Spanish Imperfect Past Tense Grammar Guide
Have you ever wondered if the Spanish imperfect tense is easy to learn?
I assure you it is.
It’s actually one of the easiest Spanish tenses to use, as it has few irregularities. Frankly speaking, it’s so trouble-free that students tend to overuse it, as they find other Spanish past tenses more challenging to conjugate.
Let me show you today how straightforward the imperfect tense is and how quickly you can master it. In this article, you’ll see when to use it, how to form it, and learn all three (there are only three!) irregular imperfect verbs.
At the end of the lesson, you’ll be able to check how much you’ve learned in a short multiple-choice quiz.
Keep reading, and I’ll show you how to dominate the Spanish imperfect tense!
How to Use the Imperfect Tense
In short, you use the Spanish imperfect tense to talk about past habitual actions or about what someone was doing when they got interrupted by something else.
Sometimes, people call it a “historic” tense, as the actions described in the imperfect tense have no connections to the present.
You’ll see later that you can translate the imperfect tense in Spanish in different ways into English. You can use the past simple, past continuous, or the expressions “used to” and “would.”
Iba a la escuela cuando perdí las llaves.
I was going to school when I lost my keys.
Iba is in the imperfect tense. Let’s take a look at the conjugation for the imperfect tense to give you more tools to understand the examples later on.
Imperfect Conjugation – Regular Verbs
Do you remember the three conjugations in the present tense: –ar, –er, and -ir? The great news is that for the imperfect tense you only need two learn two sets for regular verbs!
Yes, there’s one conjugation for –ar verbs and another for –er and –ir verbs. I told you this was an easy tense to master!
-AR Verbs in the Imperfect Tense
To conjugate -ar verbs in the imperfect tense, simply remove the infinitive ending -ar and add the imperfect –aba ending.
Let’s see what it looks like in a chart with the verb jugar (to play).
|yo jugaba||I played|
|tú jugabas||you played|
|él, ella, usted jugaba||he, she, it played (formal you played)|
|nosotros jugábamos||we played|
|ustedes jugaban||you played|
|ellos, ellas jugaban||they played|
Have you noticed that the first-person and third-person singular are identical? This is how easy this past tense is. Mind the accent mark in the first-person plural (nosotros)!
Ellos siempre jugaban juntos.
They always played together.
Other -ar verbs conjugate exactly the same way.
- estudiar (to study) – estudiaba, estudiabas, estudiaba, estudiábamos, estudiaban, estudiaban
- pelear (to fight) – peleaba, peleabas, peleaba, peleábamos, peleaban, peleaban
- robar (to steal) – robaba, robabas, robaba, robábamos, robaban, robaban
- hablar (to speak) – hablaba, hablabas, hablaba, hablábamos, hablaban, hablaban
-ER and -IR Verbs in the Imperfect Tense
To conjugate -er and -ir verbs in the imperfect tense, all you need to do is remove the infinitive ending -er or -ir and add the imperfect –ía ending.
Let’s see what it looks like in a chart with the verb comer (to eat).
|yo comía||I ate|
|tú comías||you ate|
|él, ella, usted comía||he, she, it ate (formal you ate)|
|nosotros comíamos||we ate|
|ustedes comían||you ate|
|ellos, ellas comían||they ate|
Here, as well, the first-person and third-person singular are identical.
Antes, comía más verduras.
Before, I used to eat more vegetables.
Other –er and –ir verbs conjugate the same way.
- correr (to run) – corría, corrías, corría, corríamos, corrían, corrían
- salir (to leave) – salía, salías, salía, salíamos, salian, salían
- decir (to say) – decía, decías, decía, decíamos, decían, decían
- leer (to read) – leía, leías, leía, leíamos, leían, leían
- reunir (to gather) – reunía, reunías, reunía, reuníamos, reunían, reunían
- romper (to break) – rompía, rompías, rompía, rompíamos, rompían, rompían
- tener (to have) – tenía, tenías, tenía, teníamos, tenían, tenían
- vivir (to live) – vivía, vivías, vivía, vivíamos, vivían, vivían
Can you try conjugating for the following verbs yourself? Just follow the pattern.
Click on each verb afterward to check the conjugation in the Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary.
Imperfect Reflexive Verbs
What about the reflexive verbs? They conjugate the same way as other regular verbs. The only thing that you need to remember is to add the reflexive pronoun before (me, te, se, nos, se, se).
Antes me lavaba la cara con un jabón especial, ahora ya no.
I used to wash my face with a special soap, but not anymore.
See also: Master Reflexive Verbs in Spanish Grammar
Imperfect Irregular Verbs
There are only three irregular verbs in the imperfect tense in Spanish!
- ir – to go
- ser – to be
- ver (to see
Imperfect Conjugation for ir (to go)
|yo iba||I went|
|tú ibas||you went|
|él, ella, usted iba||he, she, it went (formal you went)|
|nosotros íbamos||we went|
|ustedes íban||you went|
|ellos, ellas íban||they went|
Antes, yo iba a la escuela de la esquina.
