The Spanish Imperfect Tense

Learn about imperfect in Spanish

Definition

The imperfect tense in general is much less used in English than in Spanish. The word imperfect itself expresses an idea of not perfected or not completed. Therefore, we use this tense to express continuance in the past in order to talk about habits, feelings or descriptions.

When to use the imperfect tense

We use the imperfect tense in the following situations

Past habits and repeated actions

The imperfect tense can be used to talk about regular actions which occurred in the past.

Examples
  • Todos los sábados íbamos a la playa.
    We would go to the beach every Saturday.
  • En Barcelona, salía mucho de noche.
    In Barcelona I used to go out a lot at night.

Actions happening in the past before being interrupted

The imperfect tense can be used to talk about things that were happening in the past but were interrupted.

Examples
  • Caminaba por la avenida cuando ocurrió el accidente.
    I was walking down the avenue when the accident happened.
  • Mi hermano cocinaba la cena cuando se abrió la ventana.
    My brother was cooking dinner when the window opened.

Characteristics, conditions and feelings in the past

The imperfect tense can be used to describe a characteristic in the past.

Example
  • Mi padre era muy alto, tenía una barba blanca larga y caminaba un poco lento.
    My father was very tall, he had a long white beard and he walked a little slowly.

The imperfect tense can be used to describe a condition in the past.

Example
  • Era una mañana fría y lluviosa.
    It was a cold and rainy morning.

The imperfect tense can be used to describe a feeling in the past.

Examples
  • Mi hija quería ir a Cancún.
    My daughter wanted to go to Cancun. 
  • Julia y Ramón se sentían contentos con la llegada del nuevo bebé.
    Julia and Ramon felt happy with the arrival of the new baby. 

How to form the imperfect tense

Imperfect tense for verbs ending in -ar

We use the same stem as the present tense, and add one of the endings matching it with the subject.

Subject Ending Caminar (to walk)
Yo -aba caminaba
-abas caminabas
Él, Ella, Usted -aba caminaba
Nosotros, Nosotras -ábamos caminábamos
Vosotros, Vosotras -abais caminabais
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes -aban caminaban
Example
  • No esperábamos este recibimiento.
    We weren’t waiting for this reception.

Imperfect tense for verbs ending in -er and -ir

We use the same stem as the present tense, and add one of the endings matching it with the subject.

Subject Ending Comer (to eat)
Yo -ía comía
-ías comías
Él, Ella, Usted -ía comía
Nosotros, Nosotras -íamos comíamos
Vosotros, Vosotras -íais comíais
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes -ían comían
Examples:
  • De niña, Marta comía chocolate casi todos los días.
    As a child, Marta ate chocolate almost every day.
  • ¿Tú vivías en Londres en 1987?
    Were you living in London in 1987?

Irregular verbs

There are only three irregular verbs in the imperfect tense: ir, ser and ver.

Pronoun Ir (to go) Ser (to be) Ver (to see)
Yo iba era veía
ibas eras veías
Él, Ella, Usted iba era veía
Nosotros, Nosotras íbamos éramos veíamos
Vosotros, Vosotras ibais erais veíais
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes iban eran veían
Examples:
  • ¿A dónde ibais cuando llamé?
    Where were you guys going when I called?
  • Yo era el mejor atleta de mi escuela.
    I was the best athlete of my school.
  • Debido a la neblina, los marineros no veían nada.
    Due to the fog, the sailors could not see anything.

Related Lessons

Learn about imperfect with Casa Spanish lessons.