The Imperfect Tense in Spanish

Grammar Glossary for Spanish and English

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.). Photo by Jesus Solana; licensed via Creative Commons.

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 is contrasted 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. 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.

Also Known As

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.

Sample Sentences

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. As in this example, a common use of the imperfect is to use as background for telling of an event that is stated in the preterite tense.)
  • 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 would want.)