The imperfect tense in Spanish: everything you need to know

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The short answer:

The imperfect tense in Spanish is used to describe past actions or events that don’t have a specific end date. It’s easy to conjugate, but it can be tricky for English speakers to know exactly when to use it. 

So if you want to learn how to use the Spanish imperfect properly, keep reading to find out everything you need to know about this past tense.

The longer answer:

Although there are quite a few past tenses in Spanish, the imperfect is one of the most commonly used – so it’s a good one to master.

And to be honest, it’s not as hard as you think. You might even find you begin to overuse it as it’s very easy to conjugate verbs in the imperfect!

We use the Spanish imperfect tense to describe past events or recurring actions that don’t have a specific end date.

Even though English doesn’t have a direct equivalent tense, once you understand the basic rules around when to use the imperfect tense in Spanish, it’ll become second nature.

So let’s jump in and take a look at everything you need to know about the Spanish imperfect – what it is, how to form it and when to use it.

What is the imperfect tense?

Don’t be tricked by the word imperfect. When used correctly, this tense is the perfect way to talk about the past!

The Spanish imperfect (pretérito imperfecto de indicativo) is the tense we use to talk about past events that haven’t ended  or recurrent past events. 

To help decide if you should be using the Spanish imperfect, ask yourself, does the action have a definite completion date? If not, then it’s likely you’ll need to use the imperfect tense.

For example:

Mi familia y yo íbamos de vacaciones a la playa todos los años.
My family and I vacationed at the beach every year.

We don’t know when the family stopped vacationing at the beach.

All we know is that they don’t anymore (sad face), so we use the imperfect tense.

Let’s take a look at another example:

Cuando era pequeño vivía en Madrid con mis padres.
When I was small, I lived in Madrid with my parents.

Here, we don’t know the exact date when the speaker (let’s call them Mercedes) stopped living in Madrid with their parents – so we use the imperfect tense.

The other way to think about the Spanish imperfect is when you want to describe the circumstances – or the background – in which an event took place.

Think of it as the key to setting the scene when you start telling a story. 

For example:

Estábamos en el jardín cuando comenzó a llover.
We were in the garden when it started to rain. 

In this sentence, the imperfect is used to give background to the story – they were in garden – when it started to rain.

Let’s take a look at another:

Justo cuando salía de casa sonó el teléfono.
Just when I was leaving the house, the phone rang.

Here, the imperfect is used to give us background to what Mercedes was doing when she was interrupted by the phone ringing.

In all of these sentences, we don’t know exactly when these actions happened, just that they’re some time in the past.

Starting to make sense? Just remember, it’ll become clearer the more you use it. 

via GIPHY

How to form the imperfect tense in Spanish

“I love learning conjugations”, said no one ever! 

But we’ve got two handy rules to help you learn how to conjugate verbs in the Spanish imperfect. 

 The endings for the imperfect tense follow two rules: 

  • The endings for regular verbs ending in  -er and -ir  are exactly the same. 
  • The endings for yo and él / ella / usted are also the same.

Remembering these two rules will significantly reduce the amount of endings you need to memorise.

And that is always a good thing!

If you’re wondering about irregular verbs, the good news is there are only three. We’ll tell you all about them a little later on.

So let’s get on to the conjugations!

Regular verbs

trabajar (to work)tener (to have)salir (to go out/to exit)
yotrabajabateníasalía
trabajabasteníassalías
él/ella/ustedtrabajabateníasalía
nosotros/nosotras trabajábamosteníamossalíamos
vosotros/vosotras trabajabaisteníaissalíais
ellos/ellas/ustedes trabajabanteníansalían

Now we’ve covered the regular verbs, let’s take a look at those three irregular verbs.

Irregular verbs

ser (to be)ir (to go)ver (to see)
yoeraibaveía
tú erasibasveías
él/ella/ustederaibaveía
nosotros/nosotraséramosíbamosveíamos
vosotros/vosotraseraisibaisveíais
ellos/ellas/ustedeseranibanveían

While they are irregular, there is still a method to the madness, as you can see, they still follow a pattern.  

Wondering why ver is irregular if it has the same -er verb endings as a regular verb? Because it doesn’t drop the ‘e’ from the infinitive form.

So, when exactly do we use this past tense? 


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When to use the Spanish imperfect tense: 4 golden rules

As we covered earlier, the imperfect tense is used to describe actions in the past that don’t have a definite end date. In general, we talk about four key uses of the imperfect.  Let’s take a look at some imperfect tense in Spanish examples.

As you’re reading them, try making up your own sentences to talk about your past.

1. Describing the past

Used to describe people’s appearance, places and situations.

For example:

Hacía mucho calor en la playa y había mucha gente.
It was too hot at the beach and there were a lot of people.
Marta tenía el pelo largo de pequeña.
Marta had long hair when she was a child. 

2. Describing habits in the past

The same way as we use the present tense to talk about habits or routines that are happening right now, we use the Spanish imperfect tense to describe those habits or routines in the past.

We even use the same time expressions for the present tense and the imperfect. To illustrate this, we’ve compared two statements about habits in the present and the past.

For example:

Siempre tomo café por las mañanas. – Siempre tomaba café por las mañanas.
I always have coffee in the mornings. – I always used to have coffee in the mornings.
Cojo el autobús cada día. – Cogía el autobús cada día. 
I take the bus every day. – I used to take the bus every day.

3. Describing the circumstances in which something happened

The imperfect is commonly used to describe events that give context  for another event.

Llegué tarde a trabajar porque el metro no funcionaba.

I was late for work because the underground wasn’t working.

4. Describing an action in progress in the past

When we are talking about an event in progress that gets interrupted, we use the imperfect for the event in progress and the simple past tense for the action interrupting it.

For example:

Me encontré con Juan cuando iba al cine.
I bumped into Juan when I was going to the cinema.
Caminada a la oficina cuando vi a tu hermana.
I was walking to the office when I saw your sister.

The Spanish imperfect in 3 questions

While some of you may love learning from examples and lists like this, we know it’s not always the most practical way. 

So when deciding whether to use the imperfect, remember to ask yourself:

  1. Do I know when the action started or finished exactly?
  2. Is there a clear beginning or end?
  3. Did it happen only once at a specific moment in time?

If the answer to these questions is no, you will definitely need to use the imperfect.

That’s everything you need to know 

As with most things in life, it’s easier to trust your intuition and remember a list of rules. 

So when it comes to the imperfect tense, and all aspects of learning Spanish, just give it a go. Chances are, you’ll get it right the first time!

Now you know how and when to use the imperfect, there’s only one thing left to do. Get some practice with the imperfect tense in Spanish!

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