Spanish imperfect past tense: Formation, Use and Examples

The preterite imperfect, also known as "imperfecto" or "pretérito imperfecto del indicativo", is another of the most commonly used verb tenses in Spanish to refer to past actions. Unlike the simple past (pretérito indefinido) which denotes actions completed in the past, the preterite imperfect is used to express actions that occurred habitually, repeatedly, enduringly or were in progress at a specific time in the past.

The Spanish imperfect tense at a glance

The preterite imperfect is used in various situations, such as describing habitual actions in the past, expressing the time in which an action occurred simultaneously with another in the past, narrating situations in the past, describing physical or mental characteristics in the past, among others. It is one of the most used verb tenses in narrations and descriptions in Spanish.

Formation of the Spanish Imperfect past tense

The formation of the imperfect is quite regular in Spanish for most verbs. The ending of verbs in -ar, -er and -ir is the same for most personal pronouns. Here is the imperfect conjugation for three regular verbs: "hablar" (verb -ar), "comer" (verb -er) and "vivir" (verb -ir):

Regular verbs in the imperfect tense

Pronombre personal Hablar Comer Vivir
Yo hablaba comía vivia
hablabas comías vivías
Él / Ella / Usted hablaba comíamos vivíamos
Vosotros / Vosotras hablabaís comíais vivíais
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes hablaban comían vivían

Irregular verbs in the imperfect tense

Pronombre personal Ser Ir Ver
Yo era iba veía
eras ibas veías
Él / Ella / Usted era iba veía
Vosotros / Vosotras erais ibais veíais
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes eran iban veían
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Uses of the imperfect tense in Spanish:

1. Habits or repetitive actions in the past: The imperfect is used to describe actions that occurred frequently or repeatedly in the past. For example:

"Every day I walked to the park."

2. Description of the setting or environment in the past: used to state the setting or situation at a specific time in the past. For example:

"It was a sunny day and the birds were singing."

3. Ages and times in the past: The imperfect is also used to express someone's age or time in the past. For example:

"When I was a child, I was five years old."

"It was five o'clock in the afternoon."

4. Physical and emotional descriptions in the past: To describe what someone was like physically or how they felt in the past, we use the imperfect. For example:

"I was tall and had black hair."

"I felt happy back then."

5. Actions in progress in the past: The imperfect can also indicate actions that were in progress at a specific time in the past. For example:

"While I was eating, I watched TV".

Differences between the preterit and the imperfect tense

It is common for students of Spanish to find it difficult to differentiate between the preterite and the imperfect, as both are past tenses. The main distinction lies in how the actions are focused:

  • The preterite is used to express punctual, specific and completed actions in the past. It is used to narrate concrete events with a clear beginning and end.
  • The imperfect, on the other hand, is used to describe actions that were habitual, continuous or occurred without a definite end point. It focuses on the development or duration of the action rather than its completion.

For example, consider these two sentences:

  • Pretérito: "Yesterday I went to the movies". In this case, the action "ir al cine" is specific and punctual, with a clear beginning (ayer) and an end (cuando llegué al cine).
  • Imperfect: "When I was a kid, I went to the movies every Saturday". Here, the imperfect is used to express a habitual and repetitive action in the past, without a specific end point.

Temporal markers of the imperfect tense

Temporal markers are words or phrases that usually accompany the imperfect and provide temporal context. Examples of temporal markers for the imperfect are:

Temporary marker Example sentences
Siempre Siempre iba en la bici a la escuela.
Todos los días Todos los días caminaba 20 minutos para llegar al trabajo.
Cada semana Cada semana visitaba a la abuela.
Mientras Mientras corría en el parque, me encontré con un amigo.
De niño De niño no me gustaban los vegetales.
En aquella época En aquella época las cosas se hacían de manera diferente.
A menudo A menudo conducía a la universidad.
Cada año Cada año viajábamos a un país nuevo para conocer nuevas culturas.

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