The Imperfect Past Tense in Spanish: Rules and Audio Examples

The past tense in Spanish has two basic forms: “El pretérito perfecto” and “El pretérito imperfecto”. “El pretérito perfecto” refers to actions in the past that have already been completed such as “Trabajé ahí” (I worked there). On the other hand, the imperfect past tense in Spanish if used for repeated actions from the past or those that were performed simultaneously, for example: “Ella caminaba por el bosque y cantaba su canción favorita” (She walked through the forest singing her favorite song). Let’s learn more about this interesting topic.

Conjugation rules for verbs in the imperfect past tense in Spanish

Just like in other tenses, verbs in the imperfect past tense in Spanish will follow specific conjugation rules. First, we need to modify the verb’s ending, depending on both the sentence’s subject and its original ending in infinitive form. The endings for verbs in the imperfect tense will be different to those from the simple past tense in Spanish. Look at the picture below and notice how –AR, -ER and –IR ending verbs are conjugated in the imperfect past tense in Spanish:

How to conjugate verbs in the imperfect past tense in Spanish
El pretérito imperfecto en español

The picture includes three regular verbs in Spanish, so similar regular verbs would follow these rules too, except for irregular verbs, which will not follow the conjugation rules shown in the picture, for example: SER, IR and VER. Here is how you should conjugate these verbs in the imperfect tense in Spanish:

SER: era, eras, era, éramos, erais, eran
IR: iba, ibas, iba, íbamos, ibais, iban
VER: veía, veías, veía, veíamos, veíais, veían

When and how to use the imperfect past tense in Spanish

1. Habitual or repeated actions in the past in Spanish

The imperfect tense in Spanish is used to talk about actions that happened in the past regularly. We will illustrate this better with these two examples below, which are using both forms of the past tense in Spanish:

Alicia caminó por el bosque
Alice walked through the forest
Alicia caminaba por el bosque
Alice walked through the forest

First, you should know that the verb CAMINAR has two forms in the past tense: “caminó” and “caminaba”. The form “caminó” is the way to refer to actions in the past that have already been completed, the preterite. This tense indicates that Alice walked through the forest, and now she is probably somewhere else. On the contrary, by using the imperfect in Spanish in the second sentence (caminaba), we mean that Alice “was walking” through the forest or perhaps “used to walk” through the forest. If we add more information to the second sentence, as in “Alicia caminaba por el bosque cuando tenía tiempo libre“, it is clearer that the girl would often walk in her free time. Here, the imperfect past tense in Spanish was used to talk about a repeated or habitual action.

2. Actions in progress in the past in Spanish

This imperfect tense in Spanish can also be used to talk about actions in progress that took place in the past. Please take some time to listen and analyze these two sentences using the imperfect past tense in Spanish:

Marta miró la película ayer.
Marta watched the movie yesterday.
Marta miraba la película cuando Alejandro llegaba a casa
Marta watched the movie when Alejandro came home

In the first sentence, which is written in the simple past, Marta watched the film, but maybe she is doing something different now, meaning that the action is over. As for the second sentence, we used the imperfect past tense in Spanish to represent two simultaneous actions: “miraba” and “llegaba”. This sentence tells us that she was watching the movie either “while Alejandro was coming home” or “when Alejandro got home”. In order to strictly mean “got home”, we could use the simple past of the verb LLEGAR instead of the imperfect form, just like this: “Marta miraba la película cuando Alejandro llegó a casa”. Likewise, if we wanted to use a different structure, then instead of using the imperfect tense for actions in progress, we could use the past progressive tense in Spanish. This way, instead of “Marta miraba…” we could say “Marta estaba mirando la película…”.

3. Descriptions in the past in Spanish

Finally, the imperfect tense will also be used to make descriptions of situations, people or things in the past in Spanish, particularly for talking about age, dates, events, emotions or things that we had or felt for some time in the past, but are different in the present. Listen to these sentences using the imperfect tense in Spanish:

Cuando María tenía 18 años, ella era una chica muy hermosa y saludable.
When Maria was 18 years old, she was a very pretty and healthy girl.
Cuando éramos pequeños, nos gustaba jugar fútbol
When we were little, we liked to play soccer
En verano, él siempre iba a la playa. Era delgado y tenía un auto clásico.
In summer, he used to go to the beach. He was thin and had a classic car

As you can see, we will always use the form “ERA” from the verb SER to talk about past stages of our lives or memories. The form “ERA” will also describe states or feelings that have changed, e.g. “Antes era tímido. Ahora no” (I was shy before. Now, I am not.) As we explained above, the form “IBA” comes from IR (to go). In the example “…él siempre iba a la playa”, we mean to say that he used to go to the beach regularly, but that is something he doesn’t do anymore. Remember that the verbs IR, SER and VER have irregular forms in the imperfect past tense in Spanish.

Grammar quiz: The imperfect past tense in Spanish

This short quiz includes some exercises about the rules for using the imperfect past tense in Spanish. The quiz will test the most important points covered in this lesson. ¡Buena suerte!

Using the imperfect past tense in Spanish

As we have explained above, the imperfect past tense in Spanish is particularly useful when telling stories. It is a great way to talk about repeated actions from the past or talk about actions in progress performed by the characters in the story. Somehow, this tense conveys a sense of duration to the actions or events from the past in Spanish. Sentences with this tense will sometimes make use of specific adverbs that will provide more information about the timing of events, such as: “antes” (before), “cuando era joven” (when I was young), “todos los días” (every day), “todas las mañanas” (every morning), “cada semana” (each week) and “a menudo” (often), among others. Pay attention to the last couple of examples using the imperfect in Spanish:

Cuando era niño, tenía mucho tiempo libre. Jugaba todo el tiempo y estudiaba también. Me gustaba aprender sobre mitología, y leía sobre historia y muchas cosas más. Pasaba bastante tiempo con mis amigos y siempre hacíamos una que otra travesura…

Show translation: Childhood memories and the imperfect tense
When I was a kid, I had a lot of free time. I would play all the time and study too. I liked to learn about mythology and read about history and many other things. I used to spend a lot of time with my friends and we always got into mischief…

Fragmento de “El gigante egoísta” de Oscar Wilde
Cada tarde, a la salida de la escuela, los niños iban a jugar al jardín del Gigante. Era un jardín amplio y hermoso, con arbustos de flores y cubierto de césped verde y suave. Por aquí y por allá, entre la hierba, se abrían flores luminosas como estrellas…

Show translation: A story with the imperfect in Spanish
Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant’s garden. It was a large lovely garden, with soft green grass. Here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars…

We will go back to this topic in future lessons so that you can see how native speakers use this structure in real life. For now, please listen and read the last two examples in the lesson. Then, practice with the grammar quiz for this lesson. ¡Hasta pronto!