The Imperfect Tense

Posted on 5th February 2013 in Conjugation

The Imperfect Tense – Imperfect Indicative

By Russell Sabo

When you want to talk about something in the past that you used to do, something that was happening when another event happened, or something that happened and is still happening, you will use the imperfect tense, or the imperfecto de indicativo.

dressed for winter - imperfect tense inspiration

Yo tenía que quitarme mucha ropa los inviernos pasados. – I had to remove a lot of clothes the past winters.

How is the Imperfect Tense Formed?

Click here to learn more about the Imperfect Tense – Learning Spanish Like Crazy Level 1 Nivel 1

  1. First, we’ll take the infinitive form of the verb: Hablar (to speak), Comer (to eat), and Vivir (to live).
  2. Remove the AR/ER/IR endings to leave the verb stem.
  3. Add the following endings to the verb stem according to the normal verb endings (AR/ER/IR).
    • For verbs that normally end with AR, add these endings to form the imperfect tense.
      1. (yo) Hablar – Habl receives “-aba” becoming “Hablaba”. Yo hablaba.
      2. (tú) Hablar – Habl receives “-abas” becoming “Hablabas”. Tú hablabas.
      3. (Usted, él, ella) Hablar – Habl receives “-aba” becoming “Hablaba”. Usted hablaba. Él hablaba. Ella hablaba.
      4. (nosotros/as) Hablar – Habl receives “-ábamos” becoming “Hablábamos”. Nosotros/as hablábamos.
      5. (vosotros/as) Hablar – Habl receives “-abais” becoming “Hablabais”. Vosotros/as hablabais.
      6. (Ustedes, ellos, ellas) Hablar – Habl receives “-aban” becoming “Hablaban”. Ustedes hablaban. Ellos hablaban. Ellas hablaban.
    • For verbs that normally end with ER and IR, add these ending to form the preterit.
      1. (yo) Comer – Com receives “-ía” becoming “Comía”. Yo comía.
      2. (yo) Vivir – Viv receives “-í” becoming “Vivía”. Yo vivía.
      3. (tú) Comer – Com receives “-ías” becoming “Comías”. Tú comías.
      4. (tú) Vivir – Viv receives “-ías” becoming “Vivíase”. Tú vivías.
      5. (Usted, él, ella) Comer – Com receives “-ía” becoming “Comía”. Usted comía. Él comía. Ella comía.
      6. (Usted, él, ella) Vivir – Viv receives “-ía” becoming “Vivía”. Usted vivía. Él vivía. Ella vivía.
      7. (nosotros/as) Comer – Com receives “-íamos” becoming “Comíamos”. Nosotros/as comíamos.
      8. (nosotros/as) Vivir – Viv receives “-íamos” becoming “Vivíamos”. Nosotros/as vivíamos.
      9. (vosotros/as) Comer – Com receives “-íais” becoming “Comíais”. Vosotros/as vivíais.
      10. (vosotros/as) Vivir – Viv receives “-íais” becoming “Vivíais”. Vosotros/as vivíais.
      11. (Ustedes, ellos, ellas) Comer – Com receives “-ían” becoming “Comían”. Ustedes comían. Ellos comían. Ellas comían.
      12. (Ustedes, ellos, ellas) Vivir – Viv receives “-ían” becoming “Vivían”. Ustedes vivían. Ellos vivían. Ellas vivían.
  4. Here are the conjugated verbs once again with their meanings.
    • Habl+aba=Hablaba (I was speaking, I used to speak), Com+ía=Comía (I was eating, I used to eat), Viv+ía=Vivía (I lived, I used to live)
    • Habl+abas=Hablabas (you were speaking, you used to speak), Com+ías=Comías (you were eating, you used to eat), Viv+ías=Vivías (you were living, you used to live)
    • Habl+aba=Hablaba (You (formal) were speaking, you used to speak, he was speaking, he used to speak, she was speaking, she used to speak)
    • Com+ía=Comía (You (formal) were eating, you used to eat, he was eating, he used to eat, she was eating, she used to eat)
    • Viv+ía=Vivía (You (formal) were living, you used to live, he was living, he used to live, she was living, she used to live)
    • Habl+ábamos=Hablábamos (we were speaking, we used to speak), Com+íamos=Comíamos (we were eating, we used to eat), Viv+íamos=Vivíamos (we were living, we used to live)
    • Habl+abais=Hablabais (you all (informal) were speaking, you all (informal) used to speak), Com+íais=Comíais (you all (informal) were eating, you used to eat), Viv+íais=Vivíais (you all (informal) were living, you all (informal) used to live)
    • Habl+aban=Hablaban (you all (formal) were speaking, you all (formal) used to speak, they (males or a mixed group) were speaking, they (males or a mixed group) used to speak, they (all females) were speaking, they (all females) used to speak)
    • Com+ían=Comían (you all (formal) were eating, you all (formal) used to eat, they (males or a mixed group) were eating, they (males or a mixed group) used to eat, they (all females) were eating, they (all females) used to eat)
    • viv+ían=Vivían (you all (formal) were living, you all (formal) used to live, they (males or a mixed group) were living, they (males or a mixed group) used to live, they (all females) were living, they (all females) used to live)

