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French Grammar from RapideFrench.com

Verbs: Past Tense – Imperfect

The French Past Imperfect Tense is used to describe past actions don’t indicate a specific start and end, or actions that occurred routinely in the past. An example of something not having a clear finish: elle était heureuse = she was happy. An example of something occurring routinely: J'allais au cinéma tous les samedis. = I used to go to the cinema on Saturdays. It is called the imperfect because it is for past actions which are ‘unfinished’.

It is formed by taking the nous form of a verb, removing the ons and then adding the endings shown in this table.

regarder, nous form is regardons
jeregard+ais=je regardais
turegard+ais=tu regardais
il/elleregard+ait=il/elle regardait
nousregard+ions=nous regardions
vousregard+iez=vous regardiez
ils/ellesregard+aient=ils/elles regardaient

Notice that for verbs the stem ends in an i, meaning that the nous and vous forms end up with ii, which is fine. For example étudier…

étudier, nous form is étudions
jeétudi+ais=je étudiais
tuétudi+ais=tu étudiais
il/elleétudi+ait=il/elle étudiait
nousétudi+ions=nous étudiions
vousétudi+iez=vous étudiiez
ils/ellesétudi+aient=ils/elles étudiaient

Stem exception: être

For once there is only one exception, être, where the stem that is different: ét
être imperfect past tense
jeét+ais=je étais
tuét+ais=tu étais
il/elleét+ait=il/elle était
nousét+ions=nous étions
vousét+iez=vous étiez
ils/ellesét+aient=ils/elles étaient

Spelling Exceptions

There are a few verbs where the spelling changes to keep the c or g sounds soft.

Verbs that end in ger (e.g. manger, to eat) make changes to keep the g sounds soft, except in the nous and vous form
jemangeaisI was eating
tumangeaisyou were eating
il/ellemangeaithe/she was eating
nousmangionswe were eating
vousmangiezyou (plural) were eating
ils/ellesmangeaientthey were eating
Verbs that end in cer (e.g. commencer, to start) make changes to keep the c sounds soft, except in the nous and vous form
jecommençaisI was starting
tucommençaisyou were starting
il/ellecommençaithe/she was starting
nouscommencionswe were starting
vouscommenciezyou (plural) were starting
ils/ellescommençaientthey were starting