Être en train de : expressing ongoing actions in the past

In French, there is no equivalent tense for the English Continuous Past (I was doing, he was singing...).

In most cases, you can use Imparfait for both : 
- Simple PastJe dormais souvent.     I slept often.
- Continuous Past : Je dormais à cette heure-là.     I was sleeping at that time.

Now look at these examples:

Nous étions en train de dormir quand le téléphone sonna.
We were sleeping when the phone rang.

Tu étais en train de parler et Paul t'a interrompu.
You were speaking and Paul interrupted you.

Eve était en train d'écouter de la musique.
Eve was listening to music.

When you really want to emphasise the progression of the action, you can use the expression être en train de + [infinitive] (Literally to be in the process of).
The verb être is in Imparfait to express the Continuous Past

 

Also see Être en train de : expressing ongoing actions in the present

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

Nous étions en train de dormir quand le téléphone sonna.
We were sleeping when the phone rang.


Tu étais en train de parler et Paul t'a interrompu.
You were speaking and Paul interrupted you.


Eve était en train d'écouter de la musique.
Eve was listening to music.


Vous étiez en train de fabriquer vos déguisements.
You were in the middle of making your costumes.


Q&A Forum 3 questions, 5 answers

DraganaC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Why Passé Simple for "le téléphone sonna"?

Asked 1 year ago
ChrisC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor Correct answer

Why not, for a change. You use it in a literary register when expressing a completed action in the past. 

 

-- Chris

Why Passé Simple for "le téléphone sonna"?

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MelodyB2Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

imparfait vs. en train de

I echo Meghna's last question: The correct answer is ´J'ai frappé à la porte, mais tu étais en train de dormir.´. Could I say this as j'ai frappé ..... mais tu dormais?
Asked 2 years ago
AurélieKwiziq team member
Bonjour Melody ! Yes, here L'Imparfait expresses an ongoing action in the past. The expression "être en train de" simply emphasise the "ongoing-ness" of the process. À bientôt !

imparfait vs. en train de

I echo Meghna's last question: The correct answer is ´J'ai frappé à la porte, mais tu étais en train de dormir.´. Could I say this as j'ai frappé ..... mais tu dormais?

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MeghnaC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Imparfait or ´êtait en train dé'

Hi, How does one decide whether to use Imparfait or être en train de when expressing a continuing activity in the past?
Asked 2 years ago
AurélieKwiziq team member
Bonjour Meghna ! "être en train de" is a way to emphasise the fact of being in the process of doing something, a bit like "I was in the middle of ...", whereas l'Imparfait is closer to expressing "I was -ING". I hope that's helpful! Bonnes Fêtes et à bientôt !
MeghnaC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor
Thank you Aurélie. I am still struggling with the nuances- they are difficult to grasp. In another question - ´What would be the best way to say "I knocked at the door, but you were sleeping."?´ - I see that imparfait usage was marked incorrect. En train de was expected. Seems to be contradicting that '...ING' is imparfait. Maybe it you can provide the English statement for the example where imparfait would be correct? Thank you for your patience
MeghnaC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor
Clarification on my query above - I had read the choices incorrectly. The correct answer is ´J'ai frappé à la porte, mais tu étais en train de dormir.´. Could I say this as j'ai frappé ..... mais tu dormais?

Imparfait or ´êtait en train dé'

Hi, How does one decide whether to use Imparfait or être en train de when expressing a continuing activity in the past?

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