Imperfect Tense in Spanish And When to Use It?

Kirsten has been fascinated by foreign languages since childhood and has made it her mission to inspire others with her passion for Spanish. She has a master’s degree in Hispanic Studies from Boston College and has tutored and taught students of all ages.
Kirsten Agla

Despite having the name “imperfect,” this Spanish tense has nothing to do with flaws or defects. Actually, the imperfect tense in Spanish is used to talk about things you “used to” do or “were” doing in the past, as well as to set the scene for a story.  

The imperfect tense is often taught in conjunction with the preterite tense because they are both used to talk about the past and are often interwoven in narratives. Here is a quick example:

Mientras jugaba en el jardín, empezó a llover.

While I was playing in the garden, it started to rain.

This sentence uses the imperfect for the first verb and the preterite for the second verb due to their difference in meaning. Jugaba means “was playing” and is a continuous action, while empezó means “it started” and indicates a single, sudden action. 

It is generally recommended to learn the preterite first, however, the order in which you learn the different past tenses doesn’t matter too much as long as you study both! This article will teach you how to conjugate in the imperfect tense in Spanish as well as when to use it.

Regular Verbs in the Imperfect Tense in Spanish

Most verbs are regular verbs in the imperfect tense. In fact, there are only three irregulars (a true miracle)! You will be conjugating in the imperfect in no time!

The first step, like with most verbs, is to remove the ending of the verb. Once you remove -ar, -er, or -ir from the verb, add the appropriate ending. That’s it!

Let’s start with -ar verb endings. Note that the nosotros/as form has an accent mark on the first “a.”

Yo -aba Nosotros/as -ábamos
-abas Vosotros/as -abais
Él/Ella/Usted -aba Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes -aban
  • Mi amiga hablaba por teléfono con sus padres todos los días.
    • My friend (female) used to speak to her parents on the phone every day.
  • Los compañeros caminaban a la escuela.
    • The classmates would walk to school.
  • Mientras yo miraba la televisión, mi hermano dibujaba en su cuaderno.
    • While I was watching TV, my brother was drawing in his notebook.

Based on the example sentences, you may have noticed that there are a few ways to translate the imperfect. There is more information on this later on, when we talk about the uses of the imperfect, so sit tight!

Here are the endings for both -er and -ir verbs. Much like the preterite tense, these two verb types share the same endings. All of the imperfect endings below have an accent mark on the first “i.”

Yo -ía Nosotros/as -íamos
-ías Vosotros/as -íais
Él/Ella/Usted -ía Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes -ían
  • Según mis tíos, mis padres salían mucho antes de tener hijos.
    • According to my uncles, my parents used to go out a lot before having kids.
  • No dormíamos bien en la ciudad.
    • We used to not sleep well in the city.
  • Antonio aprendía una lengua extranjera en el colegio.
    • Antonio was learning a foreign language in high school.
the imperfect tense in Spanish
Unsplash credit to element5digital

For all verb types, the yo form and the third person plural (él/ella/usted) have the same conjugation. To differentiate between these, Spanish speakers will either include the pronoun or the pronoun will be implied based on context.

Irregular Verbs in the Imperfect Tense in Spanish

 

The only three irregular verbs in the imperfect tense in Spanish are ser, ir, and ver. That’s it! Below are the conjugations for these three irregular verbs.

Ser – to be

This verb has an accent mark in the nosotros/as form.

Yo era Nosotros/as éramos
eras Vosotros/as erais
Él/Ella/Usted era Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes eran
  • Cuando era niña, no me gustaba la espinaca.
    • When I was a girl, I didn’t like spinach.
  • Éramos jóvenes cuando teníamos dieciséis años.
    • We were young when we were sixteen years old.
  • El chico era alto y su camiseta era blanca.
    • The boy was tall and his shirt was white.
the imperfect tense in Spanish Ser-to be
Unsplash credit to Chase Chappell

Ir – to go

This verb pretty much adopts the -ar endings except the first a is an i.

Yo iba Nosotros/as íbamos
ibas Vosotros/as -ibais
Él/Ella/Usted iba Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes -iban
  • Ibas a la tienda cada viernes.
    • You went to the store every Friday.
  • La familia iba al museo mucho.
    • The family would go to the museum a lot.
  • ¿Iban a estudiar?
    • Were they going to study?

Ver – to see

This one is barely irregular! Just take off the last -r from ver and use the -er/-ir endings, and you’re in business.

