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How to Learn French Verb Aspect

Table of contents

What is a Verb Aspect in French?

As mentioned in our Tenses page, different factors need to be considered when you conjugate a verb. Aspect is one of these, alongside temporality and mood. A verb aspect reflects how an action, event or state relates to the progress of time. Look at these English examples:

  • I dance every day.
  • I'm dancing in my room.

Both of these are statements (mood) in the present tense (temporality). What differentiates them is their relation to the progress of time.

In the first example, the verb aspect is habitual, i.e the verb reflects the fact that the action is repeated regularly.

In the second case, the verb aspect is progressive, i.e. the verb reflects the fact that the action is in progress.

In this page, we'll look into the 4 French verb aspects:

  • Habitual
  • Progressive
  • Imperfective
  • Perfective

Verb conjugations reflect these aspects in various ways: in English for example, you can add markers to basic verb forms, i.e. "to be + -ING" to reflect the progressive aspect.

However, French's approach to aspects is quite different: indeed, in French, each verb tense is associated to a specific set of usages which match what in English grammar is called "aspect".

We'll now see how you can express the 4 aspects mentioned below in French.

Habitual Aspect in French

The habitual aspect expresses an action that happens regularly or is repeated, either in the present, future or past.

Habitual aspect in the present and future in French

In French, to express habits or repeated actions in the present, you use Le Présent:

Je me lève toujours à 7h.

I always get up at 7am.

 

Tu fais ton lit tous les jours.

You make your bed every day.

Here, the context around the verb (adverbs, expressions of time) is what highlights the habitual nature of the action.

Same applies to expressing habits or repeated actions in the future: you use Le Futur Simple:

Tu iras au travail tous les matins.

You'll go to work every morning.

Habitual aspect in the past in French

To express habits or repeated actions in the past in French, you use L'Imparfait:

Je me levais toujours à 7h.

I always used to get up at 7am.

 

Tu faisais ton lit tous les jours.

You made your bed every day.

Progressive Aspect in French

The progressive aspect describes an ongoing action, an action that is/was or will be in the middle of happening. In English, this aspect is usually expressed using "to be + -ING".

Progressive aspect in the present and future in French

In French, to express ongoing actions in the present, you also use Le Présent:

Je prends ma douche pendant que tu te brosses les dents.

I'm having my shower while you're brushing your teeth.

Here, the context around the verb (adverbs, expressions of time) is what highlights the progressive nature of the action.

Same applies to expressing ongoing actions in the future: you also use Le Futur Simple:

Elle assistera à cette réunion.

She will be attending that meeting.

Progressive aspect in the past in French

To express ongoing actions in the past in French, you use L'Imparfait:

Je prenais ma douche pendant que tu te brossais les dents.

I was having my shower while you were brushing your teeth.

Expressing the progressive aspect in French with "être en train de"

To emphasise the progressive aspect in French, you also have the option to use the expression "être en train de" + infinitive, as follows:

Nous sommes en train de lire un livre.

We are reading a book.

 

J'étais en train de dormir quand tu as appelé.

I was sleeping when you called.

 

Il sera en train de passer son exam à cette heure-là.

He will be taking his exam at that time.

See these related lessons to the use of "être en train de" in the present and past.

Imperfective Aspect in French

The imperfective aspect in French describes an action that is/was or will be incomplete, with no clear start or end. For example, it applies to states of being and descriptions. In English, this aspect can be expressed using simple tenses or "to be + -ING", as follows:

  • I'm standing next to you.
  • I was happy to see her.
  • He wore a yellow hat and sunglasses.

Note that the imperfective and progressive aspects can be easy to confuse with each other, as they can look similar in English.

Imperfective aspect in the present and future in French

In French, to express incomplete actions in the present, you, once again, use Le Présent:

Je suis la sœur de Timoté.

I am Timoté's sister.

 

L'air embaume du parfum des fleurs.

The air is filled with the scent of flowers.

Here, the choice of verbs highlights the incomplete nature of the action.

Same applies to expressing incomplete actions in the future: you also use Le Futur Simple:

Marion sera là. Elle portera une jolie robe.

Marion will be there. She'll be wearing a pretty dress.

Imperfective aspect in the past in French

To express incomplete actions in the past in French, you use, once again, L'Imparfait:

Il était gentil et attentionné.

He was kind and thoughtful.

 

Je voulais devenir astronaute.

I wanted to become an astronaut.

 

Il n'y avait qu'un cheveu sur la tête de Caillou.

There was only one hair on Caillou's head.

Perfective Aspect in French

In contrast with the imperfective aspect, the perfective aspect expresses completed actions, with a clear beginning and end, such as:

  • The baby smiles, waves and babbles.
  • Everyone danced tonight.

Perfective aspect in the present and future in French

In French, to express completed actions in the present, you guessed it, you use Le Présent again:

Le prince entre dans la pièce et salue le roi et la reine.

The prince enters the room and bows to the king and queen.

 

Leila dit: "Bonjour tout le monde !".

Leila says: "Hello everybody!".

Here, the context highlights the completed nature of the action.

Same applies to expressing completed actions in the future: you use Le Futur Simple:

Luc attendra Julie à la gare, puis ils iront au restaurant.

Luc will wait for Julie at the station, then they'll go to the restaurant.

Perfective aspect in the past in French

In French, to express completed actions in the past, you use Le Passé Composé:

Il a été gentil toute la soirée hier.

He was nice all night long yesterday.

 

J'ai voulu acheter une glace, puis j'ai changé d'avis.

I wanted to buy ice cream, then I changed my mind.

 

Nous avons eu un accident la semaine dernière.

We had an accident last week.

Practise French Verb Aspects

Time to practise French verb aspects! Challenge your skills with our French Verb Aspects exercises and elevate your grasp of this vital aspect of the French language.

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Time to Study Up!

Once you know the rules for French verb aspects, using them becomes natural and comfortable. Getting to that point takes regular practice, even if that's only one exercise a day!

The more frequently you use your exercises and kwizzes, the more confident you'll become. Access them now by creating your FREE account today!

 

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