When it comes to learning past tenses in Spanish, it is important to bear in mind that there is a kind of past tense that doesn’t exist in English per se: the imperfect tense. As such, this tense might be a little bit tricky and confusing for native English speakers trying to express past events in Spanish.
Let’s remember how the imperfect is formed:
-ar verbs: comprar (to buy)
compraba, comprabas, compraba, comprábamos, comprabais, compraban
-er and –ir verbs: beber (to drink) and vivir (to live)
bebía, bebías, bebía, bebíamos, bebíais, bebían
vivía, vivías, vivía, vivíamos, vivíais, vivían
There are only three verbs with irregular conjugations in the imperfect:
- Ser (to be): era, eras, era, éramos, erais, eran
- Ir (to go): iba, ibas, iba, íbamos, ibais, iban
- Ver (to see): veía, veías, veía, veíamos, veíais, veían.
Once we know how to conjugate the imperfect tense… When should we use it?
I provide you with this list, giving 6 different scenarios where the imperfect tense must be used. Enjoy!
1) Actions that took place on a regular basis
a) The imperfect tense is used to describe actions in the past that occurred repeatedly or habitually in the past.
Yo jugaba al tenis cada día.
I used to play tennis every day.
b) The imperfect tense is also used to refer to actions in the past that occurred over an extended period of time.
Ella frecuentemente comía marisco.
She used to eat seafood frequently.
c) The frequency of these actions is usually expressed with ‘soler’ in Spanish. Then the verb that follows ‘soler’ (e.g ‘yo solía’) must be the infinitive. Let’s see some examples:
Solía jugar al tenis cada día.
I used to play tennis every day.
Solíamos hablar mucho.
We used to talk a lot.
2) Telling the time, dates and ages in the past
The imperfect tense is used to express time, dates or ages in the past:
Eran las tres de la mañana.
It was three o’clock in the morning.
Era el fin de semana.
It was the weekend.
Cuando era niño, solíamos jugar mucho fuera.
When I was a child, we used to play a lot outdoors.
3) Giving descriptions about things in the past
a) Physical conditions
Laura tenía el pelo muy largo.
Laura used to have very long hair.
Stef estaba muy delgado cuando era pequeño.
Stef was very skinny when he was a child.
Hacía mucho frío cuando salí de casa.
It was very cold when I left home.
El clima era demasiado cálido para mi. or Hacía demasiado calor para mi.
The weather was too hot for me.
Solamente había un bar abierto pero estaba vacío.
There was only a restaurant, but it was empty.
4) Imperfect progressive
a)The imperfect tense indicates an action viewed as being in progress in the past:
Estaba comprando comida en el supermercado.
I was shopping for food at the supermarket.
Brian estaba escuchando un podcast.
Brian was listening to a podcast.
b) The imperfect tense indicates actions that set the scene for other events.
It describes what was going on when another action took place. The imperfect tense sets the scene for an event that occurred in the past. The imperfect verb is interrupted by a ‘preterite’ verb. Let’s see some examples:
Tom leía el periódico cuando sonó el teléfono.
Tom was reading the newspaper when the phone rang.
Venía para casa cuando me encontré con María.
I was coming home when I ran into Maria.
Estaba estudiando español cuando un pájaro entró por la ventana.
I was studying Spanish when a bird flew in through the window.
5) Describing emotional and mental states or desires in the past
The imperfect tense indicates emotional and mental states or desires that were expressed or experienced in the past.
a) Emotional states
Era muy feliz en ese momento de mi vida.
I was very happy at that point of my life.
b) Mental states
Pensaba que la película era buena.
I thought the film was good.
Quería mudarme a Nueva York.
I wanted to move to New York.
6) Giving an explanation about the past
The imperfect tense is used to explain the reason why you did or failed to do a particular task.
No fui a las clases porque estaba enfermo.
I didn’t attend classes because I was sick.
Spanish time indicators with imperfect tenses:
A menudo (often)
Con frecuencia/frecuentemente (frequently)
A veces (sometimes)
De vez en cuando (from time to time)
Cada día (every day)
En aquella época (at that time)
Cada año (every year)
Muchas veces (many times)
Mucho (a lot)
Tantas veces (so many times)
Por un rato (for a while)
Todas las semanas (every week)
Todos los días (every day)
Todo el tiempo (all the time)
Easy right? Want more? Then check out this video that I created that sums up the uses of the imperfect tense in Spanish:
Youtube Video: When to use the imperfect tense in Spanish
HERO IMAGE by Adriano Agullo (CC BY 2.0)