imperfect tense in French is used
to express ongoing
or lasting action in the past
. In this it corresponds to
the past progressive in English
(i.e. I was reading)
it also corresponds to the English
tense structure with used
However the French imperfect tense is used much more frequently
than the English past progressive, as it is also used to express
continuing or repeated actions in the past that, in English, would be
expressed by means of the preterite. See examples 2 and 3 below.
This is notably the case for verbs
that intrinsically imply duration, such as savoir,
etc., for which the imperfect
is a very
common, if not the most common, past tense in French.
One common use of the imperfect is in sentences
that relate two past
events to each other
, one expressing an ongoing situation,
the other a specific action.
See examples 7 and 8 below.
In cases where two related past events both imply duration,
in French both verbs will normally be in the imperfect. In English, by
one of them - and sometimes neither of them - may be expressed using a
verb in the past progressive - notably when the verbs intrinsically
imply duration. See
examples 9 and 10 below
Just occasionally, the imperfect is used as an
to the preterite, as a past narrative tense; in this usage it is
sometimes referred to as the picturesque past, le passé pittoresque
and was used as a technique of style by writers such as Georges Simenon
and Mario Ropp.
For all verbs, the imperfect tense is formed with the
-ais, -ais, -ait, -ions - iez
Je portais, tu portais, il/elle/on portait
portions, vous portiez, ils/elles portaient
I was joking
A l'époque, la maison
time, the house belonged to me.
Il achetait souvent des
bought rare books .
Au moment de l'accident la voiture roulait très vite.
time of the accident the car was going very fast.
travaillait souvent dans son jardin très tard le soir.
The man often used to work in his garden
very late in the evening.
J'allais vous dire que je
reconnaissais cet homme.
I was going to tell you that I
recognised that man.
suis tombé de mon vélo alors que je sortais du
off my bike as I was coming out of the garage.
somnolais quand j'ai entendu le réveil
snoozing when I heard the alarm.
9. Quand nous vivions à
Paris nous n'avions pas de voiture.
When we were living in Paris we didn't
have a car.
10. Je ne savais
pas qu'il parlait russe.
I didn't know that he spoke Russian.
The pluperfect tense in French is used
to express action in a
One common use of the pluperfect is in sentences
that relate two historic
past events to each other
, where one of the events took
place further in the past
than the other. In this situation, the French pluperfect corresponds to
the past perfect in English.
French can also use the pluperfect in some cases where English would
use the preterite or present perfect: in these instances, the function
of the pluperfect is simply to imply an action that is very much in the
past, and long since terminated. See examples 5 and 6 below.
The pluperfect is also used in past reported speech, to report a
statement originally expressed using the composite past. See examples 7 and 8 below.
For all verbs, the pluperfect tense is formed with the
imperfect of avoir
specific cases of être
followed by the past participle:
J'avais porté, tu avais porté, il avait porté
avions porté, vous aviez porté, ils avaient porté
J'étais allé, tu étais
J'avais parlé à mon avocat
avant de venir
I'd spoken to my lawyer before coming
A peine avait-il fini de ranger
ses outils, qu'il se mit à
hardly finished putting away his tools, than it started to rain.
Nous avions bien
maison avant de l'acheter.
a good look at the house before buying it .
J'avais pensé que tu
pourrais venir cet
thought you might come this afternoon.
construction du pont avait été
commencé par les Romains.
The building of the bridge was started
under the Romans.
vous connais, parce que ma mère avait souvent
parlé de vous.
I know you, because my mother often
talked about you.
disait qu'il avait déjà assez bu.
he'd already drunk enough.
Je savais que tu me l'avais
you'd already told me.