Spanish Imperfect Tense – Conjugation and Use

The Spanish Imperfect Tense («Pretérito Imperfecto») is one of the several verb tenses used to talk about the past.

In this post we will first study how to conjugate verbs in Spanish Imperfect. After that, we will learn the main cases when we use this very important tense, with Example Sentences to illustrate them.

Conjugation

1.- Regular Verbs

Verbs which are Regular in Imperfect tense must be divided in two groups:

  • For verbs ending in «-AR», the suffixes for all the persons contain the letters «-aba».
  • For verbs ending in «-ER» and also in «-IR», the suffixes for all the persons contain the letters «-ía» (always with accent mark)




As examples of Regular Verbs, let’s conjugate the verbs «jugar», «comer» and «vivir», where you can see the highlighted suffixes: 

 JugarComerVivir
yojugabacomíavivía
jugabascomíasvivías
éljugabacomíavivía
nosotrosjugábamoscomíamosvivíamos
vosotrosjugabaiscomíaisvivíais
ellosjugabancomíanvivían

2.- Irregular verbs

The only three irregular verbs are “ser”, “ir”, and “ver”:

 SerIrVer
yoeraibaveía
erasibasveías
éleraibaveía
nosotroséramosíbamosveíamos
vosotroseraisibaisveíais
elloseranibanveían

3.- Imperfect of “hay” = «había»

The conjugation of «hay» («there is, there are») in Imperfect tense is «había» («there was, there were»)

Yes: Both «there was» and «there were» translate as  “había”,  never as  “habían”.

Examples:

Ayer había un hombre muy raro en la fiesta = Yesterday there was a ver strange guy at the party.

Había muchas plantas en mi casa = There were a lot of plants in my house.

Accent Marks in Imperfect Tense

  • As you may have noticed, all Regular Verbs ending in «-ER» and «-IR», as well as the Irregular Verb «ver», present accent marks on all persons.
  • Meanwhile, Regular Verbs ending in «-AR», as well as the Irregulars «ser» and «ir», only have accent marks on the «nosotros» form.




Use of the Imperfect

The Spanish Imperfect is a tense to describe things and people, and also to tell what used to happen or what was going on. 

That includes situations or actions that serve as background for another main action.

The main uses of the Imperfect are:

– Descriptions of people (physical or psychological), places or things in the past:

Nuestra casa era grande y tenía tres plantas. = Our house was big and it had three floors.

Mi abuela era alta y guapa. Tenía el pelo oscuro. Era una persona muy buena = My grandma was tall and pretty. She had dark hair. She was a very good person.

– Actions that used to happen regularly in the past:

De niño, mi padre trabajaba en una fábrica. Todos los días salía temprano y no volvía a casa hasta la noche. A veces llegaba muy cansado y no tenía mucho tiempo para pasarlo con nosotros.

In my childhood, my father used to work in a factory. Everyday he left home early and didn’t come back until late in the evening. Sometimes he arrived very tired and didn’t have any time to spend with us.

– Actions or situations that were going on and serve as background for a main action. 

Ayer hacía buen tiempo y por eso salí. = Yesterday there was good weather and that’s why I went out. (Main action: «I went out», Preterite tense. Background: «there was good weather», Imperfect tense)

El otro día, en el parque, vi a una mujer que jugaba al fútbol con su hijo = A few days ago, at the park, I saw a woman who was playing soccer with her child (Main action: «I saw», Preterite tense. Background: «she was playing», Imperfect tense)

Cuando tenía 20 años tuve un accidente de coche = When I was 20 I had a car accident. (Main action: «had a car accident», Preterite tense. Background: «I was 20», Imperfect tense)

It is not always easy to decide if a certain action in a sentence is a main action or a background action. A little trick is: If there are two actions in the same sentence and both of them happen at the same time, but one takes longer than the other, the one that takes longer tends to be the background, and thus expressed in Imperfect tense. Check out the sentences above again and try to notice that. For example, in the first sentence, «I went out» is shorter than «there was good weather».

Preterite VS Imperfect

Click here to learn the differences between Preterite and Imperfect Tense.

Or Click here to see all our Grammar Lessons.