The imperfect tense, also known as the pretérito imperfecto, is super useful for talking about the past. Luckily, it’s not too complicated, either! Read on to learn how it works.
The imperfect tense is a type of past tense. It’s used to talk about something that used to happen, or was happening.
There are a few ways to use the imperfect tense. Here are the main ones:
Describing continuing states/events/feelings in the past
Let’s say you’re telling a story set in the past, and you want to describe the weather, someone’s actions, and their mood:
Llovía mucho, y Claudia lloraba. Estaba triste porque tenía el corazón roto.
(It was raining a lot, and Claudia was crying. She was sad because she had a broken heart.)
2. Talking about repeated actions in the past
This is when you want to talk about something that used to happen, like something you used to do when you were younger, or something that used to happen over a period of time:
Cuando era pequeño, iba al parque cada semana.
(When I was little, I went to the park every week.)
3. Setting the scene of what was happening when something else interrupted it
This one is really useful when you’re telling a story where an event occurs (preterite), and it interrupts another ongoing event or situation (imperfect).
Mientras estudiaba, mi perro entró en mi cuarto y me distrajo.
(While I was studying, my dog came into my room and distracted me.)
When you’re using the imperfect in this way, you might want to use it with the gerund (link to gerund article if available). You’d use the imperfect progressive (estar + gerund) for the action that was ongoing, and the preterite (link to preterite article if available) for the interrupting verb:
Estaba viendo la tele cuando, de repente, sonó el teléfono.
(He was watching TV when, all of a sudden, the phone rang.)
4. When using reported speech
Sometimes, you want to report what someone else said, but you don’t want to use a direct quote. Here’s the difference:
Direct speech: Carlos said, “I’m happy.”
Indirect/reported speech: Carlos said that he was happy.
Notice that we use “was” in the past tense. This would be the same in Spanish.
Direct speech: Carlos dijo: «Estoy feliz».
Indirect/reported speech: Carlos dijo que estaba feliz.
The imperfect tense is pretty simple to form.For -ar verbs, you remove the stem (-ar) from the infinitive, then add the following endings:
Check out these example sentences to help give you a feel of when this tense is used:
Yo salía mucho cuando era más joven.
I used to go out a lot when I was younger.
¿Estabas en la casa cuando llamé a la puerta?
Were you in the house when I knocked on the door?
Juan hablaba como si fuera un experto.
Juan spoke as if he were an expert.
Nadábamos aquí cada viernes.
We used to swim here every Friday.
You (plural) used to send letters.
Estaban bailando cuando Pedro los interrumpió.
They were dancing when Pedro interrupted them.
For -er and -ir verbs, remove the stem (the -er or the -ir) from the infinitive, then add:
Take a look at some examples:
Dije que tenía miedo.
I said that I was scared.
It was hot (weather).
¿Con padres tan tolerantes, podías hacer lo que te diera la gana cuando eras joven?
With such relaxed parents, could you do whatever you wanted when you were growing up?
Irina y yo salíamos hasta que apareció su ex.
Irina and I were going out until her ex showed up.
Volvíais a casa tarde todos los días.
You (plural) used to return home late every day.
Bebían demasiado antes de que asistieran a Alcohólicos Anónimos.
They used to drink too much before they went to AA.
Good news! Not many verbs are irregular in the imperfect. The only ones that are irregular are ir, ser, and ver (and certain words that are connected to ver, like prever).
Ir (to go)
Iba a decirte algo.
I was going to tell you something.
¿Ibas para casa cuando me llamaste?
Were you going (on your way) home when you called me?
Ernesto iba al centro comercial frecuentemente.
Ernesto used to go to the mall frequently.
Antes de que falleciera, mi abuela y yo íbamos de vacaciones cada año.
Before she passed away, my grandma and I used to go on holiday every year.
Cuando erais pequeños, ibais al mercado con vuestra mamá cada fin de semana.
When you (plural, informal) were little, you used to go to the market with your mom every weekend.
Los chicos iban a clase cuando Pedro se desmayó.
The boys were on going to (on the way to) class when Pedro passed out.
Cuando yo era joven, me gustaban los peluches.
When I was young, I liked cuddly toys.
Eras la chica más amable del grupo.
You were the nicest girl in the group.
María dijo que su marido era guapo.
María said that her husband was handsome.
Éramos valientes en esa época.
We were brave in that period.
Miguel y tú erais una pareja bonita pero ya se acabó.
Miguel and you were a lovely couple but it’s over now.
Eran las ocho de la mañana.
It was eight o’clock in the morning.
Veía dos películas cada noche.
I used to watch two films a night.
¿Veías a menudo a Juan?
Did you used to see Juan often?
La luz estaba apagada. Borja no veía nada.
The light was switched off. Borja couldn’t see anything.
Mi ex y yo nos veíamos cada día.
My ex and I used to see each other every day.
¿Veíais dibujos animados cuando erais niños?
Did you guys watch cartoons when you were kids?
Veían la tele cada día.
They used to watch TV every day.
There you have it! Practice a little every day, and the imperfect will hopefully start coming naturally to you. Hasta la próxima!
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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