When to Use the Imperfect Tense in Spanish

The imperfect tense in Spanish is a verb form used to express happenings and actions in the past that are viewed as incomplete, continuous, repeated, or habitual. This tense is most often found in written language.

When using the imperfect, the action is considered ‘incomplete.’ It doesn’t have a definite beginning or ending. Maybe the time frame is unknown or unimportant. There is no specific time frame.

The following sentences illustrate when to use the imperfect tense in Spanish to indicate a habitual or repeated action:

Mi abuelo leía antes de dormir.

My grandfather used to read before bedtime.

Cantábamos en el parque los domingos por la tarde.

We used to sing in the park on Sunday afternoons.

Necesitabas un reloj para saber qué hora era.

You needed a watch to know what time it was.

When to Use the Imperfect Tense

Here are the common uses of the imperfect tense:

  • Habitual or repeated action in the past. [This is the primary use of this tense.]
  • Unspecified times in the past. [Also a primary function of this tense.]
  • Background information on why something occurred.
  • Times and ages
  • Politeness
  • Past Intention

The Imperfect Tense Conjugations

The Imperfect Tense Formation Rules: Regular Endings

Regular Verb Endings in Spanish

Take a look at the regular verbs:

Regular Verbs Imperfect Tense

Take a look at the irregular verbs: ser, ir and ver.

Imperfect Tense Irregular Ser, Ir, Ver

Habitual or Repeated Action in the Past

The imperfect tense is also used for actions that were repeated in the past. We often describe this as things a person would do or used to do.

Raras veces llegaba tarde a la escuela

I rarely arrived late to school.

We know that from the context that this was a usual activity in the past.

Mi padre siempre veía fútbol conmigo.

My father would always watch football with me.

Again, another habit that was repeated often.

Los fines de semana visitaba a mi abuela

On weekends, I visited my grandmother.

We know this activity happened repeatedly over the course of many weekends.

Unspecified Times in the Past

The imperfect tense can also be used to express things that happened at an unspecified time in the past. This means that it has no definite beginning or a definite end.

The action could have been going on for years or weeks, we just don’t know specifically because it is not mentioned.

These are times that are not stated because it doesn’t matter when they happened.

Vivíamos felices en nuestro pueblo natal.

We lived happily in our hometown. We don’t know when, precisely, this was happening because it is merely a general description of a certain period of their life.

No tenía dinero asique no podía comprarme los zapatos que quería.

I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t buy the shoes I wanted.

This activity could have been going on for a while, we don’t know.

El sol salía todos los días en mi país natal

The sun rose every day in my native country.

Background Information

We can use the imperfect to provide contextual or background information for past actions. It gives us more detail about when the past action happened.

It can be used to describe:

  • Feelings
  • Traditions/ Customs
  • Background
  • Objects
  • People
  • Weather

For example:

Me sentía feliz de estar en Irlanda.

I was happy to be in Ireland.

Recuerdo que el día que las conocí, hacía mucho calor

I remember the day I met them was very hot.

Cuando era niña, el olor de las velas me gustaba mucho.

When I was a child, I liked the smell of candles a lot.

Mi mamá siempre estudiaba mientras escuchaba Itzhak Perlman

My mom always studied while listening to Itzhak Perlman.

-Las películas de John Wayne eran mi favoritas cuando era chica.

John Wayne’s movies were my favorite when I was a kid.

-Para Navidad, nuestra familia solía hacer un almuerzo especial y cantar villancicos.

For Christmas, our family used to have a special lunch and sing Christmas carols.

-En antiguas culturas como las aztecas y mayas se sacrificaban personas para ofrendar a sus dioses

In ancient cultures like the Aztecs and Mayans, they would sacrifice people to offer them to their gods.

Times and Ages

We can use the imperfect tense to tell the time and peoples’ ages in the past. We can do this because the imperfect describes ongoing, habitual actions in the past.

For example:

¿qué hora era cuando Laura nos llamó?

What time was it when Laura called us?

Era la una cuando nos conocimos.

It was one o’clock when we met.

Tenía veinte años cuando nació mi hijo.

I was twenty when I gave birth to my son.

¿Cuántos años tenía Paula cuando entró al colegio?

How old was Paula when she entered school?

Politeness

While we often use the conditional, the imperfect tense can be used by Spanish speakers to express politeness. For example, in English we often say “would”, instead of “will” when talking to someone older. The same thing happens in Spanish when using the imperfect tense.

¿Le molestaría venir a vernos el sábado?

Would you mind coming to see us on Saturday?

