TNs, U48:Verbs: Past Imperfect(Conj, Transl, State/Situation, Action/Process, Habit/Repeat, Imp+PC)

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Conjugating the Imperfect

French has a few past tenses, one of which is the imperfect (imparfait). You can construct it by taking the present indicative nous form of any verb and replacing the -ons with the imperfect ending. Notice that all the conjugated forms except the nous and vous forms have the same sound.

Subject Ending Être Avoir Parler Manger Finir Prendre
je (j') -ais étais avais parlais mangeais finissais prenais
tu -ais étais avais parlais mangeais finissais prenais
il/elle/on -ait était avait parlait mangeait finissait prenait
nous -ions étions avions parlions mangions finissions prenions
vous -iez étiez aviez parliez mangiez finissiez preniez
ils/elles -aient étaient avaient parlaient mangeaient finissaient prenaient

The only irregular imperfect verb is être, which takes on an ét- root. However, for spelling-changing verbs that end in -ger or -cer (e.g. manger), add an "e" to the root so the consonant remains soft.

  • Kilroy était ici. — Kilroy was here.
  • Elle mangeait avec ses amis. — She was eating with her friends.

Translating the Imperfect

Translating the past tense between English and French can be difficult because there is no simple mapping between the English past tenses and the two main French past tenses, the imparfait and the passé composé (taught in the previous units). When choosing a tense, pay close attention to what you're trying to express.

The imperfect describes situations, states of mind, and habits in the past. In a story, it sets the scene or background; thus, it often translates to and from the English past continuous tense.

  • Il allait chez lui. — He was going home.
  • Dis donc ! Je mangeais ça ! — Hey! I was eating that!

For repeated actions or habits, you can also use constructions with "used to" or "would".

  • Nous visitions une ville chaque semaine. — We used to visit a city every week.
  • À l'époque, elle chantait souvent. — Back then, she would often sing.

A lot of confusion stems from the versatile English preterit (simple past), which overlaps both French tenses. For instance, the preterit can also be used for habits with other elements of language suggesting frequency or repeated events.

  • Nous visitions une ville chaque semaine. — We visited a city every week.
  • À l'époque, elle chantait souvent. — Back then, she often sang.

English stative verbs (e.g. "to be", "to think") usually can't be used in English continuous tenses. When used in past tenses, they should translate to the preterit. However, French does not distinguish stative from dynamic verbs, and all French verbs can use the past imperfect.

  • Il croyait son père. — He used to believe his father. / He believed his father.
  • Nous avions trois cousins. — We had three cousins. (Using "were having" would make you a confessed cannibal.)

Using the Imperfect

The Imperfect conveys three things from the past:

States or situations

Use the preterit here to describe mental or physical conditions, scenes, date or times, weather, etc.

  • Il était malade. — He was sick.
  • Elle avait froid. — She was cold. / She used to be cold.
  • Nous avions vingt ans. — We were twenty.
  • Tu semblais heureux. — You looked happy. / You used to look happy.
  • Il était trois heures. — It was 3:00.
  • Votre fleurs sentaient si bon ! — Your flowers smelled so nice! / Your flowers used to smell so nice!
  • Elle comprenait mes sentiments. — She understood my feelings. / She used to understand my feelings.

Also, when using il y a in other tenses, conjugate avoir to match. For the Imperfect, it becomes avait.

  • Il y avait du vent. — It was windy.

Actions or processes

The continuous past can be used here to set up a scene by describing an ongoing action or process.

  • Je marchais lentement. — I was walking slowly.
  • Vous regardiez la mer. — You were watching the sea.
  • Elles pensaient à leurs enfants. — They were thinking of their children. ("Thinking" is a process here.)
  • Il pleuvait fort. — It was raining hard.

A habit or repeated action

A sense of habit or repeated action, state or feeling is inherent in the imparfait and there is no need for further elements of language to point to frequency or recurrence, especially in storytelling.

  • Nous nous entraînions (chaque semaine). - We trained every week (or) We would train every week (or) We used to train (every week).
  • Il récitait des poèmes (le soir). — He recited poems in the evening (or) He would recite poems in the evening (or) He used to recite poems (in the evening).
  • Je ressentais (souvent) de la douleur. — I often felt pain (or) I would often feel pain (or) I (often) used to feel pain.

Combining the Imparfait and the Passé Composé

The imparfait and passé composé can work together in the same sentence. A verb in the imparfait may be used as a background for an action given by a verb in the passé composé.

  • Elle chantait quand elle est arrivée. — She was singing when she arrived.
  • Vous m'avez téléphoné pendant que je dînais. — You called me while I was having dinner.
  • Il dormait quand il a entendu un bruit. — He was sleeping when he heard a noise.
  • Je marchais quand je suis tombé. — I was walking when I fell.

Remember that while you shouldn't use English continuous tenses for stative verbs (such as "to be"), any French verb can take the imparfait. Thus, you may often need to translate the imparfait into the English preterit when dealing with verbs that describe background feelings or states.

  • Je le savais mais je l’ai oublié. — I knew it but I forgot it. (Not "was knowing".)
  • Je connaissais l’histoire qu’elle a racontée hier. — I knew the story she told yesterday.
  • Je le comprenais, alors je l'ai accepté. — I understood it, so I accepted it.

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