Imperfect Tense in Spanish Grammar

Introduction

The imperfect tense or the pretérito imperfecto de indicativo, is a Spanish past tense. We use it to describe a past state, to emphasise the process or habitual repetition of an action, or to express one past action interrupted by another.

Learn how to conjugate -ar, -er, -ir verbs in the imperfect indicative tense with Lingolia’s grammar rules. Then practise what you have learnt in the exercises. See the subjunctive tenses for the conjugation and usage of the imperfect subjunctive. In tense comparison, you will find an overview of all the tenses in Spanish grammar.

Example

Zeichnung

A Rubén le encantaba el fútbol. Se pasaba el día corriendo detrás de la pelota. Entrenaba con su equipo los martes y los jueves.

Su madre le reñía constantemente porque siempre estaba dispuesto a jugar un partido con sus amigos, pero nunca tenía tiempo para hacer sus deberes.

When to use the imperfect tense in Spanish grammar

The Spanish imperfect tense (pretérito imperfecto de indicativo) is a past tense. Depending on the context, it works similarly to the English constructions used to and would, or even the past progressive tense. In concrete terms, we use it:

  • to describe a situation or state in the past
    Example:
    A Rubén le encantaba el fútbol.Ruben was mad about football.
  • to describe past routines and repeated actions
    Example:
    Entrenaba con su equipo los martes y los jueves.He used to train with his team every Tuesday and Thursday.
    Su madre le reñía constantemente..His mother was constantly scolding him.
  • to describe a past action whose beginning and/or end is not specified
    Example:
    Se pasaba el día corriendo detrás de la pelota.He would spend the entire day running after the ball.
  • to describe a background action that was in progress when a second action interrupted it; the interrupting action is always in the preterite tense
    Example:
    Mientras entrenaba con su equipo, se lesionó el tobillo.While he was training with his team, he injured his ankle.

Imperfect or preterite?

There is more than one past tense in Spanish grammar. Many Spanish learners have difficulty understanding the difference between the preterite tense (el pretérito indefinido) and the imperfect tense.

Learn when to use each tense with our section on tense comparison: imperfect or preterite.

How to conjugate the Spanish imperfect tense

To conjugate the Spanish imperfect tense in the indicative, we replace the infinitive -ar, -er or -ir verb endings with the following ones. Note that the conjugation for -er and -ir verbs are the same:

Person -ar -er/-ir
Endings hablar Endings aprender vivir
yo -aba hablaba -ía aprendía vivía
-abas hablabas -ías aprendías vivías
el/ella/usted -aba hablaba -ía aprendía vivía
nosotros/-as -ábamos hablábamos -íamos aprendíamos vivíamos
vosotros/-as -abais hablabais -íais aprendíais vivíais
ellos/ellas/ustedes -aban hablaban -ían aprendían vivían

Reflexive Verbs

In the case of reflexive verbs, we always place the reflexive pronoun (me, te, se, nos, os, se) before the verb.

Examples:
(yo) me peinaba
(tú) te peinabas
(él) se peinaba
(nosotros) nos peinábamos
(vosotros) os peinabais
(ellos) se peinaban

Irregular Conjugations

The following verbs are irregular in the imperfect tense.

Person ir ser ver
yo iba era veía
ibas eras veías
el/ella/usted iba era veía
nosotros/-as íbamos éramos veíamos
vosotros/-as ibais erais veíais
ellos/ellas/ustedes iban eran veían