Yo veía Nosotros/as veíamos
veías Vosotros/as veíais
Él/Ella/Usted veía Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes veían
  • Te veía a veces en el pasillo.
    • I saw you sometimes in the hallway.
  • Los hombres se veían en el bar.
    • The men would see each other in the bar.
  • Veíamos al perro por la ventana.
    • We used to see the dog through the window.

And there you have it! Just three irregular verbs. Ser, ir, and ver are used often so be sure to study them.

Uses of the Imperfect Tense in Spanish

There are a variety of ways to translate the imperfect tense in Spanish into English. For example, the sentence Los compañeros caminaban a la escuela can be translated in the following ways:

  • The classmates would walk to school.
  • The classmates were walking to school.
  • The classmates used to walk to school. 
  • The classmates walked to school.

So how do you know which one is right? With so many options, how do I choose? Do I even have to choose?

The answer is, it doesn’t really matter. As language learners, we need to avoid the fallacy of translating everything into our native language. Instead, we should look at the meaning of the imperfect tense in Spanish and the situations in which it is used. In all of these possible English sentences, what is the message?

The message is that walking to school is a past action with no specified time or frequency, and that the act of walking is a continuous action that may be habitual. It could be setting the scene for something more definitive.

To better define the imperfect and when to use it, a useful acronym is CHEATED. This stands for Characteristic/Description, Health, Emotion, Age, Time, Endless Activity, and Date.

Characteristic/Description

When describing a person, place or thing in the past, it is hard to define a specific time frame. When you say that a person was tall, when did they start being tall? Did they stop being tall? A characteristic or description is continuous and therefore should be in the imperfect. The verb ser is often in the imperfect tense because of this.

  • Los estudiantes eran inteligentes.
    • The students were intelligent.
  • La sopa de mi abuela era rica.
    • My grandmother’s soup was delicious.
the imperfect tense in Spanish Description
Unsplash credit to Becca Tarpet

Health

Health is another topic where it is hard to pin down a time frame. It’s vague and is also like a description of a person’s past state of being. If by chance there is an exact time frame regarding health, then the preterite is acceptable, but this is rarely the case in daily conversation.

  • Estaba enferma pero ahora me siento bien.
    • I was sick but now I feel well.

Emotion

Emotion is not always visible and is felt internally, and for that reason it is considered continuous with no specific start or end. An example of an exception is if you talk about a time in which you became angry. This would use the preterite because it is talking about the onset, which can be measured. Otherwise, the imperfect tense is the best option.

  • La mujer estaba molesta en la reunión.
    • The woman was annoyed in the meeting.

Age

Even though age has a specific time frame (everyone is that age for one year, after all) it is treated more like a characteristic or description. So when saying someone’s past age, conjugate tener into the imperfect.

  • Ella tenía veinte años en su primer año de universidad.
    • She was twenty in her first year at university.

Time

The time always uses the imperfect tense and is yet another reason why learning the irregular ser is important. Despite its specificity, think of it more as a description of the past that is setting the scene.

  • Era la una.
    • It was one o’clock.
  • Eran las tres.
    • It was three o’clock.

Endless Activity

Any action that is repeated or ongoing uses the imperfect tense in Spanish. This is an important one! To clarify, this is something done habitually or continuously. Here are some keywords that indicate endless activities and show when the imperfect should be used:

  • Siempre – Always
  • Generalmente Generally
  • Frecuentemente – Frequently
  • Mientras – While
  • Cada día –  Every day
  • Muchas veces Many times
  • Todos los días –  Every day
  • Todo/as + (unit of time) –  Every + (unit of time)

Date

Much like time, the date always uses the imperfect despite being specific. This is because it falls into the “setting the scene” category, as in, “It was the twelfth of March when we adopted our puppy.” Even if you are simply stating the past date with no additional information, use the imperfect.

  • Era el ocho de octubre cuando fuimos a Lima.
    • It was October eighth when we went to Lima.
  • Era el seis de septiembre.
    • It was September sixth.

Summary of the Imperfect Tense in Spanish

Now you know how to conjugate the imperfect tense in Spanish and when to use it! It will be a breeze to master the conjugation with only three irregulars. Some people call the imperfect the aba’s and the ía’s because of the verb endings and their simplicity.

It may take some practice to learn the differences between the two major past tenses (preterite and imperfect). The acronyms really help when you first start out. In fact, I still use them to this day! SIMBA is for the preterite (again, click here for more information on the preterite), and for the imperfect the acronym is CHEATED. Characteristic/Description, Health, Emotion, Age, Time, Endless Activity, and Date.

To master the past, remember that SIMBA CHEATED!

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