Expressing continuing action in L'Imparfait (imperfect tense)

Look at these sentences using L'Imparfait:

J'allais au marché...
I was going to the market...

Tu parlais de Jean, ce matin.
You were talking this morning about John.

Elle courait quand le bus est arrivé.
She was running when the bus arrived.

Nous pensions aller à la plage
We were thinking of going to the beach.

Vous étiez là ce matin.
You (pl) were there this morning.

 

Note that L'Imparfait is also the tense to express continuing actions in the past, or actions seen in their progression, with no clear beginning or end.

This usage is similar to the Past Continuous (or Past Progressive) in English (i.e. I was doing, he was sleeping).
See also Être en train de : expressing ongoing actions in the past.

 

Other uses for L'Imparfait:

Expressing habits or repeated actions in L'Imparfait (imperfect tense)
Describing and expressing opinions in L'Imparfait (imperfect tense)

See also how to combine L'Imparfait and Le Passé Composé: Using Le Passé Composé on its own or with L'Imparfait

And to see how to conjugate in L'Imparfait: Conjugate regular verbs in L'Imparfait (imperfect tense) and Conjugate être in L'Imparfait (imperfect tense)

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

Nous pensions aller à la plage
We were thinking of going to the beach.


Elle courait quand le bus est arrivé.
She was running when the bus arrived.


Tu parlais de Jean, ce matin.
You were talking this morning about John.



J'allais au marché...
I was going to the market...


Ils mangeaient du lapin cet après-midi
They were eating rabbit this afternoon


Vous étiez là ce matin.
You (pl) were there this morning.


Q&A

John

Kwiziq community member

17 April 2019

4 replies

A question about Mayor Pete Buttigieg's now viral French comment on the fire at Notre Dame. Mayor Pete said:

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Question: Why does he say "c’était " instead of "c'est"? After all, Notre Dame a) though damaged still survives (as French President Marcon quickly told us) and b) remains a gift of France to civilization. Thus in Mayor Pete's comment I see no past action or situation, discontinuous or otherwise (except the fire being extinguished), indicated in relation to Notre Dame. 

Consulting "Learn the French Past Tense (Imperfect / Imparfait)" [https://www.thoughtco.com/imperfect-french-past-tense-1368859] none of the 7 listed conditions for using the imparfait seem to apply. 

Is there perhaps an 8th and less commonly understand use of the imparfait, in which people who comment on tragic or emotional events use this verb form to soften the impact of their words, which sounds polite and respectful to a French-listening audience?

John

Kwiziq community member

17 April 2019

17/04/19

Resending since there seems to be an HTML mark-up problem with my question.

- - - - - - -

A question about Mayor Pete Buttigieg's now viral French comment on the fire at Notre Dame. Mayor Pete said:

"Au peuple de France je voudrais dire que la cathédrale Notre Dame, c’était comme un cadeau à l’espèce humaine. Nous partageons la douleur mais nous vous remercions aussi de ce cadeau à la civilisation."

Question: Why does he say "c’était " instead of "c'est"? After all, Notre Dame a) though damaged still survives (as French President Marcon quickly told us) and b) remains a gift of France to civilization. Thus in Mayor Pete's comment I see no past action or situation, discontinuous or otherwise (except the fire being extinguished), indicated in relation to Notre Dame. 

Consulting "Learn the French Past Tense (Imperfect / Imparfait)" [https://www.thoughtco.com/imperfect-french-past-tense-1368859] none of the 7 listed conditions for using the imparfait seem to apply. 

Is there perhaps an 8th and less commonly understand use of the imparfait, in which people who comment on tragic or emotional events use this verb form to soften the impact of their words, which sounds polite and respectful to a French-listening audience?

Simon

Kwiziq language super star

17 April 2019

17/04/19

This is a great question John!  I'll let one of our French experts answer it, but in our next Q&A update we'll have liking on questions I'm sure this would get lots!

John

Kwiziq community member

17 April 2019

17/04/19

Simon, thank you. Looking forward to the follow-up.

Also (aaargh!), a correction to my original post: "Is there perhaps an 8th and less commonly understood use . . ."

Alan

Kwiziq community member

17 April 2019

17/04/19

I think "cétait" refers to it being "un cadeau" - presumably at some point in the past. It's the same in English, isn't it? For example: "I hate this tie, but it was a present from my wife".

