Past Tense Verbs in Spanish: Imperfect, el pretérito imperfecto
Think back to your childhood. What did you use to do back then? Maybe you used to go swimming every summer, or perhaps you would play with your friends every day after school.
Whatever your hobbies, we tend to use the phrase “used to” when talking about things we did frequently in the past. This is called the imperfect tense, and guess what? It exists in Spanish, as well! Let’s delve in and explore the uses of the imperfect in Spanish and how to conjugate it with regular and irregular verbs. ¿Estás listo? ¡Empecemos!
The Imperfect Tense: English vs. Spanish
In our previous post about the past simple tense in Spanish, we briefly touched on the differences between the past simple and the imperfect tenses in Spanish. Let’s review quickly when we use the past simple:
- For events that happened once in the past
- For events that did not happen continually or habitually
In English, we have special words to express this imperfect tense like “used to” and “would,” but we also make use of the past simple tense to convey the same idea: continuity of action in the past. Take a look:
I was a dancer as a child.
I used to be a dancer.
I would go to dance class every day after school as a child.
The rules governing the usage of imperfect and simple past tenses are much stricter in Spanish. In fact, these two tenses are not interchangeable. The example sentences above would all translate into Spanish using the imperfect tense, or el pretérito imperfecto.
Specific Uses of the Spanish Imperfect Tense
With that in mind, let’s explore the rules in more depth. When do you use the Spanish imperfect tense?
1. For events that happened habitually or very often in the past.
Nadaba cada fin de semana.
I used to swim every weekend.
Antes comía carne.
I used to eat meat.
2. To discuss “when I was (age),” because we are a certain age for an extended period of time.
Cuando tenía 10 años, nos mudamos a España.
When I was 10, we moved to Spain.
In this example, we see the difference between the imperfect and the past simple. I was 10 years old for an extended period of time, so we use the imperfect tense: tenía. The action of moving was a one-time event, so we use the simple past: nos mudamos.
3. To talk about dates and times, including one hour or one day.
Eran las ocho de la noche cuando por fin llegué a casa.
It was 8 o’clock when I finally got home.
Era el 29 de septiembre cuando empezó todo.
It was September 29 when it all began.
4. To describe people, emotions, places, things, and weather in the past.
Ella era una mujer hermosa.
She was a beautiful woman.
Nos sentíamos muy mal.
We felt so bad.
Era un día caluroso y soleado.
It was a warm, sunny day.
Mi perro Teddy era pequeño y negro.
My dog Teddy was small and black.
La playa estaba absolutamente maravillosa.
The beach was absolutely wonderful.
Did you notice that most of the translations in English use the simple past tense? The uses of the Spanish imperfect tense are much more diverse. If you are wondering why we sometimes used the verb estar and sometimes the verb ser, check out our blog post on ser vs. estar!
Choose the Spanish Imperfect Tense Instead of the Past Continuous
Do you remember from our post about the present continuous tense, which verb is very rarely used in the continuous tense? Exacto, the verb ir. We normally don’t say estoy yendo, but instead voy. The same thing applies to the past tense.
The phrase “I was going” is not translated literally to yo estaba yendo. Instead, we use the Spanish imperfect tense! We’ll look at the full list of conjugations below, but here are some examples that show what this use of the pretérito imperfecto looks like:
Íbamos a comer juntos, pero ella no pudo venir.
We were going to eat together, but she couldn’t come.
Iba a llamarte más tarde.
I was going to call you later.
Él dijo que iba a venir a la fiesta.
He said he was going to come to the party.
This use of the Spanish imperfect may seem a bit different than the others, but if you look closely at the sentences, it does express a continuous action in the past. Iba expresses a continuous past desire or intention that was not fulfilled.
How to Pick the Right Spanish Past Tense
If you are ever wondering which Spanish past tense you should use, the pretérito simple or the pretérito imperfecto, ask yourself the following:
- Was it a habitual activity?
- Are you describing the state of something in the past?
- Are you talking about time or age?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” use the Spanish imperfect tense!
The Spanish Imperfect Tense: Conjugations
Just like with the verbs in the pretérito, conjugations for verbs in the imperfect tense are divided into three groups based on their endings. Let’s see what they are!
|-AR Verbs (trabajar)||-ER Verbs (comer)||-IR Verbs (vivir)|
|Él / Ella||-aba||-ía||-ía|
|Ellos / Ellas||-aban||-ían||-ían|
If you remember from our past simple lesson, the -ER and -IR verbs used the same endings; in the Spanish imperfect tense, it’s the same! You only have to memorize two forms , which makes this tense a cinch.
Pay attention to the accent marks on certain verbs! For -AR verbs, there is only an accent mark in the nosotros form, while every form of -ER and -IR verbs has an accent on the “i.”
Now that you’ve mastered the regular verbs in the Spanish imperfect tense, it’s time to look at the irregular verbs. Before you get too scared, only THREE irregular verbs exist in the imperfect tense. ¡Sí! ¡En serio! In terms of irregular verbs, this is one of the easiest tenses to learn. Let’s take a look!
|Él / Ella||iba||era||veía|
|Ellos / Ellas||iban||eran||veían|
Ir – to go
Because the verb ir is only made up of the -IR ending, it needs to change a bit differently to make sure the conjugated verb is not only the imperfect ending. Do you remember what the -IR imperfect verb endings are? Right! They all start with -ía. If you take those endings and put a “b” between the “i” and “a,” you’ll have the conjugations for the verb ir! It’s that simple.
One last thing to notice is that not all the i’s in the ir conjugations have an accent like with the regular -IR verbs. Only the nosotros form has an accent over the “i!”
Ser – to be
Ser is another short verb that needs to be conjugated in a unique way. Instead of removing the -ER ending and replacing it with the regular imperfect endings, we take off the “s” and add endings starting with “a” to the remaining letters “er-.”
Just like with ir, the only form that has an accent is the nosotros conjugation.
Ver – to see
While ser and ver look quite similar, the imperfect conjugations are not the same. For the verb ver, you need to take off only the -r before adding the normal imperfect endings for -ER verbs. ¡Qué fácil!
Remember that every form for the Spanish imperfect tense of ver has an accent over the “i,” just like with the regular verbs.
¡Era un buen día para practicar tu español!
Now that you have all of this information about the Spanish imperfect tense, it’s time to practice! Copy the charts down in your notebook, hang up the irregular verbs somewhere you will see them often, and schedule a free class with one of our amazing Spanish teachers.
Bookwork is great, but it won’t necessarily prepare you for a real-life Spanish conversation. Our native Spanish-speaking teachers will! You can ask them any questions you may have about the pretérito imperfecto or about the differences between the different past tenses in Spanish. They will provide you with clear answers, extra practice, and the confidence to use the Spanish imperfect tense in your spoken Spanish. Sign up today and start speaking Spanish in the first class!
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