The Spanish imperfect
The topic of this lesson is one of the two simple past tenses in Spanish. The other one was covered in lesson preterite.
In grammar, the word imperfect is used for the clauses which are incomplete. Thus, from its name, one can understand that the imperfect tense is used for the past actions which are incomplete. In other words, it is used in order to emphasize the action itself, with no specific reference to the termination of the action. Thus, the past action being referred to does not have any definite beginning or end.
Learning the imperfect tense is much simpler than the preterite, since the conjugations are relatively simple. Because there are only three irregular verbs, whose conjugations you need to memorize. Otherwise, you can apply the rules for the regular verbs which are as follows.
The endings for the “ar” verbs are as follows
(él/ella, usted) -aba
(ellos/-as, ustedes) -aban
For example; the verb estudiar is regular in the imperfect tense. It is conjugated as follows
(él/ella, usted) estudiaba
(ellos/-as, ustedes) estudiaban
The good news is that in imperfect tense the conjugations of regular “er” and “ir” verbs are the same. The endings for these verbs read
(él/ella, usted) -ía
(ellos/-as, ustedes) -ían
aprender is regular in imperfect tense.
(él/ella, usted) aprendía
(ellos/-as, ustedes) aprendían
vivir is regular in imperfect tense.
(él/ella, usted) vivía
(ellos/-as, ustedes) vivían
The three irregular verbs
There are no stem-changing or spelling-changing verbs in the imperfect. There are only three completely irregular verbs.
Ser, ir and ver are the only three irregular verbs in the imperfect tense. Their conjugations are as follows
(él/ella, usted) era
(ellos/-as, ustedes) eran
(él/ella, usted) veía
(ellos/-as, ustedes) veían
(él/ella, usted) iba
(ellos/-as, ustedes) iban
When to use the imperfect
As a general remark, you should use the imperfect when you refer to past actions which took place at no specific time, but instead over a period of time as opposed to preterite.
In some cases it is not that easy to decide if you should use preterite or imperfect. There are even some verbs which change their meanings according to which simple past tense they are used with. We will deal with such issues when we compare these two simple past tenses in the next lesson.
- To express time in the past
eran las ocho de la mañana (it was eight o’clock in the morning)
- For description
la casa era verde (the house was green)
To express what someone was in the past
Él era estudiante (he was a student)
- For actions in progress
Yo escribía las cartas. (I was writing the letters)
- To express how old someone was in the past
él tenía treinta años (he was 30 years old)
- To express repeated actions in the past. Note that very often this use corresponds to “used to” in English.
Yo comía a veces tortilla. (I used to eat tortilla sometimes).
- mientras: while
When imperfect tense is used for simultaneous actions, very often the word mientras is used.
Yo escribía las cartas mientras tu leías el libro. (While you were reading the book, I was writing the letters)
- Since the imperfect tense is used to express repeated actions in the past, it is used with the frequency adverbs very often. Review them and learn some new.
a menudo often
a veces sometimes
con frecuencia frequently
tantas veces so many times
de vez en cuando once in a while
muchas veces many times
por un rato for awhile
mucho a lot
todas las semanas every week
todos los días every day
todo el tiempo all the time
Instead of todo(s), you can use cada. In this case the singular forms are preferred.
cada día every day
cada año every year