: root + ait ils: root + aient

The only exception to the rule of working with the nous form to conjugate the imperfect tense is the verb être. Its root form in the imperfect tense is ét+verb ending. The verb endings are just the same as every other French imperfect conjugation, though.

j’étais nous étions
tu étais vous étiez
il était ils étaient

Spelling exceptions in imparfait

Generally, the idea behind the imparfait is that the basic sound (not including the endings) should be the same for all conjugations of the word. But letters like g and c can be “hard” or “soft”, depending on the vowel that follows them.

  • Verb root forms (the nous form minus the –ons) that end in g are followed by an e if the next letter would normally be an a (in other words, the je, tu, ils and ils forms) so that the g sound stays soft. (In French, a g followed by an a would be a hard sound, but followed by an e it’s a soft sound.) For example, nous mangions (no extra e) but je mangeais (with an e).
  • Verb root forms that end in c change to a cedilla (ç) to keep the c soft if the next letter would normally be an a (as above, the je/tu/il/ils forms). For example, nous lancions (no cedilla) but je lançais (cedilla).
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