Richa

Kwiziq community member

8 April 2019

9 replies

Passe compose vs imparfait

I was not well

Yesterday I was not well

She was absent

Yesterday she was absent

These sentences are case of passe compose or imparfait

Cécile

Kwiziq language super star

8 April 2019

8/04/19

Here Richa, we would use the imparfait as the verb 'être' being a verb of state is most often in the imperfect which conveys duration rather than a fleeting moment ...

Hope this helps!

Richa

Kwiziq community member

8 April 2019

8/04/19

Thank you so much mam for your quick response but, iam totally confused between the two.

Chris

Kwiziq community member

8 April 2019

8/04/19

I feel with you, Richa. That distinction isn't trivial and goes against the grain of how English uses these two tenses.

The reason you'd use imparfait in these examples lies buried in the fact that we are dealing with the verb être, to be. "Being" describes a state, and a state is considered distinct from an event. Describing states in the past, you use the imparfait. There's this group of verbs which are often used to describe states and, hence, are most often used with the imparfait tense.

Here is a link that explains this aspect further:

https://www.lawlessfrench.com/grammar/passe-compose-vs-imparfait-2/

Alan

Kwiziq community member

8 April 2019

8/04/19

But "yesterday" implies a clear beginning and end, which often triggers the passé composé. So you have two competing guidelines, which is why it can be so confusing.

Laura gives the example: "Il a fait froid, hier."

Richa

Kwiziq community member

8 April 2019

8/04/19

Thanks a lot

Chris

Kwiziq community member

8 April 2019

8/04/19

@Alan: I know, it can be quite contradictory and confusing at times. I don't think there's a clear distinction and it probably depends on what you want to stress or emphasise. See, e.g., the sentence:

J'étais malade. -- I was sick, vs. J'ai été malade. -- I fell sick. Maybe in this context:

J'étais malade pendant les vacances. -- I was sick during (the entire) vacation. J'ai été malade pendant les vacances. -- I was sick during the vacation (maybe a day out of the entire week).

I wonder if we could get some input on this from a native speaker. Will ask one of my fallback resources. ;)

-- Chris.

Cécile

Kwiziq language super star

9 April 2019

9/04/19

Just to add to this excellent debate , the context is very important when deciding which tense to  use . 

E.g.

Reflecting on a task that was particularly hard you could use either the imparfait or passé composé to say, ‘That was hard!’ 

If you say -

C'était dur!  = you are reflecting on how hard the task was when you were doing it.

Ça a été dur!= you are reflecting on how hard the task was but that it is now over.

That said,  I maintain that you will meet  ‘être’ mainly in the imperfect tense...

Alan

Kwiziq community member

9 April 2019

9/04/19

There's an interesting discussion here, too:

https://french.stackexchange.com/questions/25999/imparfait-or-pass%C3%A9-compos%C3%A9-j%C3%A9tais-absent-or-jai-%C3%A9t%C3%A9-absent

I liked this guideline, which is perhaps similar to Cécile's last reply:

Move on or Dwell on

The passé composé is when you want to mention the action and move on.

The imparfait is when you want to dwell in the action and say what happened in the middle of it.

Michelle

Kwiziq community member

30 January 2019

3 replies

My cousin and her accordion writing challange--Passé Composé vs Imperfect

This Imperfect vs. Passé Composé thing is giving me a very hard time. I'm starting to think that I will never make sense of this in all but the most clear cut cases. In the writing challenge, it asked me to translate "But she has always liked this instrument"...and it's in the passé composé? 

She now plays the accordion so she didn't stop liking it. She still likes it, with no ending in sight and no clear beginning (obviously always doesn't really mean always...she wasn't born that way). I have the feeling that it has something to do with the word always, but I'm just not understanding why, especially since aimer, at least from what I've seen, seems to use the Imperfect more often (though I mostly see it related to love between people...where there might be an emotional competent that is missing when you talking about an accordion?) 

Alan

Kwiziq community member

30 January 2019

30/01/19

I think it's more to do with the word "has". "She has always liked" is the present perfect tense, which is one of the other uses of the passé composé. 

If it had just been "she always liked", then I think you'd use the imperfect. The imperfect is used for actions that have no clear end, but they do have to be in the past. If it's still true today you use the present perfect, not the imperfect.

Michelle

Kwiziq community member

3 February 2019

3/02/19

Whenever you think you know all of the uses of these tenses, another one pops up. I need to start making a guide book or something.

I thought past actions that continue into the presence are in the imperfect though? I even saw an example of it on here a while back (though it didn't use the present perfect). Better just remember that present perfect equals passé composé than try to find logic in it. 

Alan

Kwiziq community member

3 February 2019

3/02/19

Can you remember the example?

