To delve into the past, you’ll eventually need to slip some imperfect subjunctive (a.k.a. the past subjunctive, el imperfecto del subjuntivo) into your Spanish.
This post covers how to form this tense and when to use it and shows a demonstration of its use in a great, classic Cuban song.
Note that this is a rather advanced grammar topic. Before you proceed any farther you should have a solid grasp of the past imperfect and preterit, the present subjunctive and the conditional.
- 1. Learn to Form the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish
- 2. Learn the Alternate Conjugation of the Imperfect Subjunctive
- 3. Learn When to Use the Imperfect Subjunctive
- 4. Remember These Imperfect Subjunctive Triggers
- 5. Practice the Imperfect Subjunctive
1. Learn to Form the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish
The following set of steps is one of those rare, perfect Spanish grammar rules that has no exceptions. This is how you always conjugate the imperfect subjunctive. We’ll go through the steps with two example verbs, bailar (to dance) and poder (to be able to).
1. Take the ellos form (third-person plural) of the preterit.
bailar ⇒ (ellos) bailaron
poder ⇒ (ellos) pudieron
So I hope you remember your irregular preterit verbs! You need them in this first step to come up with conjugations like fueron (they went, they were), hicieron (they did), etc.
2. Remove the -on from the end.
bailaron ⇒ bailar__
pudieron ⇒ pudier__
3. Add the ending from the following table:
yo — a
tú — as
él, ella, Usted — a
nosotros, nosotras — amos
vosotros, vosotras — ais
ellos, ellas, Ustedes — an
bailar ⇒ (ella) bailara
pudier ⇒ (ella) pudiera
Recall that, except for nosotros form conjugations, you pronounce the stress in all of these resulting conjugations on the second-to-last syllable (because they end in -n, -s or a vowel).
In some cases, misplacing the stress on the last syllable would make it sound like a future tense conjugation.
2. Learn the Alternate Conjugation of the Imperfect Subjunctive
It seemed too easy, didn’t it? Here’s the wrinkle.
While the above -ra endings are the most common form of the imperfect subjunctive, and the ones I’d recommend learning first, you’ll sometimes see -se endings instead, especially in Spain.
The meaning is exactly the same. If you want to do the alternate conjugations, start with the ellos form again, but this time remove the last three letters, –ron, and add:
yo — se
tú — ses
él, ella, Usted — se
nosotros, nosotras — semos
vosotros, vosotras — seis
ellos, ellas, Ustedes. — sen
bailar ⇒ (ella) bailase
pudier ⇒ (ella) pudiese
At the very least it’s good to know these well enough that you recognize what’s going on if you should happen across them.
3. Learn When to Use the Imperfect Subjunctive
Just as with the present subjunctive, the past subjunctive is triggered when we talk about opinions, hopes, denials, doubts and hypothetical situations, and we have two clauses with different subject nouns.
The only difference is that now we’re talking about the past.
For example, during a night out dancing we can use the present tense subjunctive to say:
Me alegro de que mi novia baile contigo. — I’m happy that my girlfriend is dancing with you.
But if we’re talking about a jealousy-free night of dancing in the past, we use the imperfect subjunctive:
Me alegraba de que mi novia bailara contigo. — I was happy that my girlfriend danced with you.
And finally, you can even use the imperfect subjunctive to express present feelings about past actions.
Pero ahora, lamento que mi novia bailara contigo. — But now, I regret that my girlfriend danced with you.
You can also talk about the reasons that things happen using para que.
No te presenté a mi novia para que me la robaras. — I didn’t introduce my girlfriend to you so that you’d steal her from me.
You can use the past perfect in the subjunctive in the same way as in the indicative past perfect by conjugating the verb haber and adding the past participle (-ado, –ido form). This is then for talking about a hypothetical, doubted or emotionally commented on “past before the past.”
Le impresionó mucho que hubieras tomado clases de baile. — She was very impressed that you had taken dance classes.
It may seem a bit odd, but we can also use the imperfect subjunctive after como si to talk about the present. If it makes you feel any better, we also often use our (disappearing) English subjunctive in this context.
Baila contigo como si ya fuera tu amante. — She is dancing with you as if she were already your lover.
And finally, a clause in the imperfect subjunctive can be coupled with a clause in the conditional to talk about fantastic, unlikely situations (not necessarily past). This also seems a bit weird until you realize that we follow exactly the same pattern in English.
Si yo fuera muy rico, ella estaría todavía conmigo. — If I were very rich, she would still be with me.
Si yo supiera bailar tango, podría reemplazarla con cualquiera. — If I knew how to dance tango, I would be able to replace her with anyone/whomever.
The construction you see above is si + imperfect subjunctive clause (the if-only-it-were-so clause), conditional clause (the how-things-would-then-be clause).
It can be difficult to understand when to use the imperfect subjunctive. If you’re struggling with this, using other resources can help you grasp this more quickly.
This Lightspeed Spanish podcast helps to train you to spot when native speakers use this grammar aspect and how you can use it, too. You can listen to more podcasts talking about the imperfect subjunctive on Coffee Break Spanish. They have a category dedicated to this topic here.
You can also watch native speakers using the imperfect subjunctive with authentic Spanish videos on the FluentU program. You can also create flashcards and use interactive captions on any video.
4. Remember These Imperfect Subjunctive Triggers
The above section should give you the main idea and major examples of when the imperfect subjunctive comes into play.
Here are some more common trigger verbs whose use in the main clause (in either the past or the present) will trigger the imperfect subjunctive in the secondary clause:
- agradecer — to thank
- alegrarse — to be happy
- desear — to wish
- encantar — to be delighted
- enojar — to be angry
- esperar — to hope
- estar contento, triste, etc. — to be happy, sad, etc.
- insistir — to insist
- molestar — to bother
- necesitar — to need
- no creer — to not believe
- pedir — to ask that
- preferir — to prefer
- quejarse de — to complain
- querer — to want
- sorprender — to be surprised
5. Practice the Imperfect Subjunctive
You’ve hopefully noticed that the imperfect subjunctive is great for talking about a regretted past, and such a past is the perfect subject for Cuban son music.
My favorite use of it occurs in this song, and it’s a famous one, so if you know Cuban music at all, you’ll have heard it. It’s sung here by María Teresa Vera.
The full lyrics are here. At 2:23 she sings:
If the things that one wants
were able to be reached,
you would love me the same
as twenty years ago.
Exceptionally alert readers may have already noticed something that’s just a bit weird. She’s using the construction: si + imperfect subjunctive clause, conditional clause—but can you spot where she’s breaking the rule?
The answer is that pesky quisieras. She has used the imperfect subjunctive where it should be a conditional querrías. The verb after si should indeed take the imperfect subjunctive (pudieran), but the main clause shouldn’t also take it.
Perhaps it’s poetic license, because maybe the singer feels that this whole situation is extremely doubtful. But it’s technically incorrect grammar, and any Spanish teacher would dock her a point for that one. Here’s the corrected version:
The song is so good and her voice is so lovely that it’s hard not to let that slide.
And she presents a great way to start making your own sentences with the imperfect subjunctive.
What/whom do you regret about your past?
How would things be different, if only [insert your imperfect-subjunctive fantasies here]?
Mose Hayward regrets his adventures in dancing, passion, drinks and languages over at TipsyPilgrim.com.