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How to Use the Imperfect Tense in Spanish – Rosetta Stone

One of the big steps to becoming conversational in Spanish is getting a solid grip on a few of the language’s many verb tenses, and the imperfect tense is a useful one to know. Since it doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English, though, it can be a little difficult for Spanish language learners to understand. In this post, we’ll break down when to use the imperfect and how to conjugate verbs in that tense.

If you want a leg up in learning the imperfect tense, give Rosetta Stone a try. On Rosetta Stone, you can get comfortable using verb tenses and applying them in real-world conversations with fun lessons—and you’ll never have to rely on rote memorization

What is the imperfect tense in Spanish?

Imperfect, or pretérito imperfecto, is a tense in Spanish used to talk about past actions, conditions, and events without a specific duration. This includes past habitual actions and actions that were not finished in the past.

The imperfect tense isn’t the only Spanish tense used to talk about the past. There are a whopping four different past tenses in Spanish! The other tenses are:

  • Preterite: used to talk about actions that took place at a specific time in the past, as well as completed actions that started and finished in the past.
  • Imperfect subjunctive: used to talk about feelings related to past events and hypothetical situations.
  • Past perfect, or pluperfect, subjunctive: used to describe hypothetical situations in the past, conditional situations in the past, and past actions that preceded other actions.

Of these three, the preterite tense is the most commonly used and is another useful tense for beginners in Spanish to learn.

How to conjugate imperfect tense verbs in Spanish

Spanish verbs are categorized according to their endings. There are -AR, -ER, and -IR verbs, and they change forms depending on the action’s tense (as well as who performed it). Here’s how to form the imperfect tense.

Regular imperfect verbs

This chart shows you regular verb endings in the imperfect tense. To conjugate a regular verb using this chart, remove the -AR, -ER, or -IR ending, then add the appropriate ending from the chart based on who is performing the action. In the imperfect tense, -ER verbs and -IR verbs are conjugated the same way.

Subject -AR verbs -ER and -IR verbs
-aba -ía
you (informal)
-abas -ías
él, ella, usted
he, she, you (formal)
-aba -ía
nosotros, nosotras
-ábamos -íamos
vosotros, vosotras
you all (informal, Spain only)
-abais -íais
ellos, ellas, ustedes
they, you all (formal)
-aban -ían

Irregular imperfect verbs

Irregular verbs are ones that do not follow all of the regular conjugation rules. In the imperfect tense there are only three irregular verbs: 

  • ser = to be
  • ver = to see
  • ir = to go

You can see how to conjugate these irregular verbs in this chart:

Subject ser (to be) ir (to go) ver (to see)
era iba veía
you (informal)
eras ibas veías
él, ella, usted
he, she, you (formal)
era iba veía
nosotros, nosotras
éramos íbamos veíamos
vosotros, vosotras
you all (informal, Spain only)
erais ibais veíais
ellos, ellas, ustedes
they, you all (formal)
eran iban veían

>> Check out this guide to the top 50 most common irregular verbs in Spanish. 

When to use the imperfect tense in Spanish

With multiple past tenses to tangle with, it can be easy for Spanish beginners to be unsure of when they should use the imperfect tense. Let’s take a look at the four main uses for the Spanish imperfect.

Describing actions that were in progress in the past

The imperfect tense is used for actions that happened in the past for an undefined amount of time, like in these sentences:

  • Después del trabajo me dolía la cabeza. = After work my head hurt.
  • Les gustaban las manzanas. = They used to like apples.

You can also use the imperfect tense to talk about an action that was in progress when something else interrupted it. This use of the imperfect tense can be tricky, because while the action that was in progress uses the imperfect tense, the interrupting action uses the preterite tense.

  • Comías cuando sonó la campana. = You were eating when the bell rang.
  • La mujer leía cuando llamaron a la puerta. = The woman was reading when there was a knock on the door.

Describing habitual actions

Actions that were repeated over and over in the past use the imperfect tense. Here are some examples:

  • Jugábamos béisbol todos los viernes por la noche. = We played baseball every Friday night.
  • Los martes iba a clase de baile. = On Tuesdays I went to dance class.

Describing the past

You can use the imperfect tense to describe the past, including its characteristics and feelings people had, such as:

  • La habitación tenía papel tapiz verde. = The room had green wallpaper.
  • Mi prima estaba triste y tenía lágrimas en los ojos. = My cousin was sad and had tears in her eyes.

Describing times, dates, and ages in the past

When you talk about how old someone or something was, or you state a past date or time, you would use the imperfect tense. For instance:

  • Eran las dos de la mañana. = It was two o’clock in the morning.
  • Tenías veintidós años cuando te conocí. = You were 22 years old when I met you.

Perfect the imperfect tense with Rosetta Stone

Mastering the imperfect tense may be a challenge, but you can learn it quickly and confidently with Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone’s Dynamic Immersion method will prepare you for speaking Spanish in everyday life using images and audio from native speakers. This flexible program fits into your life with bite-sized lessons that you can access online, or download and take with you using the Rosetta Stone app

Visit rosettastone.com to start practicing today!



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