Past Continuous Tense in French

Valorie Delp
french class

The past continuous tense in French is generally expressed using the imparfait. It is used to express something that was ongoing in the past, or something that was happening when something else happened. A good way to think of the past continuous tense in French is that whenever you would use a verb ending in -ing, to describe something in the past -- you're using the past continuous tense. (In French, that's called the imparfait.)

Past Continuous Tense in French: Imparfait

The most common way to express the idea that something happened in the past but was ongoing, or impermanent is by using the imparfait. You should use the imparfait when you are talking about:

Time, Weather, Age and Feelings

  • Il était cinq heures quand j'ai quitté. It was five o'clock when I left.
  • Il pleuvait des cordes. It was pouring rain.
  • J'avais seize ans quand j'ai commencé à travailler. I was sixteen when I got my first job.
  • J'étais tellement en colère. I was so angry.

Actions in the Past That Happened Repeatedly or Didn't End

  • L'année dernière, je jouais sur l'équipe de football. Last year I played on a soccer team.
  • J'attendais recevoir un coup de fil. I was waiting for a phone call.

Use With Passé Composè for Background Information

eiffel towers
  • Je faisais la queue quand j'ai vu l'accident. I was waiting in line when I saw the accident.
  • Nous regardions le match quand nous avons entendu le bruit. We were watching the game when we heard the noise.

Conditional Sentences

  • Si je pouvais, je vous aiderais. If I could help you, I would.
  • Si j'avais de l'argent, je te le donnerais. If I had the money, I would give it to you.

Using Être en Train De and Venir De In the Past

  • J'étais en train de nettoyer. I was just (in the middle of) cleaning.
  • Elle venait de sortir. She had just gone out.

How to Conjugate the Imparfait

The imparfait is actually one of the easier tenses to conjugate in French. It's a simple tense (meaning that it only requires one verb as opposed to a compound tense like passé composé which requires an auxiliary verb). The only irregularities are some spelling changes as noted below.

Conjugating the Imparfait

For any verb, you conjugate the imparfait by taking the nous form of the verb and dropping the '-ons' and adding the appropriate imparfait ending as follows:

Imparfait
je -ais nous -ions
tu -ais vous -iez
il/elle/on -ait ils/elles -aient

Exceptions and Examples

There is always at least one exception to the rule. In this case the exception is minor and still very easy to remember. The verb 'être' is conjugated in the imparfait by using the stem '-ét'. Look at the chart below for examples:

Conjugating the Imparfait
Avoir Être Aller Jouer Dormir Prendre Voir
j'avais j'étais j'allais je jouais je dormais je prenais je voyais
tu avais tu étais tu allais tu jouais tu dormais tu prenais tu voyais
il avait il était il allait il jouait il dormait il prenait il voyait
nous avions nous étions nous allions nous jouions nous dormions nous prenions nous voyions
vous aviez vous étiez vous alliez vous jouiez vous dormiez vous preniez vous voyiez
ils avaient ils étaient ils allaient ils jouaient ils dormaient ils prenaient ils voyaient

Spelling Irregularities and Notes

There's always at least one exception to the rule! Make sure you note these exceptions when you're working in the imparfait:

  • Verbs that end in -ger, and -cer have slight spelling modifications to maintain the soft c and g.
Manger and Lancer in the Imparfait
je mangeais je lançais
tu mangeais tu lançais
il mangeait il lançait
nous mangions nous lancions
vous mangiez vous lanciez
ils mangeaient ils lançaient
  • While it might look funny to you, verbs whose first person plural root (the nous form of the verb) end in i, have a double i in the nous and vous forms of the imparfait. Therefore, étudier, becomes: étudiions and étudiiez

The imparfait is one of the easiest verb tenses to conjugate because there are very few irregularities. The trick is to figure out when to use it as opposed to the passé composé. However, with practice you'll be on your way to speaking like a true Francophone!

Past Continuous Tense in French