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The French Imperfect Essay Sample

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The French Imperfect Essay Sample

The French imperfect (imparfait) is a descriptive past tense which indicates an ongoing state of being or a repeated or incomplete action. The beginning and end of the state of being or action are not indicated, and the imperfect is very often translated in English as “was” or “was ___-ing.” The imperfect can indicate any of the following:

I. Habitual actions or states of being

Quand j’étais petit, nous allions à la plage chaque semaine. When I was young, we used to go to the beach every week.

L’année dernière, je travaillais avec mon père.
I worked with my father last year.

II. Physical and emotional descriptions: time, weather, age, feelings

Il était midi et il faisait beau.
It was noon and the weather was nice.

Quand il avait 5 ans, il avait toujours faim.
When he was five, he was always hungry.

III. Actions or states of an unspecified duration

Je faisais la queue parce que j’avais besoin de billets. I stood in line because I needed tickets.

Il espérait te voir avant ton départ.
He was hoping to see you before you left.

IV. Background information in conjunction with the passé composé

J’étais au marché et j’ai acheté des pommes.
I was at the market and I bought some apples.

Il était à la banque quand il l’a trouvé.
He was at the bank when he found it.

V. Wishes or suggestions

Ah ! Si j’étais riche !
Oh, if only I were rich!

Si nous sortions ce soir ?
How about going out tonight?

VI. Conditions in si clauses

Si j’avais de l’argent, j’irais avec toi.
If I had some money, I would go with you.

S’il voulait venir, il trouverait le moyen.
If he wanted to come, he would find a way.

VII. The expressions être en train de and venir de in the past

J’étais en train de faire la vaisselle.
I was (in the process of) doing the dishes.

Il venait d’arriver.
He had just arrived.

French has two verbs which can be translated by the English verb “to know”: savoir andconnaître. This can be confusing to English speakers, but in fact there are distinct differences in meaning and usage for the two verbs.

Savoir has three possible meanings:

1) to know a fact

Je sais qu’il l’a fait.
I know he did it.

2) to know by heart

Je sais cette nouvelle (par cœur).
I know this short story (by heart).

3) to know how to do something (note that the word “how” is not translated into French)

Savez-vous conduire ?
Do you know how to drive?

Je ne sais pas nager.
I don’t know how to swim.

In the passé composé, savoir means “to learn” or “to find out”:

J’ai su qu’il l’a fait.
I found out that he did it.

Savoir is often followed by a subordinate clause.

Je sais où il est.
I know where he is.

Il sait que nous serons à la fête.
He knows we’ll be at the party.

Connaître has two meanings:

1) to know a person

Je connais Pierrette.
I know Pierrette.

2) to be familiar with a person or thing

Je connais bien Toulouse.
I know / am familiar with Toulouse.

Je connais cette nouvelle – je l’ai lue l’année dernière. I know / am familiar with this short story – I read it last year.

In the passé composé, connaître means “to meet (for the first time) / become acquainted with”:

J’ai connu Pierrette à Lyon.
I met Pierrette in Lyon.

Connaître always needs a direct object:

Je connais son poème.
I am familiar with his poem.

Je connais bien ton père.
I know your father well.

Nous connaissons Paris.
We know/are familiar with Paris.

Il la connaît.
He knows her.

Ignorer is a related verb which means “not to know” in the sense of “to be unaware of.” Depending on the context, it can replace either ne pas savoir or ne pas connaître.

J’ignore quand il arrivera.
I don’t know when he is arriving.

Il ignore Ionesco.
He’s not aware of (doesn’t know about) Ionesco.
Generally speaking, the imperfect describes past situations, while the passé composénarrates specific events. In addition, the imperfect can set the stage for an event expressed with the passé composé. Compare the uses of these two tenses:

1. Incomplete vs Complete

The imperfect describes an ongoing action with no specified completion:

J’allais en France. – I was going to France.

Je visitais des monuments et prenais des photos. – I was visiting monuments and taking pictures

The passé composé expresses one or more events or actions that began and ended in the past:

Je suis allé en France. – I went to France.

J’ai visité des monuments et pris des photos. – I visited some monuments and took some pictures.

2. Habitual vs Occasional

The imperfect is used for habitual or repeated actions, something that happened an uncounted number of times:

Je voyageais en France tous les ans. – I traveled (used to travel) to France every year.

Je visitais souvent le Louvre. – I often visited the Louvre.

The passé composé talks about a single event, or an event that happened a specific number of times:

J’ai voyagé en France l’année dernière. – I traveled in France last year.

J’ai visité le Louvre trois fois. – I’ve visited the Louvre three times.

3. Ongoing vs New

The imperfect describes a general physical or mental state of being:

J’avais peur des chiens. – I was afraid of dogs.

J’aimais les épinards. – I used to like spinach.

