The Imperfect Tense in Spanish: How and When to Use It

Did you know that Spanish has 10 different past tenses?

Or that native Spanish speakers normally use around eight of them on a daily basis?

As you can see, Spanish has more ways of talking about the past than English, and today we are going to focus on one of them: the Spanish imperfect tense.

Let’s embark on this journey to the past!

Contents

What Is the Spanish Imperfect Tense?

Spanish has three past tenses: the imperfecto, the pretérito and the pluscuamperfecto.

The imperfect and the preterite are the most frequently used among the past tenses—in fact, they are the most commonly used tenses in Spanish overall!

I love the imperfect tense because it allows you to “travel back in time” and see things as they were happening. Have a look:

Juan cantaba una canción mientras Ana regaba las plantas. (Juan was singing a song while Ana was watering the plants.)

I bet you imagine Juan and Ana in their living room as if a movie were taking place in front of your eyes!

And that is great, because this is what the imperfect tense is mainly used for: talking about something that was happening or used to happen and providing information about the past.

I also consider the imperfect tense to be the easiest tense to learn because it only has three irregular verbs. So, let’s take a look at how we can form this amazing tense!

Conjugating the Spanish Imperfect Tense

Regular verbs

As I have mentioned before, the imperfect is one of the easiest Spanish tenses, especially because of the fact that almost all verbs are regular when conjugated in this tense.

Before I go on, remember each Spanish verb falls into one of three conjugations depending on whether their infinitive ends in -ar (first conjugation), -er (second conjugation) or -ir (third conjugation).

This table will show you the endings for the different types of verbs using cantar (to sing), comer (to eat) and vivir (to live) as examples:

Subject-AR Endings-ER Endings-IR Endings
YoCantabaComíaVivía
CantabasComíasVivías
Él/Ella/UstedCantabaComíaVivía
NosotrosCantábamosComíamosVivíamos
VosotrosCantabaisComíaisVivíais
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesCantabanComíanVivían

If you have a closer look at these endings, you will discover a couple of things that will make your learning process even easier.

For starters, all endings from the first conjugation start with -aba. No matter the verb, if it’s an -ar verb, it will have -aba in all the imperfect conjugations.

Here are the imperfect tense conjugations of jugar (to play) with the pattern highlighted, so you can see this in action:

yo jugaba
tú jugabas
él/ella/usted jugaba
nostros/as jugábamos
vosotros/as jugabais
ellos/as/ustedes jugaban

Likewise, all endings from the second and the third conjugations start with -ía (do not forget that accent).

This means all verbs belonging to the second and third conjugations (ending in –er and -ir, respectively) will use -ía in all the imperfect tense verb conjugations.

Here are two examples, one for each ending, with this fact highlighted:

oler (to smell): 

yo olía
tú olías
él/ella/usted olía
nosotros/as olíamos
vosotros/as olíais
ellos/as/ustedes olían

dormir (to sleep): 

yo dormía
tú dormías
él/ella/usted dormía
nosotros/as dormíamos
vosotros/as dormíais
ellos/ellas/ustedes dormían

Irregular verbs

The three irregular verbs in the imperfect tense can be seen in this table:

SubjectSerIrVer
YoEraIbaVeía
ErasIbasVeías
Él/Ella/UstedEraIbaVeía
NosotrosÉramosÍbamosVeíamos
VosotrosEraisIbaisVeíais
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesEranIbanVeían

But even though these verbs are irregular, they do follow a certain pattern! 

Ser uses the same endings as regular verbs but without the -ab-.

Ir does the same but only drops the -a-.

Finally, ver has the regular endings it should, there is just an additional -e- that remains from the infinitive!

Expressions Used with the Spanish Imperfect Tense

Just as the English present simple is associated with time expressions such as never, always, often, sometimes, etc., Spanish also has a set of expressions that can give you a hint that the imperfect tense is coming.

Here are some of those expressions:

cada día/semana/mes/año/domingo… (every day/week/month/year/Sunday…)

Iba a almorzar a casa de mi abuela cada sábado. (I used to go have lunch at my grandma’s house every Saturday.)

Lloraba cada día. (She would cry every day.)

de vez en cuando (from time to time)

Me escribía de vez en cuando. (She wrote to me from time to time.)

Quedaba con ella de vez en cuando hasta que cumplí los 18. (I met up with her from time to time until I turned 18.)

frecuentemente / con frecuencia (frequently)

Nos veíamos con frecuencia durante el verano. (We used to see each other frequently during summer.)

María mentía frecuentemente cuando era pequeña. (María would frequently lie when she was little.)

en aquel tiempo / en aquella época (at that time, during that time)

Yo comía mucho más en aquella época. (I used to eat a lot more during that time.)

En aquel tiempo, ninguno de nosotros tenía un ordenador. (At that time, none of us had a computer.)

generalmente (usually)

Generalmente iban a la playa por la mañana. (They usually went to the beach in the morning.)

