Welcome to our grammar lesson about the Spanish Imperfect Tense (“Pretérito Imperfecto”).
We use the Imperfect Tense to talk about background information in the past.
By the end of this lesson, you will be able to conjugate verbs in Imperfect Tense and use them in sentences.
At the end you’ll find a Quiz and Exercises for practice. Let’s do it!
Conjugation of verbs in Imperfect Tense
The following table shows the conjugations of regular verbs in -AR, -ER and -IR, with the endings highlighted:
There are only 3 irregular verbs: “ser”, “ir”, and “ver”:
Imperfect Tense of “hay” = “había”
The conjugation of “hay” in Imperfect tense is había, which means “there was, there were”.
Both “there was” and “there were” translate as había, never as
Ayer había un tío muy divertido en la fiesta.
Yesterday there was a very fun guy at the party.
Había muchas plantas en mi antigua casa.
There were a lot of plants in my old house.
Accent marks in Imperfect Tense
- Regular verbs in “-ER” and “-IR”, as well as the irregular “ver”, have accent marks for all persons.
- Regular verbs in “-AR”, as well as the irregulars “ser” and “ir”, have an accent mark only for “nosotros”.
Have you noticed that in the tables above? 🙂
Uses of the Imperfect Tense
We use the Imperfect Tense to express background information in the past: descriptions of things and people, what was going on at some point, what used to happen…
It tends to answer the question: What was going on?
When we tell a story, we use the Imperfect for everything that surrounds the main actions, not for the main actions themselves.
Here are some specific cases:
Descriptions of people (physical or psychological), places or things in the past
It makes sense, because descriptions are 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 una persona muy buena.
My grandma was tall and pretty. She had dark hair. She was a very good person.
Habitual actions and ongoing situations in the past
Habitual actions and ongoing situations are also considered background information.
In sentences where the Imperfect Tense has this use, it is common to find the following keywords:
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
Here’s a text including keywords:
Cuando yo era niño, mi padre trabajaba en una fábrica. Todos los días salía temprano y volvía tarde a casa. A veces llegaba muy cansado y no tenía mucho tiempo para estar con nosotros.
When I was a child, my father used to work in a factory. Everyday he left home early and came back home late in the evening. Sometimes he arrived very tired and didn’t have much time to be with us.
Actions and situations that serve as background for something else
The Imperfect is not the only past tense in Spanish.
For example, there is also the Preterite, which we tend to use for the main actions in a story.
It is typical to use the Preterite for the main actions, and the Imperfect for ongoing actions and situations that surround those main actions, serving as background information.
Here are some examples that mix Preterite and Imperfect:
Ayer hacía buen tiempo y por eso salí.
Yesterday there was good weather, so I went out. (“I went out” is the main action in Preterite. “There was good weather”, is an ongoing situation, considered background info → Imperfect tense)
El otro día, vi a una mujer que jugaba al fútbol con su hijo.
A few days ago, I saw a woman who was playing soccer with her child (“I saw” is the main action in Preterite. “She was playing” is an ongoing action, considered background info → Imperfect tense)
The following trick can help us decide between Preterite and Imperfect in sentences that mix both:
A trick for sentences that mix Preterite and Imperfect
If a sentence tells about two past actions that happened simultaneously, but one took longer than the other, the longer action tends to be in Imperfect Tense, because it is considered “background information” for the shorter one.
Notice that in the examples above.
Time frames in the past: date, time, age…
Phrases that establish a time frame in the past are usually in Imperfect Tense.
If we think about it, the time frame is just background information.
So it makes sense that the time frame is in Imperfect, and the main action might be in Preterite.
Era el año 2005 cuando empecé la carrera.
It was the year 2005 when I started my degree.
Cuando éramos jóvenes, hicimos un viaje a China.
When we were young, we made a trip to China.
Yo tenía 18 años cuando conocí a María.
I was 18 when I met María.
Learn more about Preterite vs. Imperfect!
We have a whole lesson on how to choose between Preterite and Imperfect, including extensive practice: Spanish Preterite vs. Imperfect
Take this short Quiz about the Imperfect Tense:
In this exercise, we practice the Imperfect for making descriptions in the past.
Fill the gaps in the following sentences, conjugating the verbs in brackets in Imperfect Tense:
Nuestra casa ___ 1.(ser) de madera y ___ 2.(tener) dos plantas.
Our house was made of wood and had two floors.
Al lado de la casa ___ 3.(haber) un bosque muy grande.
Next to the house there was a very large forest.
Mis abuelos ___ 4.(ser) muy guapos, ___ 5.(vestir) muy bien y ___ 6.(hablar) con un acento peculiar.
My grandparents were very handsome, they dressed very well and spoke with a peculiar accent.
This exercise is about using the Imperfect Tense for habitual actions and ongoing situations in the past.
Fill the gaps conjugating the verbs in brackets in Imperfect Tense:
Cuando yo ___ 1.(ser) pequeño, ___ 2.(vivir) con mi familia en una casa de campo.
When I was little, I used to live with my family in a country house.
Mis padres ___ 3.(ser) médicos y ___ 4.(trabajar) en un hospital.
My parents were doctors and they worked in a hospital.
De lunes a viernes, mi hermana y yo ___ 5.(ir) a la escuela.
From Monday to Friday, my sister and I went to school.
A veces nosotros ___ 6.(pasear) por el bosque.
Sometimes we would walk through the woods.
Los sábados, mi padre ___ 7.(ir) a la ciudad y ___ 8.(comprar) regalos para todos.
On Saturdays, my father would go to town and buy gifts for us all.
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 Tense, to serve as background information:
Yo fui al médico porque ___ 1.(estar) enfermo.
I went to the doctor because I was sick.
___ 2.(Llover) mucho cuando el cartero llegó.
It was raining a lot when the postman arrived.
Noté que ellos ___ 3.(estar) enfadados.
I noticed that they were angry.
Nosotros comimos porque ___ 4.(tener) mucha hambre.
We ate because we were very hungry.
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