Donald

Kwiziq community member

16 January 2018

1 reply

Henri faisait une sieste quand son patron est entré.

Puis-je également écrire Henri était en train de faire une sieste quand son patron est entré? Est-ce que c'est possible d'écrire cette phrase comme je l'ai fais? Peut-être ça veut-dire quelque chose d'autre. Je ne sais pas.

Chris

Kwiziq community member

17 January 2018

17/01/18

The sentence "Henri était en train de faire une sieste....." is perfectly OK. And, to my ears, has the same meaning as "Henri faisait une sieste....", except that maybe the first version stresses the contemporality even more.

-- Chris (not a native speaker).

James

Kwiziq community member

30 July 2017

3 replies

Why use indicative passe simple? (sorry can`t insert an accent).

Elle courait quand le bus arriva. Arriva to my knowledge is not spoken, therefore would this be the format in a written report?

Ron

Kwiziq community member

9 August 2017

9/08/17

Bonjour James, While all of us that are native English speakers are striving to learn French, it appears to me that the lesson goal is the imparfait and not the passé simple. Elle courait quand le bus arriva. She was running when the bus arrived. To that end, I do think you have a valid point; why use the passé simple for the clause. It seems that a more appropriate phrasing would be: Elle courait quand le bus est arrivé, or Quand le bus sera arrivé, elle courait. Je suis d'accord que cette leçon est un peu ambiguë. Peut-être la leçon serait modifié. J'espère que cela vous aidera. Bonne chance !

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

9 August 2017

9/08/17

Bonjour James !

Elle courait quand le bus arriva.

You are correct if assuming that this is more of a written sentence than a colloquially spoken one. The use of Le Passé Simple here makes it look as part of a written story, and indeed in everyday speech, you'd use Le Passé Composé:
Elle courait quand le bus est arrivé.

(Though Quand le bus sera arrivé, elle courait. makes no sense here -> When the bus has arrived, she was running.)

I also agree that using Le Passé Simple here is confusing, and I therefore changed the example to the second option :)

Merci et à bientôt !

James

Kwiziq community member

10 August 2017

10/08/17

Merci Aurelie, I have just got my head around using the future tense with `Quand`. Quand tu viendras, tu verras la nouvelle cuisine. When you come, you will see the new kitchen. Notice how in French you use the Le Futur in both parts of the sentence, including after quand, whereas in English you use the Present tense after when. The lesson we are discussing is, of course, using the imperfect tense in a continuous action. It could be an easy trap to fall into, using the future instead of the imperfect. A bientot.

MM

Kwiziq community member

28 November 2016

1 reply

Why not passé composé or plus que parfait?

OK. Alors j'ai toujours des problems avec l'imparfait. Pourquoi est-ce qu'on ne doit pas utilise le passé composé avec : "Tu parlais de Jean, ce matin." "Ce matin" n'est pas une temps spécifique? L'autre example que me pose des problems c'est "Elle courait quand le bus arriva." Ça n'est pas un example d'une action interrompu? Alors il faudra utiliser le plus que parfait, non?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

28 November 2016

28/11/16

Bonjour MM ! 1) "Tu parlais de Jean ce matin." In this case, "ce matin" is setting the action as happening *this* specific morning, and the use of Imparfait here insists on the length of the action of talking: "you were talking about Jean". You could here use Le Passé Composé "Tu as parlé de Jean ce matin", but in this case, the talking is mentioned as one brief past action, which was probably followed by other actions: "you talked about Jean this morning." 2) "Elle courait quand le bus arriva." This is a typical "interrupted action" case, in the sense of her action of running is superseded by the sudden arrival of a bus. If you like, the second action takes the foreground to the second one which is like a background action. I hope that's helpful! À bientôt !

yellamaraju

Kwiziq community member

13 July 2016

2 replies

"right past tense"

It was asked in a question to use "faire" in right past tense. When it was left unanswered, it was suggested to use imperfect tense as per 'quick lesson'. Does "right past tense" mean "imperfect tense"? This terminology was not used in the earlier lessons on imperfect tense. Please clarify.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

14 July 2016

14/07/16

Bonjour yellamaraju ! No, the "right tense" here means the right tense in this context, which was to express a continuing action in the past. In this context, the "right past tense" to use in French is always L'Imparfait. I hope that clarifies it for you, à bientôt !

yellamaraju

Kwiziq community member

14 July 2016

14/07/16

Bonjour Aurélie Thanks for the clarification
Clever stuff underway!