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 go through the following points:

  1. Conjugation in Spanish Imperfect
  2. Uses of the Imperfect
  3. Quiz about the Imperfect!

1. Conjugation in Spanish Imperfect

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
yojug abacom íaviv ía
jug abascom íasviv ías
éljug abacom íaviv ía
nosotrosjug ábamoscom íamosviv íamos
vosotrosjug abaiscom íaisviv íais
ellosjug abancom íanviv ían


Irregular verbs

The only 3 Irregular verbs in Imperfect are «ser», «ir», and «ver»:

 SerIrVer
yoeraibaveía
erasibasveías
éleraibaveía
nosotroséramosíbamosveíamos
vosotroseraisibaisveíais
elloseranibanveían


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 seen in the tables above:

  • 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 Irregular Verbs «ser» and «ir», only have accent marks on the «nosotros» form.




2. Uses of the Imperfect

The Spanish Imperfect is a tense to describe things and people in the past, and also to tell what used to happen or what was going on at some point in the past. 

The notion of «what was going on» includes circumstances or actions that serve as background for another main action.

Let’s see examples of the different uses:


– 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 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:

For this specific use there are some keywords that can help you recognize that the proper tense to use is the Imperfect. Here are some of these Keywords for Imperfect tense:

  • antes = time ago
  • siempre = always
  • normalmente = usually
  • a veces = sometimes
  • a menudo = often
  • todos los días = every day
  • una vez a la semana = once a week
  • dos veces al año = twice a year

This is an example text that includes a couple of keywords:

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 can 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. (The main action, «I went out», is Preterite tense. The background circumstance, «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 (The main action, «I saw», is Preterite tense. The background action, «she was playing», Imperfect tense)

Cuando tenía 20 años tuve un accidente de coche = When I was 20 I had a car accident. (The main action, «had a car accident», is Preterite tense. The background circumstance, «I was 20», Imperfect tense)

It is not always easy for the Spanish learner to decide if a certain action in a sentence works as main action or as background, because it’s all so relative.

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. Read the examples 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

There are several past tenses in Spanish apart from the Imperfect. A very important one is the Preterite Tense, whose contrast to the Imperfect is one of the big challenges of the Spanish language. Click here to learn the differences between the Preterite and the Imperfect.


3. Quiz about the Imperfect!

Take this short Quiz to test your knowledge!:

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