The Spanish Imperfecto. When and How to Use It.

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Describing how things were in the past with the Spanish pretérito imperfecto
Describing how things were in the past with the Spanish pretérito imperfecto

The Spanish pretérito imperfecto (imperfect) tense is a useful tense we use to talk about things in the past. It differs in a few ways from the pretérito perfecto and pretérito indefinido in that it is mostly used as a descriptive tense or to talk about habitual actions in the past.

When do you use imperfecto?

The Spanish imperfecto can be used to talk about repeated actions, or habits, in the past. We use it, above all, for its descriptive abilities of actions in the past. In contrast with the other preterite (past) tenses, the imperfecto makes no reference to a specific time in which the action in the past happened or was happening. The five main uses of  the imperfecto in Spanish are to:

  1. talk about a habitual state, event or action in the past
  2. describe something in the past (people, places, objects, emotions)
  3. give details about the circumstances of an action that took place (where, when, how, why… something took place)
  4. show that two events were taking place simultaneously in the past
  5. provide a background or set a scene in a narrative (storytelling)

How do you form the imperfecto?

The formation of Spanish verbs in imperfecto is quite straightforward. Unlike the pretérito indefinido, there are few irregular conjugations. For regular verbs ending in -AR, the endings all include aba plus the particular endings for each person. For verbs ending in -ER and -IR, all of the new endings include ía.
*Note that the conjugations for yoélella and usted, are the same (yo comía, ella comía).

HABLAR COMER VIVIR
yo hablaba comía vivía
hablabas comías vivías
él, ella, usted hablaba comía vivía
nosotros/as hablábamos comíamos vivíamos
vosotros/as hablabáis comíais vivíais
ellas, ellos, ustedes hablaban comían vivían

 

The following are the only irregular conjugations for the verbs ser, ir, and ver:

SER IR VER
yo era iba veía
eras ibas veías
él, ella, usted era iba veía
nosotros/as éramos íbamos veíamos
vosotros/as erais ibais veíais
ellas, ellos, ustedes eran iban veían

Examples of imperfecto in use

We will now go over the five main uses of imperfecto mentioned above.

1. talk about a habitual state, event or action in the past

Íbamos al parque todos los días en el verano.
We used to go to the park every day in the summer.

De niña, mi madre me leía libros antes de dormir.
As a girl, my mother read books to me before going to sleep.

Both examples above show events or actions that happened habitually. It is possible to translate the imperfecto to English in many different ways. In the second sentence, for example, you could say “my mother read“, “my mother would read“, or “my mother used to read“. It all depends on the context. Usually, adverbs or expressions of frequency such as frecuentamente, todos los días, siempre, nunca are a good indicator that we should use the imperfecto.

2. describe something in the past (people, places, objects, emotions)

Here, there is no reference to a specific time. It could be “in the past”, “when I was young” etc. In this use, you describe something that does not change, at least not for a long time. When “Yolanda was 6 years” old refers to the period of that time she was aged 6, not the moment she turned 6.

A los 6 años Yolando era muy timida y no tenía mucho amigos.
At 6 years old, Yolanda was very shy and didn’t have many friends.

Nuestra casa antigua tenía dos plantas.
Our old house had two floors.

3. give details about the circumstances of an action that took place in the past (where, when, how, why… something took place)

Su vuelo fue anulado porque había una tormenta muy fuerte.
Their flight was cancelled because there was a very bad storm. (why)

Cruzamos la calle en donde estaba el edificio amarillo.
We crossed the street where the yellow building was. (where)

Vi a Victor cuando estaba en el supermercado.
I saw Victor when I was at the supermarket. (when)

4. show that two events were taking place simultaneously in the past

Ella trabajaba mientras otros estudiaban.
She worked while others studied. OR She was working while others were studying.

Mientras dormía, mi madre cocinaba la cena.
While I slept, my mother cooked dinner. OR While I was sleeping, my mom was cooking dinner.

⚠️ In English, it is very common to describe a continuous action in the past with an “ing” verb. For example, “I was reading while my friend was talking to me”. In Spanish, the nature of the imperfecto tense implies that something was happening. Therefore, for Spanish speakers, it’s more common to say “Yo leía mientras mi amiga me hablaba.

5. describe or provide a background in a narrative

Era un precioso día. Los rayos del sol atravesaban nuestras cortinas cerradas por la mañana. 
It was a precious day. The sun’s rays passed through our closed curtains in the morning.

La niña se llamaba Catarina y tenía cinco hermanos.
The girl was called Catarina and she had 5 brothers.

Setting a narrative scene for a story is an important part of writing. Just as you would set a scene in English (It was a dark and stormy night…), you do the same in Spanish.

Hopefully, this post has resolved any of your qualms about the Spanish imperfect tense. If you’d like to perfect your imperfecto, vocabulary and grammar, check out our Spanish courses in the heart of Barcelona. Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below!

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