The passé composé indicates a change in physical or mental state at a precise moment or for an isolated cause:

J’ai eu peur quand le chien a aboyé. – I was scared when the dog barked.

Pour la première fois, j’ai aimé les épinards. – For the first time, I liked spinach.

4. Background + Interruption

The imperfect and passé composé sometimes work together – the imperfect provides a description/background info, to set the scene of how things were or what was happening (past tense of “be” + verb with -ing usually indicates this) when something (expressed with the passé composé) interrupted.

J’étais à la banque quand Chirac est arrivé. – I was at the bank when Chirac arrived.

Je vivais en Espagne quand je l’ai trouvé. – I was living in Spain when I found it.

Uses of the passé composé and imperfect
Compare passages and discover key words and phrases
Test: Passé composé vs Imperfect

Note: There is a third tense, the passé simple, which technically translates to the English simple past tense, but is now used primarily in writing, in place of the passé composé – learn more.

Once you understand the different uses of the imperfect and passé composé as explained on page 2, take a look at these passages to compare how these two French past tenses may be used.


Quand j’avais 15 ans, je voulais être psychiatre. Je m’intéressais à la psychologie parce que je connaissais beaucoup de gens très bizarres. Le week-end, j’allais à la bibliothèque et j’étudiais pendant toute la journée.

When I was 15, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I was interested in psychology because I knew a lot of really weird people. On the weekends, I used to go to the library and study all day.

Passé composé

Un jour, je suis tombé malade et j’ai découvert les miracles de la médecine. J’ai fait la connaissance d’un médecin et j’ai commencé à étudier avec lui. Quand la faculté de médecine m’a accepté, je n’ai plus pensé à la psychologie.

One day, I got sick and discovered the wonders of medicine. I met a doctor and started studying with him. After the medical school accepted me, I didn’t think about psychology any more.

The following key words and phrases tend to be used with either the imperfect or the passé composé, so when you see any of them, you know which tense you need: Imperfect| Passé composé|
chaque semaine, mois, année | every week, month, year| une semaine, un mois, un an| one week, month, year| le week-end| on the weekends| un week-end| one weekend| le lundi, le mardi…| on Mondays, on Tuesdays… | lundi, mardi…| on Monday, on Tuesday| tous les jours| every day| un jour| one day|

le soir| in the evenings| un soir| one evening|
toujours| always| soudainement| suddenly|
normalement| usually| tout à coup, tout d’un coup | all of a sudden| d’habitude| usually| une fois, deux fois…| once, twice…| en général, généralement| in general, generally| enfin| finally| souvent| often| finalement| in the end|

parfois, quelquefois| sometimes| plusieurs fois| several times| de temps en temps| from time to time
rarement| rarely
autrefois| formerly

Some French verbs are used primarily in the imperfect, while others have different meanings depending on which tense they are used in. Learn more about advanced past tenses.

There is a third tense, the passé simple, which technically translates to the English simple past tense, but is now used primarily in writing, as the literary equivalent of the passé composé.|

The imperative, called l’impératif in French, is a verb mood which is used
to * give an order
* express a desire
* make a request
* offer advice
* recommend something
Unlike all other French verb tenses and personal moods, the subject pronoun is not used with the imperative:

Fermez la porte.
Close the door.

Mangeons maintenant.
Let’s eat now.

Ayez la bonté de m’attendre.
Please wait for me.

Veuillez m’excuser.
Please excuse me.

The above are called “affirmative commands,” because they are telling someone to do something. “Negative commands,” which tell someone not to do something, are made by placing ne in front of the verb and the appropriate negative adverb after the verb:

Ne parle pas !
Don’t speak!

N’oublions pas les livres.
Let’s not forget the books.

N’ayez jamais peur.
Never be afraid.

Hobbies – Sports – Games
Passe-temps favoris – Sports – Jeux
Here are the French names of some common hobbies, sports, and games. You can use these nouns with verbs like aimer and détester, or if you want to say that you do or play that item, use it with the verb in the third column. The fourth column has verbs that can be used alone to talk about doing that item, e.g., cuisiner – to cook. English| French| Use with| Or use|

basketball| le basket| jouer à| |
biking| le cyclisme, le vélo| faire de| |
chess| les échecs| jouer à| |
cooking| la cuisine| faire| cuisiner|
dancing| la danse| | danser|
fishing| la pêche| aller à| pêcher|
football| le football américain| jouer à| |
gardening| le jardinage| faire de| jardiner|
hiking| la randonnée| faire de| |
hockey| le hockey| jouer à| |
hunting| la chasse| faire| chasser|
jogging| le jogging| faire de| |
a movie| un film| regarder| |
music| la musique| écouter, jouer de| |
reading| la lecture| faire| lire|
sailing| la voile| faire| |
skiing| le ski| faire de| skier|
soccer| le football, le foot| jouer à| |
swimming| la natation| faire de| nager|
television (TV)| la télévision (la télé)| regarder| | tennis| le tennis| jouer à| |
wrestling| la lutte| faire de| lutter|

The French adverbial pronouns y is so tiny that one might think its role in a sentence is not very important, but in fact quite the opposite is true. It is extremely important in French.

