The Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive: All You Need to Know
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The Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive: All You Need to Know

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Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive TW

If I were you, I’d read on to learn about the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish. Do you see that ‘were’ in the first sentence? That’s the English version of the imperfect subjunctive!

Note the difference between ‘If I was you’ (common but incorrect) and ‘If I were you’ (correct & subjunctive).

In this lesson, we'll talk about the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. 

When do we use the subjunctive?

The subjunctive is a ~mood~ which we use to express things that aren’t concrete fact. A great way to remember when to use the subjunctive is with the acronym ‘UWEIRDO.’

Uuncertainty/possibility
Wwishes
Eemotions
Iimpersonal expressions
Rrecommendations
Ddoubts
Oojalá

For more explanation on this, please check out our article on the present subjunctive, and take a look at our lesson on the difference between the Spanish subjunctive and the indicative.

Check out this article for a list of phrases that trigger the subjunctive. If you put them in the past tense, you trigger the imperfect subjunctive!

How to form the Spanish imperfect subjunctive

The imperfect subjunctive isn’t too difficult to form. All you have to do is add the correct endings to the stem.

To find the stem, you take the third person plural of the preterite, and drop the -ron! Let me show you what I mean:

InfinitiveHablar
Third person plural (ellos/ellas) in the preteriteHablaron
Stem for imperfect subjunctive!Habla-

For most regular verbs, you’ll find that the stems look quite similar. For -ar verbs, it’s the infinitive minus the final -r. For -er and -ir verbs, you drop the -er or -ir and change it to -ie. This’ll become more apparent once you’ve seen some examples.

Here are the imperfect subjunctive endings. These endings will see you through regular verbs (-ar, -er, and -ir), irregular verbs, and stem-changing verbs!
-ra-ramos*
-ras-rais
-ra-ran

*We’ll have to add an accent to the vowel that comes just before the ‘-ramos.’ For example, andáramos, comiéramos.

As well as the -ra form that we’ve given above, we also have the -se form. It means exactly the same, and it’s up to you which one you use! In this article, we’ve stuck with the -ra form, as it’s more common, but feel free to use this version if you prefer it!
-se-semos*
-ses-seis
-se-sen

*We’ll have to add an accent to the vowel that comes just before the ‘-semos.’ For example, andásemos, comiésemos.

When do we use the imperfect subjunctive?

So, we have two forms of the subjunctive: the present subjunctive, and the imperfect subjunctive. 

The present subjunctive is used for UWEIRDO with present, perfect, future, and imperative clauses.

The imperfect subjunctive is more geared towards the past. We can still use UWEIRDO, but it’s used when the main clause is in the conditional, pluperfect, imperfect, or preterite. There are also some important trigger phrases!

  • Conditional

When the main clause is in the conditional, this can trigger the imperfect subjunctive.

Habría preferido que no estuviera Juan en la clase.I would have preferred that Juan not be in the class.
Estarían contentos con que terminaras el ensayo para la semana que viene.They’d be happy with you finishing the essay by next week.
  • ‘If… then…’ (conditional)

Sometimes we want to talk about things that would happen if another (unlikely) condition were fulfilled.

Compare:

Indicative (likely): ‘Si cobro lo suficiente este mes, te invitaré una bebida.’ (‘If I earn enough this month, I’ll buy you a drink.’)

Subjunctive (unlikely): ‘Si me tocara la lotería, te invitaría cenar cada noche en mi mansión.’ (‘If I won the lottery, I’d invite you for dinner every night at my mansion.’)

This structure can take one of two forms:

Si + imperfect subjunctive + conditional (IF + A happened, THEN + B would happen)

Conditional + si + imperfect subjunctive (B would happen + IF + A happened)
Si yo fuera tú, terminaría con él.If I were you, I’d end it with him.
Ross no te perdonaría si supiera la verdad.Ross wouldn’t forgive you if he knew the truth.
  • With past tense clauses (pluperfect, imperfect, preterite)

When the main clause is in the past tense, the imperfect subjunctive may be needed!

Había sido decidido que fuéramos al cine.It had been decided that we’d go to the cinema.
No esperábamos que le pusieras los cuernos a nuestro hermano.We didn’t expect that you would cheat on our brother.
Yo estaba sorprendida que me hubieras llamado.I was surprised that you had called me.
El dentista recomendó que comierais menos chuches.The dentist recommended that you (plural) eat less candy.

It’s even possible to use it with a present tense clause expressing a feeling or reaction to something in the past.

Lamento que no tomara más oportunidades.I regret that I didn’t take more opportunities.
  • Making polite requests

The verb querer (‘to want’) is conjugated into the imperfect subjunctive like this:

quisiera/quisiesequisiéramos/quisiésemos
quisieras/quisiesesquisierais/quisieseis
quisiera/quisiesequisieran/quisiesen

Using the imperfect subjunctive is one of the most polite ways to make requests in Spanish. ‘Yo quisiera…’ has a slightly politer tone than ‘Yo quiero…’

Buenos días. Quisiera hablar con el director de la compañía por favor.Hello. I would like to speak with the head of the company please.
Quisiera una cerveza.I would like a beer.
  • ‘Como si…’ (‘as if…’)

Another situation that requires the imperfect subjunctive is when we want to compare something using the phrase ‘como si’ (‘as if’/’as though’).

