La Tour Eiffel
This posting is dedicated to our customers who are learning French with us or elsewhere. If you couldn't tell by the title, this topic is about the much-maligned imperfect tense. Why is it maligned? Ask any non-native French speaker, and you'll get an earful. If you don't have time or inclination to do that, we'll help you by talking about the tense in detail here. Our goal is to help you understand it and navigate in your writing, speaking, or listening.
What Is the Imperfect Tense?
Besides a headache to some? In non-language maven terms, it's a way to express yourself in the past. You may ask, "So this is the past tense, right?" Well, yes, but it's a different way of looking at the past. The standard past tense in French is called le passé composé. We'll talk more about that in a subsequent post. For now, let's focus.
By the way, the reason it's called imperfect is that it implies that past events don't have an endpoint, or if there is one, it's not readily known by the speaker or listening. Imperfect in this sense means incomplete. The passé composé is considered a perfect tense, which means it talks about events in the past that have been completed. We'll talk more about this in the next section.
What Makes It Different?
It's different because it expresses the past in two ways:
Describing something, someone, or some event involved with the past
Discussing ongoing, non-finite activities of the past
If you're looking to speak factually about something at a specific time, you wouldn't use the imperfect normally. Here's some contrasting examples of the imperfect and passé composé:
I went to the store and bought some bread (passé composé) - factual, specific statements
He was fat, but now he's thin. (imperfect) - description
We would to go school and goof off. (imperfect) - past event, non-finite end point
Can you see how the sentences differ in how they approach past events? While the passé composé tells you what happened factually at a particular time or moment, the imperfect describes what happened without telling you an endpoint. It also implies that the past action is a repeated one.
Here's a good way to look at it: If you can use "would," "was + ing form of the verb," or "used to" in the sentence, you're going to use the imperfect. Can you see now why sentence two and three need the imperfect but not sentence one? You can add in "used to" or "would"in the latter two, but doing so for the first would make the sentence non-sensical.
So let's see how these sentences look in French.
Je suis allé au magasin et a acheté du pain.
Il étais gros, mais pas maintenant.
Nous allions à l'école and faisions l'andouille.
What's the Conjugation?
It's not that hard to learn, actually. It's simple in the sense that you just need a subject and a verb. Unlike the passé composé, you won't need helping verbs to make the sentence complete. What's even better is that the endings are always the same, no matter the infinitive ("to" form of the verb). Here we go:
Je ----> - ais
Tu ----> - ais
Il/Elle/On ----> -ait
Nous ----> -ions
Vous ----> -iez
Ils/Elles ----> - aient
For "er," "ir," and "re" verbs, you drop the ending and tack on the above endings. No exceptions. Please note that in order to maintain pronunciation continuity, the main part of the verb may change form. A prime example would be "changer" for four forms. To keep the soft "g" sound, you'll have to add an "e" before the imperfect ending.
Let's subject parler to this treatment.
These translate as "I was speaking," "you were speaking," etc. And since we brought up changer above, let's subject it to the same treatment to see how the stem changes.
The Imperfect with the Passé Composé
These tenses sometimes interact, so you'll need to know which to use where. Again, it's not hard. The best way to think of this is to thik about an event that happened in the past but was interrupted by another event. Let's take a look.
I was talking to my friend when my teacher interrupted me
You were in the process of doing something (no defined ending) when something else butted in. Here's the translation:
Je parlais à mon amie quand mon professeur m'a interrompue.
As you can see, the imperfect isn't all that bad. It's simple to conjugate, for sure, and as long as you remember the "used to" thing, you'll know when to use it. So practice it until it becomes second nature.