Before, I used to go to the school on the corner.
Imperfect Conjugation for Ser (to be)
|yo era||I was|
|tú eras||you were|
|él, ella, usted era||he, she, it was (formal you were)|
|nosotros éramos||we were|
|ustedes eran||you were|
|ellos, ellas eran||they were|
Mi hermano era adorable cuando tenía 5 años.
My brother used to be adorable when he was 5 years old.
Imperfect Conjugation for Ver (to see)
|yo veía||I saw|
|tú veías||you saw|
|él, ella, usted veía||he, she, it saw (formal you saw)|
|nosotros veíamos||we saw|
|ustedes veían||you saw|
|ellos, ellas veían||they saw|
Antes de conocerte, veía mi futuro de una manera diferente.
Before I met you, I used to see my future in a different way.
When to Use the Imperfect Tense
You know that the imperfect tense in Spanish is a past tense and that you use it for past habitual actions or for actions that were in progress in the past. But, that’s not all.
Here are the five uses of the imperfect tense in Spanish:
- To talk about past habitual and repeated actions
- To talk about past actions in progress
- To give past dates and times
- To talk about someone’s age in the past
- To talk about characteristics, conditions, and feelings in the past
Let me show you each one of them in detail and with example sentences.
1. To Talk About Past Habitual and Repeated Actions
If you were doing something over and over in the past, this is the tense to use. In this case, you will mostly translate the sentence with “used to” or “would.”
Cada día comía lo mismo.
Every day I would eat the same thing.
2. To Talk About Past Actions in Progress
Often, you use the imperfect tense to say that something was happening when something else occurred. For the interrupting action, you’ll use the preterite tense, and for the action that got interrupted the imperfect tense.
Iba al cine cuando me rompí la pierna.
I was going to the movies when I broke my leg.
However, you also use the imperfect progressive for the same meaning, and it’s even more common to hear in everyday conversation.
Estaba caminando cuando me llamaste.
I was walking when you called me.
To see more differences between the preterite and the imperfect, check out Preterite and Imperfect: Reading and Practice in Story Form.
3. To Give Past Dates and Times
If you want to tell a past date or time, use the imperfect tense.
Eran las 5 de la tarde.
It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon.
4. To Talk About Someone’s Age in the Past
Do you want to mention somebody’s age in the past? Use the imperfect.
Mi mamá en aquel entonces tenía 25 años.
My mom at that time was 25 years old.
5. To Talk About Characteristics, Conditions, and Feelings in the Past
If you want to write a story that happens in the past, all the imagery and descriptive detail will go in the imperfect tense.
La chica era alta y guapa.
The girl was tall and pretty.
El día era hermoso y hacía calor.
The day was beautiful and it was warm.
Me sentía feliz con mi familia.
I felt happy with my family.
Words and Phrases That Trigger the Imperfect Tense
To make this tense even simpler, the following trigger words indicate that you have to use the imperfect tense.
|almost always||casi siempre|
|almost never||casi nunca|
|every day/week/month…||todos los días/las semanas/los meses|
Example Sentences in Spanish
Casi siempre me recogía mi abuela.
I was almost always picked up by my grandmother.
Casi nunca comía dulces cuando era niña.
I almost never ate sweets as a child.
Siempre me gustaban los libros.
I always liked books.
Todos los meses íbamos a la casa de mis primos.
Every month we would go to my cousins’ house.
Mi mamá a menudo me hacía huevos revueltos para el desayuno.
My mom often made me scrambled eggs for breakfast.
Imperfect Tense – Multiple-Choice Quiz
Do you want to see how much you’ve learned? Read each sentence below and choose the correct conjugation.
1. Antes (yo vivir) en Madrid.
2. Nunca (nosotros - saber) su nombre.
3. De niña (yo - desayunar) solo crepas.
4. Te (encantar) molestarme cuando eras niño.
5. (yo - ver) muchas caricaturas en aquel tiempo.
6. No (ella - tener) muchos juguetes.
7. Me acuerdo que ustedes (quejarse) muchísimo del calor.
8. (yo - romper) todos los pantalones jugando football.
9. Nunca (nosotros - entender) nada.
10. Después de la cirugía me (doler) mucho la cabeza.
Use the Imperfect Tense In a Conversation
You see how easy the imperfect tense in Spanish is? You’ve learned it quickly!
To see imperfect subjunctive Spanish examples, read about how to Master the Imperfect Subjunctive.
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There are only two sets of endings for regular imperfect verbs in Spanish, one for -ar verbs and one for both -er and -ir verbs.
That’s right! Great observation. We showed -er and -ir as two separate sets to help illustrate for beginners, we touch upon that in the paragraph below the chart.