Spanish Imperfect: A Very Useful (Past) Tense to Have

spanish imperfectDespite its low opinion of itself, the imperfect tense in Spanish is really quire useful. It, along with the preterite tense, is a widely used past tense that describes actions that happened in the past, though there are major differences between the two, as we will discuss in greater detail today. Besides the uses of this tense, we will also show you how to form the various conjugations of it, not only for regular verbs, but also for the irregular formations, as well. If you’re interested in the Spanish language, and would like to learn more, this article on the best ways to learn Spanish, coupled with this course on Spanish for beginners will be good places for you to learn the basics.

Imperfect Tense Conjugations

Any discussion of a verb tense must begin with the conjugation. There are two ways to conjugate regular verbs in the imperfect tense: one way for the -ar verbs, and another for the -er and -ir verbs. The way you conjugate verbs in Spanish is to first drop the ending, either -ar, -er, or -ir. Next, you add one of the endings, found below, to the root of the word. If you’ve got what it takes to learn Spanish from a former NSA agent, this course on the Massey Method should get you whipped into shape.

Endings for Regular -ar Verbs

  • yo -aba
  • tú -abas
  • él/ella/ud. -aba
  • nosotros -ábamos
  • vosotros -abais
  • ellos/ellas/uds. -aban

Endings for Regular -er and -ir Verbs

  • yo -ía
  • tú -ías
  • él/ella/ud. -ía
  • nosotros -íamos
  • vosotros -íais
  • ellos/ellas/uds. -ían

Examples: The regular verbs nadar (to swim), tener (to have), and vivir (to live), conjugated in the first person singular (yo) form of the imperfect are: nadaba (nadar – ar + aba), tenía (tener – er + ía), and vivía (vivir – ir + ía).

Note: Because the first and third person singular (yo and él/ella/ud.) are the same in both forms, subject pronouns may be necessary in order to indicate the subject of the sentence.

Irregular Form 

Fortunately for Spanish novices, and other haters of all verbs irregular, there are only three verbs with irregular conjugations in the imperfect tense, and below are the verbs, along with their conjugations. To learn more about irregular verbs, check out this course on Spanish for beginners.

Ir (to go)

  • yo iba
  • tú ibas
  • él/ella/ud. iba
  • nosotros íbamos
  • vosotro ibais
  • ellos/ellas/uds. iban

Ser (to be)

  • yo era
  • tú eras
  • él/ella/ud. era
  • nosotros éramos
  • vosotros erais
  • ellos/ellas/uds. eran

Ver (to see)

  • yo veía
  • tú veías
  • él/ella/ud. veía
  • nosotros veíamos
  • vosotros veíais
  • ellos/ellas/uds. veían

When to Use the Imperfect Tense

The imperfect tense has many uses and is often utilized when describing past events. The following situations require the imperfect tense to be used:

  1. Habitually Repeated Actions: If someone did something many times, over and over again, for a long period of indeterminate time, the imperfect is used. Example: Todos los domingos nosotros íbamos a pescar. (We used to go fishing every Sunday.) A good way to tell if the imperfect is appropriate to describe a situation, the following phrases are good indications: a menudo (often), a veces (sometimes), cada día (every day), con frecuencia (frequently), mucho (a lot), simpre (always), and any other phrase associated with frequency.
  2. Past Time and Dates: Example: Eran las dos de la mañana. (It was two in the morning.)
  3. Setting the Stage for Other Actions: In this instance, the imperfect is used with the preterite tense, which interrupts the imperfect action. Example: Yo estaba hablando por teléfono cuando ella entró la casa. (I was talking on the phone when she entered the house.)
  4. Past Description of a Person or Scene: Example: Hacía mucho frío esa noche. (It was very cold that night.)
  5. Past Emotional or Mental States, or Desires: Example: Me sentía enojado con mi novio ahorriativo. (I was very angry with my cheap boyfriend.)

The Preterite Tense 

The other major past tense in Spanish, the preterite, should not be confused with the imperfect. While they have roughly the same English translation, the preterite is reserved for situations that occurred in the past, but were completed, as opposed to the continuing nature of the imperfect tense.

The imperfect tense is a great building block to have in your Spanish language arsenal. As you can tell, it’s used often, and in specific situations. It may take a while to remember when exactly to use this tense as opposed to the very similar preterite tense, but if you happen to be speaking with a native speaker, and use the wrong tense, they will appreciate the fact that you’re trying at all. If you’d like to bone up on your Spanish conversation skills, this course on sentence patterns will help a lot.