Welcome 😊 to our grammar lesson on 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.
You will also find a Quiz and Exercises to practice.
Note: If you are looking for a lesson on how to choose between the Preterite and Imperfect tenses, go here ➡️ SPANISH PRETERITE VS IMPERFECT
Conjugation of regular verbs in Imperfect Tense
The following table shows the conjugations of regular verbs in -ar (example «jugar»), -er (example «comer») and -ir (example «vivir»), with the endings highlighted in green:
Conjugation of irregular verbs
There are only 3 irregular verbs in Imperfect Tense: «ser», «ir», and «ver»:
Imperfect of «hay» = «había»
The conjugation of «hay» in Imperfect is había, which means «there was, there were».
Both «there was» and «there were» translate as había, never as
Ayer había un tío muy gracioso en la fiesta.
Yesterday there was a very funny guy at the party.
Había muchas plantas en mi antigua casa.
There were many 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. It tends to answer the question: «What was going on?»
Here are some specific cases:
Descriptions of people (physical or psychological), places and 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 had three floors.
Los hoteles estaban cerca de la playa.
The hotels were close to the beach.
De niños, nosotros éramos un poco ingenuos.
As children, we were a bit naive.
Mi abuela era alta y guapa. Tenía el pelo oscuro. Era una persona muy buena.
My grandmother was tall and beautiful. She had dark hair. She was a very nice person.
Habitual actions and ongoing situations in the past
Things that happened often, things that were going on… are also background information.
In sentences where the Imperfect Tense has this use, we may find these 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
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 worked in a factory. Every day he would leave early and come home late. Sometimes he came home very tired and didn’t have much time to spend with us.
Actions and situations that serve as background information for other shorter actions
In sentences where we have 2 actions happening at the same time, the shorter action may be expressed in another tense called Preterite, and the longer action in Imperfect, because it is considered background information for the shorter one.
We explain this in more depth in our lesson on PRETERITE VS. IMPERFECT.
Ayer hacía buen tiempo y por eso salí.
Yesterday there was good weather and that’s why I went out. ➡️ Both actions happen at the same time, but «I went out» is shorter (Preterite), and «there was good weather» is longer (Imperfect)
El otro día, vi a una mujer que jugaba con su hijo.
The other day, I saw a woman who was playing with her son. ➡️ «I saw» is shorter (Preterite), and «was playing» is longer (Imperfect)
Time frames in the past: date, time, age…
Phrases that express a time frame in the past are usually in Imperfect Tense, because they are also background information.
So frequently the time frame is in Imperfect, and the main action in Preterite.
Era el año 2005 cuando empecé mis estudios.
It was 2005 when I began my studies.
Cuando éramos jóvenes, hicimos un viaje a Colombia.
When we were young, we took a trip to Colombia.
Yo conocí a María cuando tenía 18 años.
I met Maria when I was 18 years old.
Take this short Quiz about the Imperfect Tense:
In this exercise, we use the Imperfect to make descriptions in the past.
Fill the gaps conjugating the verbs in brackets in Imperfect Tense. Click on the gray spaces to see the solutions:
1) Nuestra casa era de madera y tenía dos plantas. (ser, tener)
Our house was made of wood and had two floors.
2) Al lado de la casa había un bosque muy grande. (hay)
Next to the house there was a very large forest.
3) Mis abuelos eran guapos, vestían muy bien y hablaban con un acento peculiar. (ser, vestir, hablar)
My grandparents were handsome, dressed very well and spoke with a peculiar accent.
In this exercise we use the Imperfect for habitual actions and ongoing situations in the past.
1) Cuando yo era pequeño, vivía con mi familia en una casa de campo. (ser, vivir)
When I was little, I used to live with my family in a country house.
2) Mis padres eran médicos y trabajaban en un hospital. (ser, trabajar)
My parents were doctors and worked in a hospital.
3) De lunes a viernes, mi hermana y yo íbamos a la escuela. (ir)
Monday through Friday, my sister and I went to school.
4) A veces nosotros paseábamos por el bosque. (pasear)
Sometimes we would walk in the woods.
5) Los sábados, mi padre iba a la ciudad y compraba regalos para todos. (ir, comprar)
On Saturdays, my father would go to town and buy gifts for everyone.
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 provide background information:
1) Yo fui al médico porque estaba enfermo. (estar)
I went to the doctor because I was sick.
2) Llovía cuando el cartero llegó. (Llover)
It was raining when the postman arrived.
3) Noté que ellos estaban enfadados. (estar)
I noticed that they were angry.
4) Nosotros comimos porque teníamos mucha hambre. (tener)
We ate because we were very hungry.