Imperfect Tense and Reflexive Verbs

The reflexive pronoun appears in front of the reflexive verb.

  • Despertarse – to wake up
  • me despertaba
  • te despertabas
  • se despertaba
  • nos despertábamos
  • os despertabais
  • se despertaban

Imperfect Tense and Irregular Verbs

As far as conjugations go, the imperfect tense is a wonderful tense because it has only 3 irregular verbs: ir, ser, and ver. Below are the conjugated forms of each of them. Notice the accent marks on the first syllable of the “ir” and “ser” conjugations.

  • Ir – to go
  • yo iba – I was going, I used to go
  • tú ibas – you were going, you used to go
  • Usted, él, ella iba – you (formal), he, she was going, you (formal), he, she used to go
  • nosotros/as íbamos – we were going, we used to go
  • vosotros/as ibais – you all (informal) were going, you all (informal) used to go
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas iban – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) were going, you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) used to go
  • Ser – to be
  • yo era – I was, I used to be
  • tú eras – you were, you used to be
  • Usted, él, ella era – you (formal) were, he was, she was, you (formal) used to be, he used to be, she used to be)
  • nosotros/as éramos – we were, we used to be
  • vosotros/as erais – you all (informal) were, you all (informal) used to be
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas eran – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) were, you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) used to be
  • Ver – to see
  • yo veía – I was seeing, I used to see
  • tú veías – you were seeing, you used to see
  • Usted, él, ella veía – you (formal) were seeing, he was seeing, she was seeing, you (formal) used to see, he used to see, she used to see
  • nosotros/as veíamos – we were seeing, we used to see
  • vosotros/as veíais – you all (informal) were seeing, you all (informal) used to see
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas veían – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) were seeing, you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) used to see

Hay and the Imperfect Tense

When you use the imperfect tense of the word “Hay”, which means “there is” or “there are” you will use the word “Había”. There were – There used to be

  • Había muchas vacas en la granja. – There were many cows on the farm. There used to be many cows on the farm.
  • Había diez lapices en mi escritorio. – There were ten pencils on my desk.

When you want to say, “It was necessary to…” you will used “Había que”.

  • Había que cocinar para mis padres. – It was necessary to cook for my parents.
  • Había que manejar a mi trabajo. – It was necessary to drive to my work.

When to Use the Imperfect Tense

There are many times when you will need to express the imperfect tense in Spanish. Most of the time you won’t be referring to any specific time, like you would in the preterit tense, but rather something that was continuous or ongoing. A word in the imperfect tense will quite often be translated as saying “used to + verb”. I used to race cars. She used to eat bologna. Below are the following conditions and some example sentences of when it will be used.

