7.2.1 The use of the imparfait

Events in the past, that do not have a defined start and ending are described in French with the imparfait. There are different situations that belong to this "group".

Having still in mind, what we have seen on the previous page, there always is the need to express events that happen at the same time. In English we have the progressing (continuous) forms, that are not available in French. French uses in these cases the imparfait. We have seen the forms of the imparfait here.

La lune brillait, le vin était bon et il jouissait de le dîner dehors.
The moon was shining, the wine was good and he was enjoying the diner outside.

Further, French uses the imparfait to express events that happened repeatedly in the past.

Il pensait souvent à ses amis.
He often thought of his friends.

Also descriptions of the past are described with the imparfait.

Il faisait beau.
(It made beautiful.)
The weather was beautiful.

Situations that describe an action, that is interrupted in some way by another action, use also the French imparfait. In comparison, as you can see, English uses the progressive (continuous) form again.

Il travaillait dans un hôtel quand, un jour, il a rencontré Paul.
He was working in a hotel, when one day, he met Paul.

There is a long discussion about so called signal words, which may indicate, when to use which tense. Even within our project there are different opinions about it. However, we will mention them here under the presumption that these signal words are no fixed rule, but rather a hint or signal, what might be the correct tense. For the imparfait there are the following signal words:

Signal words  
toujours always
souvent often
tout le temps all the time
le matin / le soir in the mornings / evenings
quand whenever

To give you an idea about the difficulty of the "signal words" we will give you an example from English. English learners are told that this morning is a signal words for present perfect.

Signal words
This morning I have started to paint my apartment. (I am still working and it will last until next week)
This morning I met my friend, had breakfast with him and went to work. (Now I am at home and have almost forgotten about this morning).

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