Imperfect Spanish Past Tense

The past is never perfect. You could have done things differently … unsaid what you said … or made a different decision.

However, in Spanish, the imperfect past does NOT refer to the things that you wish would have ended up differently. Rather, it is the name of the other major past tense in Spanish. You will use it a lot. If you can master the imperfect and the preterite, you will be able to talk about almost everything you want to talk about in the past..

The imperfect tense refers to a past action that is:.

indefinite (no definite start or end date) or
continuous or repeated or
took place over a period of time or
started in the past but continues into the present.

… as opposed to events or actions that took place at a specific point in time (described by the preterite).

You should use the imperfect whenever you wish to describe what used to happen or what happened regularly/periodically in the past.

Some phrases that signal the use of the imperfect are as follows:

a veces
sometimes
cada día
every day
cada año
every year
de vez en cuando
once in a while
frecuentemente
frequently
generalmente
usually
muchas veces
many times
mucho
a lot
por un rato
for a while
siempre
always
tantas veces
so many times
todas las semanas
every week
todos los días
everyday
todo el tiempo
all the time

Distinguishing the Imperfect from the Preterite

The distinction between the imperfect and preterite past tenses is as difficult for English speakers to get their head around as the distinction between ser and estar. We just don’t think this way in English!

If you were born in Latin America, however, you’d find the difference between the imperfect and the preterite to be clear as day. It would be so obvious that you’d wonder how anyone couldn’t understand the difference.

The more you speak and listen to Spanish, the easier you’ll find it to use the right tense naturally, too. Right now, try this.

Think of the imperfect tense as a timeline.

Think of the preterite as a point on that timeline.

For example, visualize the sentence, “I was cooking when the phone rang.” The action of cooking would take place along the timeline, while the event of a ringing phone would be the point that interrupts it. As a result, you would translate it as follows:

The verb “was cooking” is in the imperfect, while the verb “rang” is in the preterite.

The handy table below will also help you distinguish between when you use the imperfect and when you use the preterite.

Using the PRETERITE Past Tense

Using the IMPERFECT Past Tense

You are talking about an occurrence which has been completed or has come to an end.

You are describing something that happened that has no definite beginning or end, or is still continuing on into the present.

Por ejemplo: Matías tuvo un accidente.
- Matías had an accident.

Por ejomplo: Eduardo estudiaba leyes.
- Edward studied law.

You are describing the beginning or end of something that has happened in the past.

You are describing something that occurred continuously over a period of time in the past, or what used to happen.

Por ejemplo: Ayer Lola empezó a trabajar.
- Yesterday Lola started work.

Por ejemplo: Cuando yo era estudiante, estaba muy feliz.
- When I was a student, I was very happy.

You are describing a series of events that followed each other in the past.

You are talking about previous mental, physical, or emotional conditions.

Por ejemplo: Juan corrió, se cayó, y se rompió la pierna.
- Juan ran, fell, and broke his leg.

Por ejemplo: Ella estaba cansada y muy triste.
- She was tired and very sad.

 

 

 

 

Now that you have some idea of when to use the imperfect past tense, I’ll let you in on some good news. The imperfect tense is 99% regular! This means that you won’t have to deal with hardly ANY of those complicated irregular verbs that you encountered with the preterite. Plus, it’s easy to conjugate.

Study the regular imperfect verb endings in the table below.

Subject
ESTUDIAR (to study)
COMER (to eat)
VIVIR (to live)
Download
yo
estudi-aba
com-ía
viv-ía
Download
estudi-abas
com-ías
viv-ías
Download
Ud., él, ella
estudi-aba
com-ía
viv-ía
Download
nosotros/as
estudi-ábamos
com-íamos
viv-íamos
Download
vosotros/as
estudi-abais
com-íais
viv-íais
Download
Uds., ellos, ellas
estudi-aban
com-ían
viv-ían

ejemplo:

Download
Estudiábamos juntos todos los sábados.
We used to study together every Saturday
Download
Yo estudiaba todos los días cuando era estudiante.
I used to study every day when I was a student.
Download
Tú comías pescado todos los días.
You used to eat fish every day.
Download
Uds. vivían en Puerto Rico.
You used to live in Puerto Rico.
Download
Nosotros vivíamos cerca de tus padres.
We used to live close to your parents.

Irregular Verbs in the Imperfect

You’re going to love this. There are only THREE irregular verbs in the imperfect. The only down side is that they are verbs that you will use frequently: ser, ver, and ir.

Subject
Ser (to be)
Ver (to see)
Ir (to go)
Download
yo
era
veía
iba
Download
eras
veías
ibas
Download
Ud., él, ella
era
veía
iba
Download
nosotros/as
éramos
veíamos
íbamos
Download
vosotros/as
erais
veíais
ibais
Download
Uds., ellos, ellas
eran
veían
iban

ejemplo:

Download
Cuando éramos joven, comíamos mucho.
When we were young, we used to eat a lot.
Download
El niño veía muchas películas.
The boy used to watch a lot of movies.
Download
Íbamos a la playa cada verano.
We used to go to the beach every summer.

In the next section we'll talk about how to Use Multiple Tenses in a Sentence

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