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The imperfect tense - Easy Learning Grammar Spanish

What is the imperfect tense?
The imperfect tense is one of the verb tenses used to talk about the past, especially in descriptions, and to say what was happening or used to happen, for example, It was sunny at the weekend; We were living in Spain at the time; I used to walk to school.

1   Using the imperfect tense

  • In Spanish, the imperfect tense is used:
  • to describe what things were like and how people felt in the past
Hacía calor.It was hot.
No teníamos mucho dinero.We didn’t have much money.
Tenía hambre.I was hungry.
  • to say what used to happen or what you used to do regularly in the past
Cada día llamaba a su madre.He used to ring his mother every day.
  • to describe what was happening or what the situation was when something else took place
Tomábamos café.We were having coffee.
Me caí cuando cruzaba la carretera.I fell over when I was crossing the road.
Grammar Extra!Sometimes, instead of the ordinary imperfect tense being used to describe what was happening at a given moment in the past when something else occurred interrupting it, the continuous form is used. This is made up of the imperfect tense of estar (estaba, estabas and so on), followed by the -ando/-iendo form of the main verb. The other verb – the one that relates the event that occurred – is in the preterite.
Montse miraba la televisión or
Montse estaba mirando la televisión cuando sonó el teléfono.
Montse was watching television when the telephone rang.

2   Forming the imperfect tense

  • To form the imperfect of any regular -ar verb, you take off the -ar ending of the infinitive to form the stem and add the endings: -aba, -abas, -aba,-ábamos, -abais, -aban.
  • The following table shows the imperfect tense of one regular -ar verb: hablar (meaning to speak).
(yo)hablabaI spoke
I was speaking
I used to speak
(tú)hablabasyou spoke
you were speaking
you used to speak
(él/ella/usted)hablabahe/she/it/you spoke
he/she/it was speaking, you were speaking
he/she/it/you used to speak
(nosotros/nosotras)hablábamoswe spoke
we were speaking
we used to speak
(vosotros/vosotras)hablabaisyou spoke
you were speaking
you used to speak
(ellos/ellas/ustedes)hablabanthey/you spoke
they/you were speaking
they/you used to speak
  • Note that in the imperfect tense of -ar verbs, the only accent is on the nosotros/nosotras form
Hablaba francés e italiano.He spoke French and Italian.
Cuando era joven, mi tío trabajaba mucho.My uncle worked hard when he was young.
Estudiábamos matemáticas e inglés.We were studying maths and English.
  • To form the imperfect of any regular -er or -ir verb, you take off the -er or -ir ending of the infinitive to form the stem and add the endings: -ía, -ías, -ía, -íamos, -íais, -ían.
  • The following table shows the imperfect of two regular verbs: comer (meaning to eat) and vivir (meaning to live).
(yo)comíavivíaI ate/lived
I was eating/living
I used to eat/live
(tú)comíasvivíasyou ate/lived
you were eating/living
you used to eat/live
(él/ella/usted)comíavivíahe/she/it/you ate/lived
he/she/it was eating/living,
you were eating/living
he/she/it used to eat/live,
you used to eat/live
(nosotros/nosotras)comíamosvivíamoswe ate/lived
we were eating/living
we used to eat/live
(vosotros/vosotras)comíaisvivíaisyou ate/lived
you were eating/living
you used to eat/live
(ellos/ellas/ustedes)comíanvivíanthey/you ate/lived
they/you were eating/living
they/you used to eat/live
  • Note that in the imperfect tense of -er and -ir verbs, there’s an accent on all the endings.
A veces, comíamos en casa de Pepe.We sometimes used to eat at Pepe’s.
Vivía en un piso en Barcelona.She lived in a flat in Barcelona.
Cuando llegó el médico, ya se sentían mejor.They were already feeling better when the doctor arrived.
TipThe imperfect endings for -er and -ir verbs are the same as the endings used to form the conditional for all verbs. The only difference is that, in the conditional, the endings are added to the future stem.

3   Irregular verbs in the imperfect tense

  • ser, ir and ver are irregular in the imperfect tense.
serMeaning: to be
(yo)eraI was
(tú)erasyou were
(él/ella/usted)erahe/she/it was, you were
(nosotros/nosotras)éramoswe were
(vosotros/vosotras)eraisyou were
(ellos/ellas/ustedes)eranthey were/you were
Era un chico muy simpático.He was a very nice boy.
Mi madre era profesora.My mother was a teacher.
irMeaning: to go
(yo)ibaI went/used to go/was going
(tú)ibasyou went/used to go/were going
(él/ella/usted)ibahe/she/it went/used to go/was
going, you went/used to go/were going
(nosotros/nosotras)íbamoswe went/used to go/were going
(vosotros/vosotras)ibaisyou went/used to go/were going
(ellos/ellas/ustedes)ibanthey/you went/used to go/were going
Iba a la oficina cada día.Every day he would go to the office.
¿Adónde iban?Where were they going?
verMeaning: to see/to watch
(yo)veíaI saw/used to see
I watched/used to watch/was watching
(tú)veíasyou saw/used to see
you watched/used to watch/were watching
(él/ella/usted)veíahe/she/it saw/used to see
he/she/it watched/used to watch/was watching
you saw/used to see
you watched/used to watch/were watching
(nosotros/nosotras)veíamoswe saw/used to see
we watched/used to watch/were watching
(vosotros/vosotras)veíaisyou saw/used to see
you watched/used to watch/were watching
(ellos/ellas/ustedes)veíanthey/you saw/used to see
they/you watched/used to watch/were watching
Los sábados, siempre lo veíamos.We always used to see him on Saturdays.
Veía la televisión cuando llegó mi tío.I was watching television when my uncle arrived.

4   Reflexive verbs in the imperfect tense

  • The imperfect of reflexive verbs is formed in just the same way as for ordinary verbs, except that you have to remember to give the reflexive pronoun (me, te, se, nos, os, se).
Antes se levantaba temprano.He used to get up early.
Grammar Extra!In Spanish, you also use the imperfect tense with certain time expressions, in particular with desde (meaning since), desde hacía (meaning for) and hacía ... que (meaning for) to talk about activities and states that had started previously and were still going on at a particular point in the past:
Estaba enfermo desde 2000.He had been ill since 2000.
Conducía ese coche desde hacía tres meses.He had been driving that car for three months.
Hacía mucho tiempo que salían juntos.They had been going out together for a long time.
Hacía dos años que vivíamos en Madrid.We had been living in Madrid for two years.
Compare the use of desde, desde hacía and hacía ... que with the imperfect with that of desde, desde hace, and hace ... que with the present.
  • For more information on the use of tenses with desde, see Prepositions.
Key points
  • To form the imperfect tense of -ar verbs, take off the -ar ending and add the endings: -aba, -abas, -aba, -ábamos, -abais, -aban.
  • To form the imperfect tense of -er and -ir verbs, take off the -er and -ir endings and add the endings: -ía, -ías, -ía, -íamos, -íais, -ían.
  • ser, ir and ver are irregular in the imperfect.

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