Spanish Imperfect Tense – Conjugation and Uses

Spanish Imperfect Tense

The Spanish Imperfect Tense of the Indicative Mood (“Pretérito Imperfecto de Indicativo”) 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 are telling stories. 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 information. The Imperfect Tense is useful for expressing that kind of information.

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

In this grammar lesson, we will first learn how to easily conjugate verbs in Imperfect Tense.

Then, we will learn the types of sentences where we use the Imperfect, providing examples for each use.

Finally, there is a Quiz and some exercises to practice the Spanish Imperfect.

1. Conjugation of verbs in Spanish Imperfect Tense

Regular Verbs

Almost all verbs are regular in Spanish Imperfect. Regular Verbs are divided into two groups:

  • For verbs ending in “-AR”, the endings for all persons contain the letters “-aba”.
  • For verbs ending in “-ER” and “-IR”, the endings for all persons contain the letters “-ía”


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

 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 Spanish Imperfect are “ser”, “ir”, and “ver”:

 SerIrVer
yoeraibaveía
erasibasveías
éleraibaveía
nosotroséramosíbamosveíamos
vosotroseraisibaisveíais
elloseranibanveían

Imperfect tense 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 Spanish Imperfect Tense

  • 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.

Have you noticed this in the tables above? 🙂

2. Uses of the Spanish Imperfect Tense

The Spanish Imperfect is a tense for ongoing actions and situations in the past. That includes background information: 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?”.

The most typical cases where the Imperfect fits are:

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 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.

Continuous or habitual actions in the past

We use the Imperfect to talk about how things were in the past (all the time), or what used to happen regularly. It makes sense, because it is background information: we are painting a picture of how things were at the time.

For this specific use there are some keywords and phrases which tend to go well with the 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.

Ongoing actions and situations that serve as background information for something else

When talking about the past, in many sentences we mix the Imperfect with another tense: the Preterite. Frequently we find sentences where one verb in Preterite Tense, and another verb is in Imperfect Tense.

Obviously this can get confusing for the Spanish learner. But we must stick to the principle: the Preterite for main action, the Imperfect for background information.

Read the following sentences that mix Preterite and Imperfect Tense. Then we will explain a trick that can help in 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 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)

3. A trick for sentences that mix Imperfect and Preterite tense

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 tense, 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.

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 Spanish Imperfect Vs. Preterite

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

4. Practice the Imperfect tense: Quiz and Exercises

Quiz

First, take this Quiz about the Spanish Imperfect. it will help you know if you understood the theory:

Exercise 1

The following sentences are about descriptions in the past (first use of the Imperfect learned in this lesson). Fill the gaps using verb forms in Imperfect Tense. Then check the solutions right after the exercise.

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 elegante y ______ 6.(hablar) con un acento muy peculiar.

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

Exercise 2

The following sentences are about continuous or habitual actions in the past (second use of the Imperfect learned in this lesson). Fill the gaps using verb forms in Imperfect Tense. Then check the solutions right after the exercise.

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 one of the following sentences, there is a verb in Preterite Tense that expresses the main action, and another verb in Imperfect Tense that serves as background information (third use of the Imperfect learned in this lesson). Fill the gaps using verb forms in Imperfect Tense. Then check the solutions right after the exercise.

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