Once Upon a Time: The Spanish Imperfect Tense and How to Master 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!
- What Is the Spanish Imperfect Tense?
- Once Upon a Time: The Spanish Imperfect Tense and How to Master It
- Conjugating the Spanish Imperfect Tense
- Expressions Used with the Spanish Imperfect Tense
- cada día/semana/mes/año/domingo… (every day/week/month/year/Sunday…)
- de vez en cuando (from time to time)
- frecuentemente / con frecuencia (frequently)
- en aquel tiempo / en aquella época (at that time, during that time)
- generalmente (usually)
- a menudo (often)
- muchas veces (many times)
- nunca (never)
- siempre (always)
- When to Use the Spanish Imperfect Tense
- Extra Practice with the Spanish Imperfect Tense
What Is the Spanish Imperfect Tense?
Do not let the name fool you: The imperfect tense is perfect for talking about the past!
I love this tense because it allows you to “travel back in time” and see things as they were happening. It is like opening a window back to history. 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.
We will learn more about when to use the Spanish imperfect tense later in the post, but let me give you one more example:
Bebía té felizmente y pensaba en mi amado. (I was happily drinking tea and thinking about my beloved.)
What can I say? The imperfect rules!
Spanish has three past tenses that can be considered the kings of the past party (the imperfect, the preterite 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!
But as the star of this post, we’ll only be going over the Spanish imperfect.
Once Upon a Time: The Spanish Imperfect Tense and How to Master It
After so many years teaching Spanish, I can honestly say the imperfect is one of the easiest tenses in the Spanish language.
Right after I say this, almost every student reacts in one of two different ways (and sometimes both). Either they ask:
“What about the irregular verbs?”
Or they exclaim:
“This cannot possibly be easier than the present tense!”
My answers to that are always the same: the imperfect only has three irregular verbs and yes, it is indeed 50 times easier than the present tenses.
Seriously, if I were to make a Top Three Easiest Tenses in Spanish, they would undoubtedly be:
3. Conditional simple
2. Future simple
You do not need to believe me if you are not convinced. Just keep on reading and you will see for yourself.
Conjugating the Spanish Imperfect Tense
Every time we learn a new Spanish tense, the first step is always to divide the verbs into two main groups: the regular verbs and the irregular ones.
Once we have done that, we need to memorize the endings for each stem in order to conjugate all the forms of a verb.
This is what you will learn in the following sections.
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).
Here are the endings for all three conjugations in the imperfect tense:
Verbs ending in -ar:
yo (I) -aba
tú (singular, informal you) -abas
él/ella/usted (he/she/formal you) -aba
nosotros/as (male we/female we) -ábamos
vosotros/as (plural you/plural female you) -abais
ellos/as/ustedes (male they/female they/plural you) -aban
Verbs ending in -er and –ir:
Here are three fully-conjugated verbs (one from each verb type) so you can see this in action:
Cantar (to sing):
comer (to eat):
vivir (to live):
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 belongs to the first conjugation (the infinitive ends in –ar), 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:
Furthermore, 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):
dormir (to sleep):
As you can see, every single verb will belong to one of two groups in the imperfect: the -aba group or the -ía group.
The only exceptions are three little bad boys that decided to be irregular verbs.
Boys and girls, I was not lying! There are only three irregular verbs in the imperfect tense!
The three rebels are the following:
ser (to be):
ir (to go):
ver (to see):
Apart from these three, all Spanish verbs belong in the “regular verbs” group.
But even though these verbs are irregular, they follow a certain pattern! I always say they are irregularly regular.
Ser uses the same endings as regular verbs but without the -ab-.
Ir does the same but only drops the -a-.
Finally, ver… Oh, question! Why is ver considered irregular if it has the regular endings it is supposed to have?
A little closer…
Exactly! There is an additional -e- that remains from the infinitive!
Now that we know how to conjugate the Spanish imperfect tense, let’s have a look a some expressions that are normally associated with it.
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., the Spanish imperfect tense also has a set of expressions that can give you a hint that the imperfect tense is coming.
The next list includes some of these expressions. I have added a translation and a couple of examples for each expression so that you can see everything in context:
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 frequentemente 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 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.)
Ellos nunca jugaban en el parque. (The would never play in the park.)
María nunca llegaba tarde. (María would never arrive late.)
Siempre comíamos helado los viernes. (We always used to eat ice cream on Fridays.)
Cuando era niño siempre quería ser astronauta. (When I was a child I always wanted to be an astronaut.)
When to Use the Spanish Imperfect Tense
We have covered the imperfect tense conjugation, the regular and irregular verbs and the expressions associated with the Spanish imperfect tense.
The last stop in our journey is getting to know the different uses this tense has in the Spanish language.
Description of the past
You may already know that we use the present tense in order to make descriptions of people, animals and objects in the present. But it may come as a surprise to you that the imperfect, not the preterite, is the tense we use when making descriptions in the past.
Let me just add that when I say “descriptions,” I am not only talking about physical descriptions like “The car was red” and “He was very tall.” 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:
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.)
I know these sentences seem a little incomplete, like something is missing.
Let’s add some times and times expressions! See the difference:
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
Not a lot of teachers talk about this last use of the Spanish imperfect tense but I think it is equally important.
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.
So far so good. But how do say it was 3 a.m. when something happened, or it was April 15 when you came back from Spain?
In English, we use the past simple. However, as you may have already guessed, 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)
Note: Remember that in Spanish only 1 a.m. and 1 p.m. are singular. Since we have las 3, the verb has to be in the plural form.
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 volví 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 also take a quiz at the end of each video to see if you’ve understood everything.
If you have survived until here, congratulations! You now know everything you need to know in order to master the Spanish imperfect tense.
As you can see, the situation is not as bad as you might think. The imperfect is one of those super easy Spanish tenses almost every learner enjoys for its simplicity, and now you know why.
I hope you have liked this post as much as I have liked writing it. And as always, happy learning!
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.