Here’s How to Master the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish
The Spanish imperfect subjunctive helps you express opinions, hopes, denials, doubts and hypothetical situations—something I’m sure you do a lot in English.
As such, you’ll come across it a lot in Spanish, too.
You can already use the preterite and imperfect tenses, plus the present subjunctive. And now, you want to learn how to express yourself fully and confidently in Spanish. It’s time to learn the imperfect subjunctive.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need about the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish—including conjugations, usages, practice tips and more.
- What Is the Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive?
- How to Conjugate the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish
- When to Use the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish
- How to Practice the Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive
What Is the Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive?
The imperfect subjunctive is simply the past version of a subjunctive!
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.
How to Conjugate the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish
1. Take the ellos form (third-person plural) of the preterite.
bailar ⇒ (ellos) bailaron
poder ⇒ (ellos) pudieron
2. Remove the -on from the end.
bailaron ⇒ bailar–
pudieron ⇒ pudier–
3. Add the ending from the following table:
bailar ⇒ (ella) bailara
pudier ⇒ (ella) pudiera
Also, you’ll be glad to know that it doesn’t matter if the verb is regular or irregular, this way of conjugating will always work.
You can also use the past perfect in the subjunctive the same way as in the indicative past perfect by conjugating the verb haber and adding the past participle (-ado, –ido form) as we’ll see below.
The Alternate Conjugation of Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive
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 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:
So these would look like:
bailar ⇒ (ella) bailase
pudier ⇒ (ella) pudiese
When to Use the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish
1. Talking about the past
The difference between using the imperfect subjunctive to talk about the past instead of one of the indicative tenses (such as the preterite or imperfect) is that you’re talking about a past hypothetical, doubt, emotion or a “past action before another past action.”
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).
Le impresionó mucho que hubieras tomado clases de baile. — She was very impressed that you had taken dance classes.
No conocía a nadie que trabajara en esa compañía. — I didn’t know anyone who worked at that company.
2. Talking about the present
It may seem odd, but we can also use the imperfect subjunctive after como si (meaning “as if”) to talk about the present. If it makes you feel any better, we also often use our (disappearing) English subjunctive in this context.
This is how you’d say things like, “as if…”
Baila contigo como si ya fuera tu amante. — She is dancing with you as if she were already your lover.
Ella está viviendo como si fuera la reina. — She is living as if she were the queen.
3. Talking about hypotheticals
A clause in the imperfect subjunctive can be coupled with a clause in the conditional to talk about fantastic, unlikely situations (not necessarily in the past).
This also seems a bit weird until you realize we follow the same pattern in English.
The construction you’ll see below is si + imperfect subjunctive clause (the if-only-it-were-so clause), conditional clause (the how-things-would-then-be clause).
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.
4. When using certain verbs in past or conditional tense
Certain verbs will often trigger the imperfect subjunctive when it’s in the second clause.
That means you know to use the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish if you see these in the first part of the sentence (and they’re conjugated in the past or conditional tense).
Here are some of those verbs:
|Alegrarse||To be happy|
|Encantar||To be delighted|
|Enojar||To be angry|
|Estar triste/contento/etc.||To be sad/happy/etc.|
|No creer||To not believe|
|Pedir||To ask that|
|Quejarse de||To complain|
5. To express desire, wishes and doubt
Like the normal subjunctive tense, the imperfect subjunctive is used to express things like desires, wishes and doubts.
It can be used to talk about these things both in the past and in the present (as we saw above in number 2). But when discussing present feelings, think of it as saying “would [do something]” in English.
Ojalá que fuéramos a la playa mañana. — I hope that we would go to the beach tomorrow.
Dudaba que ellos se hubieran ido. — I doubted they had left.
6. For politeness with querer
The imperfect subjunctive helps you express sentiments like “I would like…” using the verb querer (to want).
It makes your requests sound more polite and is an excellent substitute for the more straightforward Spanish command form.
Quisiera dirigir el grupo para este proyecto. — I would like to lead the group for this project.
It’s important to note that this is only with the verb querer: when using other verbs, you should use the conditional to make polite requests. For example Me gustaria una naranja (I would like an orange), or Me encantaría salir con él (I’d love to go out with him).
7. Current opinions on past events
The imperfect subjunctive comes in handy when you remember something that happened in the past and still have feelings or opinions about it now.
It’s great for making reflections and complaints.
Quería que compraras flores para mi cumpleaños. — I wanted you to buy flowers for my birthday.
Dudo que hiciera tanto frío como dijiste. — I doubt it was as cold as you said.
How to Practice the Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive
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 it more quickly.
- Practice the imperfect subjunctive by speaking. Especially speaking with a native Spanish speaker will help you incredibly as you can hear how they use it and they can give you feedback on your usage. You can find a language exchange partner on multiple apps, such as the ones we listed here.
- Listen to as much authentic content as possible. FluentU is a good resource for this, as it has over one thousand Spanish videos that can show you how words and grammar structures (like the imperfect subjunctive) are used in context. The learning resources such as flashcards and quizzes will also help enhance your understanding of the tense.
- Subscribe to podcasts. Podcasts such as Lightspeed Spanish and Coffee Break Spanish will give you even more listening practice. For a full list of Spanish podcasts for all levels, check out our post here.
And there you have it—the complete rundown on the Spanish imperfect subjunctive.
Learning the imperfect subjunctive won’t always be easy, but you can always improve with lots of practice!
With these tips, you’ll be well on your way to communicating your desires, doubts, opinions and requests with confidence and like a native speaker.