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Être en train de : expressing ongoing actions in the past

Look at these examples:

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

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

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

Note that in French, there is no equivalent tense for the English Continuous Past.

The Imperfect tense can be used for both Simple Past (je dormais souvent I slept often) and the Continuous Past (je dormais à cette heure-là I was sleeping at that time)

However, 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)

Note: the verb être is in the Imperfect tense 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

Dragana

Kwiziq community member

12 February 2018

1 reply

Why Passé Simple for "le téléphone sonna"?

Chris

Kwiziq community member

12 February 2018

12/02/18

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



-- Chris

Melody

Kwiziq community member

19 January 2017

1 reply

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?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

10 February 2017

10/02/17

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 !

Meghna

Kwiziq community member

23 December 2016

3 replies

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?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

27 December 2016

27/12/16

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 !

Meghna

Kwiziq community member

29 December 2016

29/12/16

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

Meghna

Kwiziq community member

29 December 2016

29/12/16

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?

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