We also use it as a polite way when requesting or buying something:

¿Podría traerme una Coca-Cola, por favor?

Could I have a Coke, please?

Quería un kilo de naranjas, por favor.

I’d like a kilo of oranges, please.

Hola Señor, ¿qué necesitaba?

Hello, sir, what do you need?

Talking About Past Intentions

The imperfect tense is also used to talk about intentions or plans in the past.

It’s most commonly used with the verbs querer, ir and desear. For example:

Iba a hacer ejercicio esta mañana, pero el bebé se despertó.

I was going to work out this morning, but the baby woke up.

Deseaba hablar con el gerente del banco, pero no lo encontré

I wanted to talk with the bank manager, but I couldn’t find him.

Ava quería volver a casa, pero tenía otros compromisos

Ava wanted to return home, but she had other commitments.

The Imperfect Tense Cannot Be Used To Express

  • Specific time period. We state when the action started, lasted or ended. [Use the Spanish preterite tense for this purpose.] For example, la semana pasada (last week), hace tres dias (three days ago), por un mes (for a month), el lunes (on Monday).
  • Repeated actions that are carried out a specific number of times. [Use the preterite tense here.] For example, fui al supermercado dos veces ayer. I went to the supermarket two times yesterday.
  • Uncertainty about past events, or things that are assumed to have occurred in the past. [To express uncertainty, use expressions of doubt or probability with the imperfect to avoid confusion.]
  • Present actions taking place in the past. [Use the imperfect if you wish to describe a continuous action that began in the past and continued.]

Associated Phrases

The imperfect tense is frequently associated with the following phrases:

Cada día/todas las semanas… (Every day/ Every week/ Every month/ Every year)

A veces (sometimes)

Generalmente (usually)

Siempre (always)

Casi Siempre (almost always)

Por un rato (for awhile)

Con frecuencia (frequently)

Muchas veces (many times)

En aquella época (at that time)

De vez en cuando (from time to time)

A menudo (often)

Nunca (never)

Preterite Vs Imperfecto

Sometimes we see the preterite and imperfect conjugations in the same sentences. The imperfect tense is used to describe an action that began in the past and continued for a long time.

The preterite is used to describe actions that have already been completed.

The imperfect may be used to explain what was happening when a past event occurred.

For example:

Maria llamó mientras tú duchabas

Maria called while you were taking shower. This is a common sentence structure in the past. The ongoing action is the imperfect while the interrupting action is the preterite. We can also say ‘Mientras tú duchabas, Maria llamó.’

Cuando yo entré en el restaurante, mi madre trabajaba.

When I entered the office, my mother was working.

Here is another example with the ongoing action trabajaba taking the imperfect tense and the interrupting action is the preterite. We can also say ‘Juan trabajaba cuando yo entré en el restaurante.’

See more examples here.

How to Say “Was” in Spanish

“Was” is difficult to translate, as we need to think if the verb is ser or estar and if we are using the imperfect or preterite.

While the preterite tells us information at a definite point in time, the imperfect gives us the background information where the time frame is not known or is unimportant.

For example:

Cristian era un buen futbolista.

Cristian was a good football player (We don’t know or it’s not important if he is still a footballer).

Cristian fue un buen futbolista.

Cristian was a good footballer. (We know that he is no longer a football player).

Lucas estaba deprimido.

Lucas was depressed. (We don’t know how he feels now).

Lucas estuve deprimido. (We know that Lucas is no longer depressed).

Other Variations Between the Imperfect and the Preterite

There are subtle differences between the imperfect and the preterite Spanish phrases as demonstrated below:

Sabía la razón. I knew the reason.

Supe la razón. I found out the reason.

Quería hablar. I wanted to speak.

Quise hablar. I tried to speak.

No quería leer. I didn’t want to read.

No quise leer. I refused to read.

Podía salir. I was able to leave.

Pude salir. I managed to leave.

No podía terminar. I was not able to finish.

No pude terminar. I failed to finish.

Conocía a Ana. I knew Ana.

Conocí a Ana. I met Ana.

Sabía la razón. I knew the reason.

Supe la razón. I found out the reason.

Tenía guantes. I had gloves.

Tuve guantes. I got gloves.

In Conclusion

The imperfect can be a tricky tense for Spanish learners. It has many different uses and is most commonly formed when talking about an unspecified period of time and talking about habitual actions in the past. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of el imperfecto and can apply it with speaking and writing the Spanish language.

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Alicia is a freelance writer and English language teacher from Arkansas, currently residing in Guanajuato, Mexico. She has previously volunteered in Chile and expresses a great desire to combine travel, education, and culture in her work.

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