The Imperfect Tense in Spanish: The Past That Just Won't Quit - Yabla Spanish - Free Spanish Lessons (2023)

What is the imperfect tense in Spanish? In contrast to the Spanish preterite, or simple pasttense, which typically describes completed actions in the past, the imperfect tense in Spanish depicts past actions that were carried out regularly,over a longer period of time, or wereinprogress at a specifiedpoint. In addition to these uses of the imperfect tense in Spanish, there are other specific contexts in which it is necessary to use this tense, many of which we hope to illuminate for you today.

When Do You Use Imperfect Tense in Spanish?

Let's take a look at some situations in which it is necessary to use the Spanish imperfect tense.

1. To Describe Habitual Actions in the Past

The imperfect tense in Spanish distinguishes actions that occurred on a habitual basis in the past from isolated incidents. Let's begin to understand this by examining how this idea might be expressed in English:

When I was young, Iused to visitmy grandparents every summer.

When I was young, Iwould visitmy grandparents every summer.

When I was young, Ivisitedmy grandparents every summer.

Interestingly, all of these English sentences could be translated to Spanish usingthe same sentence in theimperfect tense:"Cuando yoerajoven,visitabaa mis abuelos todos los veranos."This is because,despite their structural differences, they all mean the same thing:that the speaker would regularlyvisit his or her grandparents in the past.

Armed with this ideathat the imperfect tense in Spanish can encompass various English constructions, let's take a look at some additional examples of sentences with verbs in the imperfect tense:

Cuentan los cronistas queveíandesfilar a las tropas

The chroniclers tell that theywould seethe troops parading,

bajando desde lo queerael Cuartel de San Telmo

coming down from whatused to bethe San Telmo Barracks

hasta lo que hoy es conocido como el Bulevar donostiarra,

to what is known today as the "Bulevar donostiarra"

Captions 26-28,Días festivos - La Tamborrada de San Sebastián

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eh... -Sí. -... practicaba fútbol.

(Video) Learn Spanish in 30 minutes: The 100 Spanish phrases you need to know!

um... -Yes. -...I used to play soccer.

Caption 27, Club 10 - Capítulo 2

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In this second example, although an English speaker might say either, "Oh! I used to play soccer too!" or "Oh! I played soccer too!" to talk about something he or shedid regularlyat a previous juncture,the Spanish language would always employ theimperfect tense to distinguish this as a habitual action in the past.In contrast, if the speakerhad just completed a game of soccer yesterday, he would instead usethepreterite tense:

Ayer practiquéfútbol.

I played soccer yesterday.

All that said, at themoment of constructing a sentence, in order to decide when to use the imperfect tense in Spanish, anEnglish speaker must considerwhether a pastaction took place just once or over an extended period, in which case it will be necessary to choosethe imperfect tense.

2. To Describe Incomplete or Interrupted Actions in the Past

The imperfect tense in Spanishis also used to describe past actions that were incomplete or interrupted at the depicted moment.Let's take a look:

Vi que me acompañaba, mientras yo cantaba. -Sí.

I saw that you were accompanying me while I was singing. -Yes.

Caption 28, Yago - 1 La llegada

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Notice that imperfect verbs that describepast actions in progress are most commonly (but again, not always) expressed inEnglishinthe past progressive tense, e.g., "You were accompanying," "I was singing,"etc. The same can be said ofinterrupted past actions, wherethe action in progress isconjugated in the imperfecttense in Spanish,while the interrupting action is inthe preterite tense:

OK, o sea que vos pensás

OK, in other words, you think

que yo iba por la calle y de repente

that Iwas goingdown the street and suddenly,

conocí a una chica y la llevé a una obra en construcción

I met a girl and took her to a construction site

para seducirla.

to seduce her.

Captions 22-23, Muñeca Brava - 45 El secreto

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Me sentía perdido hasta que un día me llegó un email.

I was feeling lost until, one day, I gotan email.

Caption 24, Con ánimo de lucro - Cortometraje

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Notably, although the Spanish past progressive tense canalso be used to describe incomplete or interrupted actionsin some cases (e.g.Yo cocinabacuando mi marido llegó a casa andYo estaba cocinandocuando mi marido llegó a casaboth mean "I was cooking when my husband got home"), in our examples above, the imperfect tense in Spanish would be the more likely choice.

3. To Describe Conditionsand Characteristics

Since they tend to be ongoing, rather than having a definite beginning orend, the imperfect tense in Spanish is additionally used to describe physical and other characteristics of people or things in the past.

Tenía una barba blanca que le llegaba hasta la cintura

Hehada white beard thatwent downto his waist

y una larga cabellera.

and long hair.

Tenía además una corona dorada y vestía un manto blanco.

He also had a golden crown and wore a white robe.

Captions 12-14, Aprendiendo con Carlos - América precolombina - El mito de Bochica

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Pero noerala... mi... la Connie, mi esposa,

But itwasn't the... my... Connie, my wife,

sinoerala otra, la rubia,

but rather itwasthe other one, the blonde,

queeramuy bonita de ojos azules.

whowasvery pretty with blue eyes.

Captions 29-30,Gonzalo el Pintor - Vida

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In this second example, it is notable that, even though the third person singular form of the verbser(to be) in itspreterite form (fue) canalso be translated as "was" in some cases,the imperfect tense in Spanish is the correct manner of talking about traits in the past. The imperfectis also the preferred tense for describing paststates of being,as in the following example:

Tenía su pata rota.

His legwasbroken.

Esta pata de aquí, la tenía rota.

This leg here, it was broken.

Captions 17-18, Amaya - La historia de Lukas

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Thisdescriptive nature of the imperfect tense in Spanishmakes it ideal for explaining "how things were," or"setting the scene" in literature,which is the focus of this additionalYabla lessonon the imperfect tense.

4. To Talk About Age

Since age can also be thought of as characteristic rather than something that "occurs" in a given moment, the imperfect tense in Spanish is used to talk about it in past tense:

Desde cuandoteníadoce años, más o menos.

Since Iwastwelve years old, more or less.

Caption 13,Encuentro Volkswagen en Adícora - Escarabajos en la playa

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5. To Talk About Dates and Time

Additionally, since "setting the scene" might entailrecountingwhat dayor time it "was," dates and times must be described in the Spanishimperfect tense:

Eranlas cinco de la tarde.

Itwasfive o'clock in the evening.

ya que recuerdo que hacía un calor terrible,

as I remember that it was terribly hot,

aunque todavíaera el mes de junio,

despite the fact thatit wasstillthe month of June,

Captions 38-39,Fermín y los gatos - Mi gata Poeska

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6. To Talk About Feelings

The imperfect tense in Spanish is also utilizedto speak aboutemotions in the past:

Un poquito y ajá, y estaba triste porque dejaba

A little bit, and uh-huh, and Iwassad because Iwas leaving

mi familia y eso y ya.

my family and all that and that's it.

Caption 70, Cleer - Entrevista a Lila

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Todos en la casa estaban muy emocionados

Everyone in the house was very excited,

Caption 17, Cuentos de hadas - Cenicienta

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The Imperfect Tense in Spanish: Final Thoughts

So...when do you use the imperfect tense in Spanish?We hope that this lesson has made it more clear that, in contrast to the Spanish preterite tense, the Spanish imperfect is reserved for past events that "kept on going" for an extended period.For more examples of imperfecttense in Spanish, we recommend Carlos' video on this topic, where he exploresnot only when to use imperfect tense in Spanish, but also how to conjugate its regular and some of its most common irregular forms.

That's all for today, and don't forget to leave usyoursuggestions and comments.

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