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:

a veces

sometimes

cada día

every day

cada año

every year

de vez en cuando

once in a while

frecuentemente

frequently

generalmente

usually

muchas veces

many times

mucho

a lot

por un rato

for a while

siempre

always

tantas veces

so many times

todas las semanas

every week

todos los días

everyday

todo el tiempo

all the time

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

Yo estudiaba

I studied

Tú estudiabas

You studied

Usted estudiaba

You (formal) studied

Él estudiaba

He studied

Ella estudiaba

She studied

Nosotros estudiábamos

We (masc.) studied

Nosotras estudiábamos

We (fem.) studied

Vosotros estudiabais

You (pl. masc.) studied

Vosotras estudiabais

You (pl. fem.) studied

Ustedes estudiaban

You (plural) studied

Ellos estudiaban

They (masc.) studied

Ellas estudiaban

They (fem.) studied

COMER - to eat

Yo comía

I ate

Tú comías

You ate

Usted comía

You (formal) ate

Él comía

He ate

Ella comía

She ate

Nosotros comíamos

We (masc.) ate

Nosotras comíamos

We (fem.) ate

Vosotros comíais

You (pl. masc.) ate

Vosotras comíais

You (pl. fem.) ate

Ustedes comían

You (polite) ate

Ellos comían

They (masc.) ate

Ellas comían

They (fem.) ate

VIVIR - to live

Yo vivía

I lived

Tú vivías

You lived

Usted vivía

You (formal) lived

Él vivía

He lived

Ella vivía

She lived

Nosotros vivíamos

We (masc.) lived

Nosotras vivíamos

We (fem.) lived

Vosotros vivíais

You (pl. masc.) lived

Vosotras vivíais

You (pl. fem.) lived

Ustedes vivían

You (plural) lived

Ellos vivían

They (masc.) lived

Ellas vivían

They (fem.) lived

ejemplo:

Estudiábamos juntos todos los sábados.

We used to study together every Saturday

Yo estudiaba todos los días cuando era estudiante.

I used to study every day when I was a student.

Tú comías pescado todos los días.

You used to eat fish every day.

Uds. vivían en Puerto Rico.

You used to live in Puerto Rico.

Nosotros vivíamos cerca de tus padres.

We used to live close to your parents.

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

Yo era

I was

Tú eras

You were

Usted era

You (polite) were

Él era

He was

Ella era

She was

Nosotros éramos

We (masc.) were

Nosotras éramos

We (fem.) were

Vosotros erais

You (pl. masc.) were

Vosotras erais

You (pl. fem.) were

Ustedes eran

You (plural) were

Ellos eran

They (masc.) were

Ellas eran

They (fem.) were

VER - to see

Yo veía

I saw

Tú veías

You saw

Usted veía

You (polite) saw

Él veía

He saw

Ella veía

She saw

Nosotros veíamos

We (masc.) saw

Nosotras veíamos

We (fem.) saw

Vosotros veíais

You (pl. masc.) saw

Vosotras veíais

You (pl. fem.) saw

Ustedes veían

You (plural) saw

Ellos veían

They (masc.) saw

Ellas veían

They (fem.) saw

IR - to go

Yo iba

I went

Tú ibas

You went

Usted iba

You (polite) went

Él iba

He went

Ella iba

She went

Nosotros íbamos

We (masc.) went

Nosotras íbamos

We (fem.) went

Vosotros ibais

You (pl. masc.) went

Vosotras ibais

You (pl. fem.) went

Ustedes iban

You (plural) went

Ellos iban

They (masc.) went

Ellas iban

They (fem.) went

ejemplo:

Cuando éramos joven, comíamos mucho.

When we were young, we used to eat a lot.

El niño veía muchas películas.

The boy used to watch a lot of movies.

Íbamos a la playa cada verano.

We used to go to the beach every summer.


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