I can’t think about imperfect verbs without thinking of sushi. In the late spring of 2014, just before my first stay in France, I was frantically reviewing all of the grammar that I’m not sure I ever knew. Sitting at a sushi bar not long before my departure, I read about imperfect verbs, and in particular, learnt that they are formed from the nous (first person plural) form of the present tense. Really? I couldn’t recall ever hearing that before–what other simple grammatical facts didn’t I know? Should I be panicking?
Reading a book this morning, I came across a couple sentences–long sentences–in which the majority of the verbs are in the imperfect. It’s a great Zipf’s Law sentence–lots of verbs that aren’t particularly unusual, but that I didn’t know anyway. It also has an amazing array of irregular imperfects, considering that we’re just looking at three sentences here. Let’s look at this little extract–the first three sentences of the nouvelle (short story) Le personnage, “The Character,” by Gloria Escomel (anthologized in Short stories in French: new Penguin parallel text, edited and translated by Richard Coward).
Pierre avait toujours eu peur des atterrissages. Il mâchait rageusement sa gomme pour se déboucher les oreilles, rangeait machinalement livres et revues dans sa serviette, mettait ses lunettes de soleil, les enlevait pour bâiller, essuyer ses yeux, les remettait, se mouchait, enfouissait son mouchoir au fond de sa poche, le serrait convulsivement…Il sentait croître la peur, une peur absurde, irrationnelle; des mots sourdaient de lui, qu’il marmottait sans leur prêter attention.
“Pierre had always been afraid of landing. He furiously chewed his gum to unblock his ears, mechanically tidied away books and magazines in his briefcase, put on his sunglasses, took them off to yawn, to wipe his eyes, put them back on, blew his nose, burying his Kleenex in the bottom of his pocket, squeezed in convulsively…He felt the fear growing, an absurd fear, irrational; words sprang to his mind, which he muttered without paying attention to them.”
Imperfect verbs are formed from the nous (first person plural) form of the present tense of the verb. So, here are some verbs that are regular in the imperfect (examples taken from Laura Lawless‘s page on the imperfect on About.com, because I’m too lazy to go downstairs and get a grammar):
You’ll notice that the inflections are all pronounced the same, except for nous and vous, so as long as you remember -ions and -iez, you’ll be fine. (Predictably, these are the ones that I mess up most often.)
Let’s see some reflections in the sentence of the fact that the imperfect is formed from the stem of the nous present tense form. The main consequence of this is that we’re going to have some stem consonants that we wouldn’t have seen in the third person present tense. In particular, look at enfouir, “to bury.” The imperfect is enfouissait. Where does the ss come from? Because although the third person singular present tense is enfouit, the first person plural form of regular ir-class verbs is enfouissons (see here if you need a review), and that’s the form on which the stem of all imperfects is based. How about the double tt in mettait and remettait, when the third person singular present tense is met,with a single t? It’s because the first person plural present tense is mettons (and remettons). (Note that that is not the cause of the tt in marmottait (he mumbled, he murmured)–the infinitive is marmotter, so even the third person singular present tense has marmotte, i.e. two tt’s.
Ranger has yet another irregularity. You’ve noticed that the third person singular imperfect ending is ait. So, where does the e come from in rangeait? We could just say that it comes from the fact that the first person plural present tense has it, too–rangeons– but, that just pushes the question off to why the first person plural has it. Here, it’s just a spelling thing. To indicate that the g is pronounced like zh, it needs to be followed by an e. That e is not, itself, pronounced–it just reflects the fact that the g is “soft.” (That’s a non-technical term! Technically, it’s a fricative, as opposed to the g without e or i after it in the spelling, which is what’s called a stop.)
Let’s move on to sentait, “he felt:” Il sentait croître la peur, he felt the fear growing.” This comes from the verb sentir, to smell. We saw that the other ir verb that we’ve seen in the story has ss in the stem–why not sentir? You might remember from an earlier post on ir verbs that sentir is irregular, and has the basic form of a regular er verb in the present tense. So, the first person plural (nous) form is sentons, and the imperfect is sentait.
For the last irregular verb in the sentence, let’s look at avoir, “to have,” as in Pierre avait toujours eu peur des atterrissages–“Pierre had always been afraid of landings.” (We’ll ignore for now the fact that this is one of the compound tenses: avoir eu.) Avoir is one of the most irregular verbs, but it’s actually fairly simple here–the nous form is avons, and avait thus looks pretty much like any other imperfect. (I call it “fairly simple” because the present tense nous form of avoir has the same root as the infinitive, unlike most of the present-tense forms of that verb.)
For thoroughness, let’s include the imperfect of the verb être “to be,” even though it doesn’t show up in our sentence–irregular, as always. Just remember that the stem will be ét-:
|tu étais||vous étiez|
|on était||ils/elles étaient|
In the end, I messed up the nous and vous forms countless times by forgetting about the i, but the rule of forming the imperfect from the present tense nous form isn’t that difficult to remember, and I don’t think that I caused any diplomatic incidents by forgetting it, despite my sushi-related insecurities. There are more irregulars in the imperfect related to spelling changes (see ranger above–there are lots of others), but from the point of view of the spoken language, it’s fairly straightforward to use.
There’s a whole nother issue related to this example, which is: why did the author use the imperfect? These are “punctual” occurrences, meaning that they happened just once, so you would expect either the passé composé or the passé simple. A mystery–feel free to explain in the comments, if you know.
Update, January 4th, 2015:
Here’s a nice application of the imparfait. You can use it to make suggestions by preceding it with et si. You would translate et si + imparfait as something like “how about” or “what if.” See the Lawless French web site for more on this.