Y refers to a previously mentioned or implied place; it is normally
translated by “there” in English. Y usually replaces a prepositional phrase beginning with something like à, chez, ordans.

Are you going to the bank today? No, I’m going (there) tomorrow. Tu vas à la banque aujourd’hui ? Non, j’y vais demain.

We’re going to the store. Do you want to go (there)?
Nous allons au magasin. Tu veux y aller ?

He was at Jean’s house. He was there.
Il était chez Jean. Il y était.

Note that “there” can often be omitted in English, but y can never be omitted in French. Je vais (I’m going) is not a complete sentence in French; if you don’t follow the verb with a place, you have to sayJ’y vais.

Y can also replace à + a noun that is not a person,* such as with verbs that need à. Note that in French, you must include either à + something or its replacement y, even though the equivalent may be optional in English. You cannot replace the noun with an object pronoun.

I’m responding to a letter. I’m responding (to it).
Je réponds à une lettre. J’y réponds.
Wrong: Je réponds, Je la réponds, Je lui réponds.

He’s thinking about our trip. He’s thinking about it.
Il pense à notre voyage. Il y pense.
Wrong: Il pense, Il le pense, Il lui pense.

You have to obey the law. You have to obey it.
Tu dois obéir à la loi. Tu dois y obéir.
Wrong: Tu dois obéir, Tu dois l’obéir, Tu dois lui obéir.

Yes, I attended the meeting. Yes, I attended (it).
Oui, j’ai assisté à la réunion. Oui, j’y ai assisté. Wrong: Oui, j’ai
assisté, je l’ai assisté, je lui ai assisté.

I’m going to think about your proposal. I’m going to think about it. Je vais réfléchir à votre proposition. Je vais y réfléchir. Wrong: Je vais réfléchir, Je vais la réfléchir, Je vais lui réfléchir.

*In most cases, à + person may only be replaced by an indirect object. However, in the case of verbs that don’t allow preceding indirect object pronouns, you can use y:

Pay attention to him.
Fais attention à lui, Fais-y attention.
Wrong: Fais-lui attention.

Note that y usually cannot replace à + verb.

I hesitate to tell the truth. I hesitate to tell it.
J’hésite à dire la vérité. J’hésite à la dire.
Wrong: J’y hésite.

I continue to read Balzac. I continue to read him.
Je continue à lire Balzac. Je continue à le lire.
Wrong: J’y continue.

The French adverbial pronoun en is so tiny that one might think its role in a sentence is not very important, but in fact quite the opposite is true. It is extremely important in French.

En replaces the partitive article + noun or de + indefinite article + noun. It is equivalent to “some,” “any,” or “one” in English.

Do you have any bread? Yes, I have some.
As-tu du pain ? Oui, j’en ai.

He wants an apple. He wants one.
Il a envie d’une pomme. Il en a envie.

I don’t need an assistant. I don’t need one.
Je n’ai pas besoin d’un aide. Je n’en ai pas besoin.

In a sentence with a modifier, such as an adverb of quantity or a number, plus noun, en replaces the noun and the modifier or number is placed at the end of the sentence. Note that “of it” and “of them” are usually optional in English, but en is required in French.

There are a lot of rooms. There are a lot (of them).
Il y a beaucoup de chambres. Il y en a beaucoup.

I don’t have enough money. I don’t have enough (of it). Je n’ai pas assez d’argent. Je n’en ai pas assez.

I’d like two books. I’d like two (of them).
Je voudrais deux livres. J’en voudrais deux.

We bought 10 notebooks. We bought 10 (of them).
Nous avons acheté 10 cahiers. Nous en avons acheté 10.

En also replaces de + noun with verbs and expressions that need de. Again, in French, you must include either de + something or its replacement en, even though “about/of it” is usually optional in English.

What do you think about my idea? What do you think (about it)? Que penses-tu de mon idée ? Qu’en penses-tu ?
Wrong: Que penses-tu ?

What are the consequences of this decision? What are the consequences (of it)? Quelles sont les conséquences de cette décision ? Quelles en sont les conséquences ? Wrong: Quelles sont les conséquences ?

Note that en usually cannot replace de + verb.

I decided to accept his offer. I decided to accept it. J’ai décidé d’accepter son offre. J’ai décidé de l’accepter. Wrong: J’en ai décidé.

I forgot to wash the car. I forgot to wash it.
J’ai oublié de laver la voiture. J’ai oublié de la laver. Wrong: J’en ai oublié.

Note that en is also a preposition.

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