Spanish Imperfect 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 Spanish imperfect and preterite tenses, you will be able to talk about almost everything you want to talk about in the past...
Understanding the Spanish Imperfect Tense
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:
The difference between the Spanish Imperfect & Preterite tenses
The distinction between the Spanish 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 examples below will also help you distinguish between when you use the imperfect and when you use the preterite.
Using the Spanish PRETERITE Past Tense
You are talking about an occurrence which has been completed or has come to an end. - Por ejemplo: Matías tuvo un accidente. - Matías had an accident.
You are describing the beginning or end of something that has happened in the past. - Por ejemplo: Ayer Lola empezó a trabajar. - Yesterday Lola started work.
You are describing a series of events that followed each other in the past. - Por ejemplo: Juan corrió, se cayó, y se rompió la pierna. - Juan ran, fell, and broke his leg.
Using the IMPERFECT Past Tense
You are describing something that happened that has no definite beginning or end, or is still continuing on into the present. - Por ejomplo: Eduardo estudiaba leyes. - Edward studied law.
You are describing something that occurred continuously over a period of time in the past, or what used to happen. - Por ejemplo: Cuando yo era estudiante, estaba muy feliz. - When I was a student, I was very happy.
You are talking about previous mental, physical, or emotional conditions. - Por ejemplo: Ella estaba cansada y muy triste. - She was tired and very sad.
Spanish Imperfect Past tense verb endings
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.
ESTUDIAR - to study
COMER - to eat
VIVIR - to live
Irregular Verbs in the Spanish Imperfect tense
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.
SER - to be
VER - to see
IR - to go