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 Spanish. More specifically, we use it for descriptions and ongoing actions in the past.

When we talk about the past, we do so like if we were telling a story. And a story doesn’t only consist of a series of actions: “this happened, then that happened, and then this other thing”. It also consists of descriptions, or ongoing situations that serve as background and enrich the story. The Imperfect Tense is useful for that kind of information.

In this post we will learn all about the Spanish Imperfect Tense, going through the following points:

1. Conjugation in Imperfect Tense

Regular Verbs

Almost every verb is Regular in Imperfect Tense. Regular Verbs are divided into two groups:

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


In the following table we see the full conjugation of verbs “jugar”, “comer” and “vivir” in Imperfect Tense, where we can see the suffixes highlighted: 

 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”)

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

Example Sentences:

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.

Note about Accent Marks in Imperfect Tense

As we notice in the tables above…:

  • Regular Verbs ending in “-ER” and “-IR”, as well as the Irregular Verb “ver”, present accent marks on all persons’ forms.
  • 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 Tense

The Spanish Imperfect is the tense for ongoing actions and situations. That includes descriptions of things and people in the past, as well as what was going on, what used to happen…

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 we can look for, which tend to go well with the Imperfect:

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 those 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.


– Ongoing actions and situations which can serve as background for a main action. 

Examples:

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)

As you may notice, it is not always easy for the Spanish learner to decide whether a certain action in a sentence works as main action or as background, because it’s all so relative. Fortunately, there is a little trick that can helps us in a case of doubt:

Trick

If there are two actions in a sentence and both of them happen simultaneously, but one takes longer than the other, the longer one tends to be expressed in Imperfect tense, because it is considered as “background” for the shorter action.

Look at this graphic to better understand the logic:

A graphic to illustrate the logic of the Imperfect Tense as the tense for background actions
The ongoing, background action should be expressed in Imperfect Tense

Take a moment to review the last example sentences, applying the trick. For example, in the first sentence, “I went out” is shorter than “there was good weather”. It works!


More about Preterite Vs. Imperfect

Click here to review the Imperfect and learn how to choose between Imperfect and Preterite.

3. Practice: A Quiz

Take this short Quiz to test your knowledge about the Imperfect Tense:


4. Practice: An Exercise

In the following text, a man talks about his childhood memories. Of course, the Imperfect tense will be profusely used here, because it consists of descriptions, what used to happen regularly… Fill the gaps in your mind or on a piece of paper using the Imperfect, and check the solutions at the end of this post.

Cuando _____ 1.(ser, yo) pequeño, _____ 2.(vivir, yo) con mi familia en una casa de campo. La casa _____ 3.(ser) de madera y _____ 4.(tener) dos plantas.
Allí _____ 5.(vivir, nosotros) cuatro personas: mis padres, mi hermana y yo.
Mis padres ____ 6.(ser) médicos y _____ 7.(trabajar) en un hospital. 
Mi hermana y yo _____ 8.(ir) a una escuela que _____ 9.(estar) muy cerca y _____ 10.(llamarse) “Escuela Miguel de Cervantes”.
Al lado de nuestra casa _____ 11.(haber) un bosque muy grande. Recuerdo que, en verano, todos los sábados _____ 12.(pasear, nosotros) por el bosque horas y horas. A veces _____ 13.(volver, nosotros) a casa ya de noche, agotados por la larga caminata, pero muy felices.

Solutions to the Exercise: 1 = era, 2 = vivía, 3 = era, 4 = tenía, 5 = vivíamos, 6 = eran, 7 = trabajaban, 8 = íbamos, 9 = estaba, 10 = se llamaba (Reflexive Verb), 11 = había, 12 = paseábamos, 13 = volvíamos

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