The Imperfect Tense in Spanish

Imperfect used differently than the preterite tense

Madrid for a lesson on the imperfect tense
Cuando era niña, íbamos a Madrid. (When I was a girl, we would go to Madrid. Both verbs in the Spanish sentence are in the imperfect tense.).

Jesus Solana / Creative Commons.

 

The imperfect tense in Spanish is the tense that expresses action in the past that has not been completed, that occurred habitually or frequently, or that took place over an indefinite period of time. It contrasts with the preterite tense, which expresses​ an action that took place at a definite time or has been completed.

English does not have an imperfect tense per se, although it has other ways of expressing the concept of the Spanish imperfect, such as by context or by saying that something used to happen or was happening.

The preterite and imperfect tenses are often referred to as the two simple past tenses of Spanish.

The imperfect tense can also be contrasted with the perfect tenses of Spanish, which refer to completed action. (Although the usage is no longer common, the English "perfect" is sometimes a synonym of "complete.") Spanish has past perfect, present perfect and future perfect tenses.

By itself, the term "imperfect tense" usually refers to its indicative form. Spanish also has two forms of the subjunctive imperfect, which are nearly always interchangeable.

The imperfect is known as the pretérito imperfecto in Spanish.

Forming the Imperfect Tense

The indicative imperfect is conjugated in the following pattern for regular -ar, -er and -ir verbs:

  • Hablar: yo hablaba, tú hablabas, usted/él/ella hablaba, nosotros/nosotras hablábamos, vosotros/vosotras hablabais, ustedes/ellos/ellas hablaban.
  • Beber: yo bebía, tú bebías, usted/él/ella bebía, nosotros/nosotras bebíamos, vosotros/vosotras bebíais, ustedes/ellos/ellas bebían.
  • Vivir: yo vivía, tú vivías, usted/él/ella vivía, nosotros/nosotras vivíamos, vosotros/vosotras vivíais, ustedes/ellos/ellas vivían.

The subjunctive form in more common use is conjugated as follows:

  • Hablar: yo hablara, tú hablaras, usted/él/ella hablara, nosotros/nosotras habláramos, vosotros/vosotras hablarais, ustedes/ellos/ellas hablaran.
  • Beber: yo bebiera, tú bebieras, usted/él/ella bebiera, nosotros/nosotras bebiéramos, vosotros/vosotras bebierais, ustedes/ellos/ellas bebieran.
  • Vivir: yo viviera, tú vivieras, usted/él/ella viviera, nosotros/nosotras vivieramos, vosotros/vosotras vivierais, ustedes/ellos/ellas vivieran.

Uses for the Imperfect Tense

One of the most common uses of the present tenses is to tell of past actions that did not have a clear beginning or end. These may involve situations or repeated actions that occurred over an indefinite period of time.

A simple example is "Asistíamos a la escuela" or "We attended the school." Use of the imperfect tense indicates that it is unimportant when the attendance began and ended—in fact, asistíamos could be used even if the speaker is still a student at the school as long as the students attended in the past.

Note that there is a subtle meaning of difference from the preterite equivalent, "Asistimos a la escuela," which also could be translated as "We attended the school." The preterite suggests the speaker no longer attended the school, or that the reference is to a specific time.

Similarly, the imperfect is used in specifying the background of another event. For example, "Nos conocimos cuando asistíamos a la escuela," or "We met each other when we were attending the school." Conocimos is in the preterite from because it refers to an incident that occurred at a specific time, but the background portion of the sentence uses the imperfect.

Translation of the imperfect to English depends on the context. The most frequent translations for asistíamos include "we attended," "we used to attend," "we were attending," and "we would attend."

Sample Sentences Using the Imperfect Tense

Spanish imperfect verbs (in boldface) with possible English translations are shown below.

  • Él cantaba. (He used to sing. The English translation shows how the activity occurred over an indefinite, extended period of time.)
  • Ella escribía la carta. (She was writing the letter. Note that in this and the above example, out of context the verb doesn't indicate when or even whether the action came to an end.)
  • Yo conocía a Eva. (I knew Eva. Conocer can mean "to know" or "to meet." The use of the imperfect here shows that the activity took place over an indefinite period of time, so "knew" makes sense here.)
  • Una mujer murió en el hospital mientras estaba bajo custodia. (A woman died in the hospital while she was in custody. This sentence shows the use of the imperfect for background.)
  • Cuando era estudiante, jugaba todo el tiempo. (When he was a student, he would play all the time.)
  • Dudo que mi madre comprara alguna vez esa revista. (I doubt that my mother ever bought that magazine. The imperfect is used here because the possible event wouldn't have happened at a particular time.)
  • Un gran buffet estaba a la disposición de ellos para que comieran todo lo que quisieran. (A huge buffet was at their disposal so they could eat whatever they wanted. Note how the context requires different ways of translating the subjunctive.)

Key Takeaways

  • The imperfect tense is one of the two Spanish simple past tenses, the other being the preterite.
  • The imperfect tense is used when the beginning and end of the action are unknown, unspecified, and/or unimportant.
  • One common use of the imperfect is in describing events that serve as background for another event.