An Action Occurring at the Same Time as Another Action

When you are speaking of one thing happening at the same time that something else is happening, you will use the imperfect tense.

  • Mientras que Juan cocinaba, su novia limpiaba el baño. – While Juan was cooking, his girlfriend cleaned the bathroom.

An Action that Occurred While Another Action was Happening

When you are speaking of something that occurred while something else was happening, you will use the imperfect tense.

  • Pablo manejaba cuando vio el accidente. – Pablo was driving when he saw the accident.
  • Yo comía cuando me llamaste. – I was eating when you called me.

Actions that Took Place Habitually

Use the imperfect tense when speaking of something that happened with regularity. Notice that it doesn’t say when specifically, but rather refers to an unspecified time in the past. There are some words and phrases that will often be used to clue you in that the imperfect tense is necessary. They’re listed below along with some sample sentences.

  • a menudo – often
  • a veces – at times, sometimes
  • algunas veces – sometimes
  • cada año – every year, each year
  • cada día – every day, each day
  • casi nunca – hardly ever
  • casi siempre – almost always
  • con frecuencia – often, frequently
  • cuando – when
  • de vez en cuando – from time to time
  • frecuentemente – frequently
  • mientra – while
  • muchas veces – many times
  • nunca – never
  • por lo general – generally
  • por un rato – for a while
  • rara vez – rarely
  • siempre – always
  • tantas veces – so many times
  • todo el día – all day
  • todo el tiempo – all the time
  • todo la vida – all one’s life
  • varias veces – several times, various times
  • Cuando yo era joven, siempre corría por el jardín. – When I was young, I always ran through the garden.
  • Yo caminaba a la escuela todos los días. – I used to walk to school every day.

Past Emotional, Mental, or Physical Condition

If you’re talking about a past emotional, mental, or physical condition that you or somebody or something had in the past, you the imperfect tense. To make this easier to remember, keep in mind that it’s something that you or somebody or something used to have. You’ll use this often when describing a past state or action. Below are some commonly used verbs that take the imperfect tense often.

  • amar – to love
  • conocer – to know (someone/place)
  • creer – to believe
  • doler – to be painful to
  • esperar – to hope, to wait for
  • estar – to be
  • llevarse bien con – to get along well with
  • molestar – to be bothersome to
  • odiar – to hate
  • pensar – to think
  • poder – to be able
  • preferir – to prefer
  • querer – to want
  • saber – to know
  • sentir – to feel
  • ser – to be
  • tener – to have
  • Él prefería las mujeres. – He used to prefer women.
  • Ella podía hablar el español y el aléman. – She used to be able to speak Spanish and German.
  • El carro era azul. – The car was blue.
  • Anita era enfermera. – Anita used to be a nurse.
  • Yo estaba listo. – I was ready.

Quoting in the Past

If you’re quoting yourself or someone else in the past, use the imperfect tense.

  • Mi madre me dijo que ella amaba mucho mi padre. – My mother told me that she loved my father a lot.

“Going To” in the Past

Just as “Voy a + verb” means that I’m going to do something, “Iba a + verb” means that one was going to do something.

  • Tú ibas a comer la vaca. – You were going to eat the cow.
  • Yo iba a llamarte. – I was going to call you.

Time and Age

When you refer to the time or someone’s age, use the imperfect tense.

  • Quería volar a la luna cuando tenía doce años. – I used to want to fly to the moon when I was 12 years old.
  • Eran las cuatro de la tarde cuando llegué al aeropuerto de Barranquilla. – It was four o’clock in the afternoon when I arrived at Barranquilla’s airport.

Imperfect Progressive

The progressive tense can also be used in the imperfect.

  • Estabas leyendo una revista. – You were reading a magazine.
  • Él estaba manejando un carro. – He was driving a car.
  • Estábamos cantando una canción. – We were singing a song.
  • Ellos estaban cocinando los huevos. – They were cooking the eggs.


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Click here to learn more about the Imperfect Tense – Learning Spanish Like Crazy Level 1 Nivel 1

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