Spanish Imperfect Tense – The Ultimate Guide

Welcome to our grammar lesson about the Spanish Imperfect Tense.

The Imperfect Tense of the Indicative Mood (“Pretérito Imperfecto de Indicativo”) is a verb tense in Spanish. We use it to talk about background information (descriptions, habitual and ongoing actions…) in the past.

The Imperfect is a beautiful sounding tense with very easy conjugations. The challenge for the Spanish learner is knowing exactly when to use it.

In this lesson we will learn how to conjugate and use verbs in Spanish Imperfect Tense, providing example sentences. At the end you’ll find a Quiz and Exercises for practice.

1. Conjugation of verbs in Spanish Imperfect Tense

Regular Verbs

Almost all verbs are regular in Spanish Imperfect.

For regular verbs:

  • Verbs in -AR → all endings begin with letters -aba.
  • Verbs in -ER and -IR → all endings begin with letters -ía.


In the following table we see the full conjugations of a verb in -AR (jugar), a verb in -ER (comer) and a verb in -IR (vivir) in Imperfect Tense.

We have highlighted the endings for each person: 

 jugarcomervivir
yojugabacomíavivía
jugabascomíasvivías
éljugabacomíavivía
nosotrosjugábamoscomíamosvivíamos
vosotrosjugabaiscomíaisvivíais
ellosjugabancomíanvivían

Irregular verbs

There are only 3 Irregular verbs in Imperfect: “ser”, “ir”, and “ver”.

Here are their full conjugations:

 serirver
yoeraibaveía
erasibasveías
éleraibaveía
nosotroséramosíbamosveíamos
vosotroseraisibaisveíais
elloseranibanveían

Imperfect of “hay” = “había”

The conjugation of “hay” in Imperfect tense is “había” (it means “there was, there were”)

That’s right: Both “there was” and “there were” translate as “había”, never  “habían”.

Example Sentences:

Ayer había un tipo muy raro en la fiesta.
Yesterday there was a very 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

  • Regular Verbs in “-ER” and “-IR”, as well as the Irregular “ver”, have accent marks for all persons.
  • Meanwhile, Regular Verbs in “-AR”, as well as the Irregulars “ser” and “ir”, have accent marks only for “nosotros”.

Have you noticed that in the tables above? 🙂

2. Uses of the Imperfect Tense

The Imperfect is a tense to express background information in the past: descriptions of things and people, what was going on at some point, what used to happen

In other words, when we tell a story, the Imperfect is used for everything that surrounds and frames the main actions, and not for the main actions themselves.

It tends to answer the question: “What was going on at the time?”.

Here are some specific cases where we tend to use the Imperfect:


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

It makes sense, because descriptions tend to be background information:

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

Los hoteles estaban cerca de la playa.
The hotels were near the beach.

De niños, nosotros éramos un poco ingenuos.
As kids, we were a bit naive.

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


Habitual actions and situations in the past

We use the Imperfect to talk about how things were in the past, or what used to happen regularly. It makes sense, because this is also background information: we are painting a picture of how things were at some point.

For this specific use, there are some keywords we frequently find near the verb in Imperfect:

Keywords and phrases with the Spanish Imperfect

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


The following 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.


Time frames: Date, Time, Age…

Phrases that are used to set a time frame in the past are commonly expressed in Imperfect, because they are background information for something else:

Era el año 2005 cuando empecé la carrera.
It was the year 2005 when I started my degree.

Cuando Ana llegó, ya eran las diez.
When Ana arrived, it was already 10 o’clock.

Cuando éramos jóvenes, hicimos un viaje a China.
When we were young, we made a trip to China.

Yo tenía 18 años cuando la conocí.
I was 18 when I met her.


Actions and situations that serve as background for something else

The Imperfect is not the only tense we talk to use about the past. There is another tenser called Preterite Tense, that we use to express the main actions that happen in the story.

The challenge for Spanish learners comes when a sentence has more than one verb, and maybe one of them should be in Imperfect, and the other in Preterite.

When this happens, we try to stick to the principle: the Preterite is for main actions, the Imperfect for background information.

And there is also a trick we can apply:

A trick for sentences that mix Preterite and Imperfect

If there are two past actions in the same sentence and both of them happened simultaneously, but one took longer than the other, then the longer one tends to be in Imperfect, because it is considered “background information” for the shorter one.

A graphic to illustrate the logic of the Imperfect Tense as the tense for background actions
The ongoing, longer action in Imperfect Tense. The main, shorter action in Preterite. Example: “Yesterday there was good weather and that’s why I went out”.

Read the following sentences that mix Preterite and Imperfect:

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 longer action, “there was good weather”, serves as background → 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 longer action, “she was playing”, serves as background → Imperfect tense)

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

3. Learn more about Preterite Vs. Imperfect

Click here to learn more about the contrast between Preterite and Imperfect.

4. Practice the Spanish Imperfect Tense

Quiz

Take this short Quiz about the Spanish Imperfect Tense!:

Exercise 1

The following sentences are descriptions in the past. Fill the gaps conjugating the verbs in brackets in Imperfect Tense. Then check the solutions below:

Nuestra casa _____ 1.(ser) de madera y _____ 2.(tener) dos plantas.
Al lado de la casa _____ 3.(haber) un bosque muy grande.
Mis abuelos ______ 4.(ser) muy guapos, ______ 5.(vestir) muy bien y ______ 6.(hablar) con un acento peculiar.

Solutions: 1 = era, 2 = tenía, 3 = había, 4 = eran, 5 = vestían, 6 = hablaban

Exercise 2

The following sentences are about habitual actions and situations in the past. Fill the gaps conjugating the verbs in brackets in Imperfect Tense. Then check the solutions below:

Cuando yo _____ 1.(ser) pequeño, _____ 2.(vivir, yo) con mi familia en una casa de campo.
Allí _____ 3.(vivir, nosotros) cuatro personas: mis padres, mi hermana y yo.
Mis padres ____ 4.(ser) médicos y _____ 5.(trabajar) en un hospital. 
De lunes a viernes, mi hermana y yo _____ 6.(ir) a la escuela.
A veces ______ 7.(pasear, nosotros) por el bosque.
Los sábados, mi padre ______ 8.(ir) a la ciudad y ______ 9.(comprar) muchas cosas.

Solutions: 1 = era, 2 = vivía, 3 = vivíamos, 4 = eran, 5 = trabajaban, 6 = íbamos, 7 = paseábamos, 8 = iba, 9 = compraba

Exercise 3

In each of the following sentences, there is a verb in Preterite Tense that expresses the main action, and another verb in brackets that we need to conjugate in Imperfect, so that serves as background information. After completing the exercise, check the solutions below:

Yo fui al médico porque _______ 1.(estar) enfermo.
______ 2.(llover) mucho cuando el cartero llegó.
Noté que ellos ______ 3.(saber) la verdad.
Nosotros comimos porque _______ 4.(tener) mucha hambre.

Solutions: 1 = estaba, 2 = llovía, 3 = sabían, 4 = teníamos

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