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THE IMPERFECT (l'imparfait)

The imperfect is another past tense but its usage is different from that of the perfect and the past historic. It is mainly used for three different purposes, namely:

  • To provide some background information to a storyline, i.e. to set the scene (including physical and psychological description).

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  • To express a habit in the past. In that case, in English you would normally use 'used to' or 'would' to refer to the repetitive aspect of something.

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  • To describe an ongoing action, often in contrast to a punctual action (for which the perfect tense would be used). In English, it would translate into the past progressive that expresses that something was happening. It can be somewhat related to the first usage mentioned above (i.e. provide some background information in the past)

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Formation of the imperfect

The imperfect is one of the most regular French tenses as it is always formed following the same pattern. Only the verb être is an exception to that rule. The stem is the nous form of the present tense without the -ons ending, to which you add the imperfect endings -ais, -ais, -ait, ions, iez, aient. The stem for être is ét-.