Generalmente sacabas mejores notas que yo. (You usually got better grades than me.)

a menudo (often)

A menudo comía pizza cuando vivía en España. (I would often eat pizza when I was living in Spain.)

Íbamos a pescar a menudo cuando estábamos de vacaciones. (We would often go fishing when we were on holiday.)

muchas veces (many times)

Muchas veces trabajaba los fines de semana. (Many times I would work on weekends.)

Pedro solía cantar muchas veces la misma canción. (Pedro used to sing the same song many times.)

nunca (never)

Ellos nunca jugaban en el parque. (The would never play in the park.)

María nunca llegaba tarde. (María would never arrive late.)

siempre (always)

Siempre comíamos helado los viernes. (We always used to eat ice cream on Fridays.)

Cuando era niño siempre dibujaba todo lo que veía. (When I was a child I would always draw everything I saw.)

When to Use the Spanish Imperfect Tense

Now that we know how to form the imperfect tense, we need to know the situations that we use it in.

Description of the past

The imperfect, not the preterite, is the tense we use when making descriptions in the past.

Descriptions include not only physical traits but also feelings, mental actions, conditions and states.

Simply put, every time you describe someone or something, or you set the stage for the action that you are going to refer to, you use the imperfect tense.

I am sure this will make sense after you read the following examples:

La abuela te quería mucho. (Grandma loved you very much.) → feeling

Estaba muy enfermo. (He was very sick.) → state

Pensaba en su futuro. (He was thinking about his future.) → mental action

Era de noche y hacía mucho viento. La tormenta estaba casi encima de nosotros. (It was night and very windy. The storm was almost upon us.) → set the stage for a horror story

Wendy era alta y tenía los ojos azules. (Wendy was tall and had blue eyes.) → physical description

Habitual actions in the past

If an action took place repeated times in the past, use the Spanish imperfect tense.

A very important verb here is soler (tend to, used to), which is always followed by an infinitive.

However, the use of this verb is not compulsory. You can simply conjugate said infinitive in the imperfect tense and the sentence will mean the same:

María solía comer galletas cada tarde. (María used to eat cookies every afternoon.)
María comía galletas cada tarde. (María used to eat/would eat cookies every afternoon.)

Juan solía sacar a su perro a pasear tres veces al día. (Juan used to take his dog for a walk three times a day.)
Juan sacaba a su perro a pasear tres veces al día. (Juan used to take/would take his dog for a walk three times a day.)

Past actions in progress

In English, when you have an ongoing action interrupted by another, you use the past continuous for the ongoing action and the past simple for the sudden one:

I was taking a bath when you called.

In Spanish, when we have a similar situation, we use the imperfect tense for the ongoing action and the preterite for the interrupting one:

Me estaba bañando cuando llamaste. (I was taking a bath when you called.)

However, you do not necessarily need an interruption in order to describe past ongoing actions. You can simply use the imperfect to make it clear that you are talking about an action in progress:

Estaba leyendo un libro. (I was reading a book.)

Antonio caminaba hacia el parque. (Antonio was walking towards the park.)

Ayer a las 5 de la tarde estaba leyendo un libro. (Yesterday at 5 p.m. I was reading a book.)

Antonio caminaba hacia el parque antes del accidente. (Antonio was walking towards the park before the accident.)

Times and dates

Times and dates in the present tense use the present simple. If you want to say it is 3 a.m., you say Son las 3 de la mañana, and if you want to say it is April 15, you say Es 15 de abril.

But how do say it was 3 a.m. when something happened, or it was April 15 when you came back from Spain? We use the imperfect when talking about times and dates in the past.

Have a look:

Eran las 3 de la mañana cuando volviste. (It was 3 a.m. when you came back)

Era 15 de abril. Estaba soleado y yo me sentía muy feliz. (It was April 15. It was sunny and I was feeling very happy.)

Era el año 1939, y nunca más volvería a verlo. (It was 1939, and I would never see him again.)

Extra Practice with the Spanish Imperfect Tense

As I mentioned before, the imperfect is one of the two most frequently used tenses in Spanish, which you can easily observe in Spanish movies, telenovelas (soap operas) and other authentic language videos that native speakers enjoy.

So if you want to see the imperfect in action without having to physically travel to Europe or Latin America, watch some Spanish media. Doing so will also boost your listening skills.

If you don’t have the time for a full-length feature, one option for listening practice is FluentU.

FluentU is an immersive language learning app that takes entertaining clips from the media to teach Spanish. These Spanish videos contain interactive subtitles to indicate translations and grammar information, such as tenses.

The subtitles are also connected to the app’s vocabulary list and flashcard generators so you can review words at any time. You can even take a quiz at the end of each video to see if you’ve understood everything.

 

The imperfect tense is one of those super easy Spanish tenses almost every learner enjoys for its simplicity, and now you know why!

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe

Close