Spanish Imperfect Tense – Learn and Practice

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.

A couple of sentences in Spanish Imperfect Tense
A couple of sentences in Imperfect Tense

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. Let’s start!

Conjugation of verbs in Imperfect Tense

Regular verbs

The following table shows the conjugations of regular verbs in -ar, -er and -ir, with the endings highlighted in green:

 jugar

to play

comer

to eat

vivir

to live

yojugabacomíavivía
jugabascomíasvivías
éljugabacomíavivía
nosotrosjugábamoscomíamosvivíamos
vosotrosjugabaiscomíaisvivíais
ellosjugabancomíanvivían


Irregular verbs

There are only 3 irregular verbs: “ser”, “ir”, and “ver”:

 ser

to be

ir

to go

ver

to see

yoeraibaveía
erasibasveías
éleraibaveía
nosotroséramosíbamosveíamos
vosotroseraisibaisveíais
elloseranibanveían


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 “habían”:

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 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: 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 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

This is also background information.

In sentences where the Imperfect Tense has this use, we may find one of 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

Example:

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

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 the background information.

Here are some examples that mix Preterite and Imperfect:

Ayer hacía buen tiempo y por eso salí.
Yesterday the weather was nice and that’s why I went out. ➡️ “I went out” is the main action (Preterite), and “the weather was nice” is background information (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 the main action (Preterite), and “was playing” is background information (Imperfect)


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


Time frames in the past: date, time, age…

Phrases that express a time frame in the past are usually in Imperfect Tense, because that is 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 started 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.


Practice

Quiz

Take this short Quiz about the Imperfect Tense:


Exercise 1

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. (haber)
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.

Exercise 2

This exercise is about using the Imperfect for habitual actions and ongoing situations in the past.

Fill the gaps conjugating the verbs in brackets in Imperfect Tense:

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.

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 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.