The Spanish pretérito imperfecto, the imperfect tense, is one of the most common past tenses in Spanish. We use it to speak about habitual, repetitive and ongoing actions in the past. We also use the Spanish imperfect tense to make descriptions of something or someone in the past, to talk about actions that were going on simultaneously or events that were interrupted by an action. Let’s learn more about how it works!

How to Conjugate the Spanish Pretérito Imperfecto

It is very easy to conjugate the imperfect tense in Spanish; the first reason for that is that all verbs with –er and –ir endings follow the same pattern. The second reason is that there are only 3 irregular verbs in this tense. Let’s first look at the regular ones:

Regular verbs

The pretérito imperfecto is very easy to deal with when it comes to conjugation. The pattern below applies to all regular verbs:

-ar verbs: remove the -ar ending and replace it with -aba (yo), -abas (tú), -aba (él, ella, Usted), -ábamos (nosotros), -abais (vosotros) or -aban (ellos, ustedes).
-er and -ir verbs: remove the -er or -ir ending and replace it with -ía (yo), -ías (tú), -ía (él, ella, Usted), -íamos (nosotros), -íais (vosotros) or -ían (ellos, ustedes).

 HablarComerVivir

Yo

Hablaba
I was talking
Comía
I was eating
Vivía
I was living

Hablabas
You were talking
Comías
You were eating
Vivías
You were living

Él/ella/Usted

Hablaba
He/she was talking
Comía
He/she was eating
Vivía
He/she was living

Nosotros

Hablábamos
We were talking
Comíamos
We were eating
Vivíamos
We were living

Vosotros

Hablabais
You were talking
Comíais
You were eating
Vivíais
You were living

Ellos/ellas/ustedes

Hablaban
They were talking
Comían
They were eating
Vivían
They were living

You should notice that the first person plural form of –ar verbs always has an accent (hablar = hablábamos), and that all forms of the –er and –ir verbs also have an accent on the “í”.

You should also notice that the conjugation for first person singular (yo) is exactly the same as for third person singular (él/ella/Usted). We must therefore rely on the context to tell which person we are talking about in these situations

Practice the Spanish imperfect tense

Irregular verbs

The good news regarding the Spanish pretérito imperfecto is that it only has 3 irregular verbs. These 3 verbs are among the most common verbs in the Spanish language, and you will therefore see them in use very often; ser, ir and ver.

 SerIrVer

Yo

Era
I was
Iba
I was going
Veía
I was seeing

Eras
You were
Ibas
You were going
Veías
You were seeing

Él/ella/Usted

Era
He/she was
Iba
He/she was going
Veía
He/she was seeing

Nosotros

Éramos
We were
Íbamos
We were going
Veíamos
We were seeing

Vosotros

Erais
You were
Ibais
You were going
Veíais
You were seeing

Ellos/ellas/ustedes

Eran
They were
Iban
They were going
Veían
They were seeing

As you might notice with the conjugation of ver, the irregularity is very small; it keeps the “e” in the -er ending instead of removing it, before adding the -ía ending.

How to use the Spanish pretérito imperfecto

Some important keywords when it comes to the imperfect tense are habits, ongoing events, descriptions and context.

1. Habits and repetitive actions

We use the pretérito imperfecto when we talk about what we used to do and things that often happened in the past.
Peter siempre iba a España los veranos – Peter always went to Spain in the summer
Paseaban al perro cada día – They walked the dog every day
Yo solía hacer ejercicio los martes – I used to exercise on Tuesdays
Siempre tenías mucho dinero – You always had a lot of money

2. Descriptions of things and persons

The pretérito imperfecto is used to describe characteristics and moods in the past. We can speak about things or persons and describe their physical properties, moods, emotions and so on.
Tu padre era un hombre muy simpático – Your father was a very nice man
Ana estaba muy contenta ayer  – Ana was very happy yesterday
Mis padres tenían una casa muy grande – My parents had a very big house
La mujer era muy alta y tenía los ojos azules – The woman was very tall and had blue eyes

3. Several actions going on at the same time

We use the pretérito imperfecto while talking about actions that took place at the same time, or actions that were interrupted by another action.
Hablábamos mientras ellos estaban fuera – We were talking while they were outside
Yo escuchaba música cuando llegaste – I was listening to music when you arrived

4. Descriptions of intentions, ideas, context and surroundings

We can “set the scene” using the imperfect tense. While the most important events in a story are described using the Spanish pretérito indefinido, the surroundings and the context is described using the pretérito imperfecto. We also use it to talk about ideas and personal opinions.
Hacía calor y el cielo estaba claro – It was warm and the skies were clear
Ayer vi una película en el cine, y había mucha gente  – Yesterday I watched a movie at the cinema, and there were a lot of people
Creía que fuera una buena idea – I thought it would be a good idea

Practice the Spanish imperfect tense

Now what?

One of the other common past tenses is the pretérito indefinido, which is used in many of the same time perspectives as the pretérito imperfecto. Therefore, many students mix up these two tenses. If you want to learn more about the difference between them, check out this useful article: Spanish pretérito indefinido vs imperfecto

To learn more about the use of the Spanish imperfect tense, read our short story Un Excelente Mentiroso. It is written in the past tense.

Visit our grammar section to learn more about Spanish grammar. If you want to read Spanish texts with translations, visit our blog section to find articles and short stories.