Fue como si Marga y Alba tuvieran un secreto.It was as if Marga and Alba had a secret.
El hombre me miraba como si me conociera.The man was looking at me as though he knew me.
  • ‘Antes de que…’ (‘before…’)

The phrase ‘antes de que’ always triggers the subjunctive. If the main clause is in the past tense, then we use the imperfect subjunctive (rather than the present subjunctive).

Llegaste antes de que me hubiera arreglado.You arrived before I had got ready.
La temperatura de la sala había ido subiendo antes de que se desmayara Alberto.The temperature of the room had been rising before Alberto fainted.
  • ‘Para que…’ (‘in order to…’/’in order that…’)

The word ‘para’ can be used with an infinitive, e.g. ‘Fui a su casa para cenar.’ (‘I went to their house to have dinner.’). This works when the subject of both verbs is the same, i.e. in the example above, it’s me who’s arrived, and it’s me who’s going to dine. 

But what happens if each verb has a different subject? This is when we use ‘para que’ (‘in order to’).
Fui a su casa para que cenáramos juntos. I went to their house so that we could have dinner together.
Te lo regalé para que lo usaras.I gave it to you in order for you to use it.

Awkward stems

So, we know that you have to know the preterite conjugation of a verb in order to find the necessary stem.

In case there are any odd verbs that you don’t know how to conjugate in the third person plural preterite, you can check with this list of imperfect subjunctive stems:

Caber (to fit)Cupie-
Caer (to fall)Caye-
Conducir (to drive)Conduje-
Creer (to believe)Creye-
Dar (to give)Die-
Decir (to say)Dije-
Destruir (to destroy)Destruye-
Dormir (to sleep)Durmie-
Estar (to be)Estuvie-
Haber (to be in existence)Hubie-
Hacer (to do/to make)Hicie-
Incluir (to include)Incluye-
Ir (to go)Fue-*
Leer (to read)Leye-
Morir (to die)Murie-
Oír (to hear)Oye-
Pedir (to ask for)Pidie-
Poder (to be able to)Pudie-
Poner (to put)Pusie-
Preferir (to prefer)Prefirie-
Producir (to produce)Produje-
Querer (to want)Quisie-
Reír (to laugh)Rie-
Repetir (to repeat)Repitie-
Requerir (to require)Requirie-
Saber (to know)Supie-
Seguir (to follow)Siguie-
Sentir (to feel)Sintie-
Ser (to be)Fue-*
Servir (to serve)Sirvie-
Tener (to have)Tuvie-
Traducir (to translate)Traduje-
Traer (to bring)Traje-
Venir (to come)Vinie-
Ver (to see)Vie-

The verbs in bold are some of the most common and important ones. Take a look at some example sentences that involve these verbs.

Madre creía que yo estuviera en mi cuarto.Mother thought I was in my room.
Si hubiera más conocimiento de la salud mental, habría menos estigma.If there were more understanding of mental health, there would be less stigma.
El profesor iba a deciros que hicieseis vuestros ejercicios.The teacher was going to tell you (plural) to do your exercises.
Me pregunté qué pasaría si simplemente nos fuéramos del país.I asked myself what would happen if we simply left the country.
Mi coche se ha averiado. Te visitaría hoy si pudiera.My car has broken down. I would visit you today if I could.
Oye, ¡te pedí que pusieras la mesa! ¡Ánimo!Listen, I asked you to set the table! Get to it!
Era mentira que Patrick fuera médico.It was a lie that Patrick was a doctor.
Ted preparó todo antes de que su fiesta tuviera lugar.Ted prepared everything before his party took place.

Quiz

This stuff isn’t easy, so if you want to see how much you’ve taken in, try this quiz. Try to correctly conjugate the appropriate verb in the imperfect subjunctive!

1. Si _ de nuestros problemas, no llegarían a estar tan graves. (Hablar)
If we spoke about our problems, they wouldn’t get to be so serious.

Click to reveal the correct answer

Answer: habláramos/hablásemos

2. Los maestros habían pedido que los niños _ a tiempo. (Llegar)
The teachers had requested that the children arrive on time.

Click to reveal the correct answer

Answer: llegaran/llegasen

3. Era de suma importancia que el traductor _ cada frase exactamente. (Traducir)
It was of vital importance that the translator translated each sentence accurately.

Click to reveal the correct answer

Answer: tradujera/tradujese

4. Señor, _ verle a nuestro hijo. (Querer)
Sir, we would like to see our son.

Click to reveal the correct answer

Answer: quisiéramos/quisiésemos

5. ¡Percy me habló hoy como si no _ pasado nada! (Haber)
Percy spoke to me today as if nothing had happened!

Click to reveal the correct answer

Answer: hubiera/hubiese

6. El policía estaba allí cerca para que vosotros _ seguros. (Sentirse)
The policeman was nearby so that you (plural) felt safe.

Click to reveal the correct answer

Answer: os sintierais/os sintieseis

Fantastic job!

Many learners of Spanish find that the imperfect subjunctive is one of the hardest things to grasp. But it doesn’t have to be as bad as all that! As long as you practice lots, and take your time to let it sink in, you’ll be okay!

About the Author Annabel Beilby

Annabel is a language-enthusiast from the UK. She studied Spanish and French at the University of Southampton (with an Erasmus study year in Madrid!) and recently graduated. She has interests across the Spanish-speaking world, and is a fan of language in general.

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