The Spanish Imperfect Tense: An Introduction

In order to be able to speak Spanish without making grammatical errors, it is important to know how and when to use relevant tenses.

If you don’t understand which tenses you’re using then you’re always going to make mistakes. Luckily, the Spanish imperfect tense really isn’t too difficult. In fact, it’s one of the easiest Spanish tenses to learn.

In this post, we take you through the following:

👍 What the Imperfect Tense in Spanish is and when to use it.
👍 How to conjugate Spanish verbs in the Imperfect Tense.
👍 Which three irregular verbs you’ll need to learn.

One thing before we get started: If you’re serious about learning to speak Spanish then be sure to check out our list of Spanish Language Resources. We have tested and rated dozens of online Spanish courses and language apps. Tap this link to find out more.


What is the Spanish Imperfect Tense?

The Spanish imperfect tense (or el tiempo imperfecto in Spanish) is one of the two simple past tenses in Spanish. The other is the preterite tense.

It is used to describe an action that was repeated in the past. This is also known as a habitual action.

The words that we have highlighted here are ‘habitual’ and ‘repeated’. Remember these, for they are the most important aspects of the imperfect tense.

When to use the Imperfect Tense in Spanish

The Spanish imperfect tense is used:

To describe what things used to be like and how people felt in the past.

To say what you or someone else used to do regularly in the past as a habitual action.

To describe what was happening when something else took place.

In order to provide some context to the above, we will list some examples of when the imperfect tense is used in English. Let’s look at the examples below:

We were happy when we could travel a lot (continuous feelings in the past)

We used to go on holiday every summer (description of a past habitual action)

I was walking to work when I saw my friend. (Something was happening when something else took place).

Imperfect Tense in Spanish

The highlighted words in bold are examples of the imperfect tense. In the first sentence, the speaker is telling us that, in the past, they were happy for a continuous period of time, before that feeling was interrupted. They were not happy for one fixed period of time.

In the second example, the speaker is telling us that he or she used to go on holiday every summer. This person used to go on holiday, but this implies that they do not anymore.

Notice that all of these sentences are telling us something that was carried out either repeatedly, continuously or habitually.

How to Conjugate Verbs in the Imperfect Tense in Spanish

AR Verbs

In order to form the imperfect of any regular -AR verb, simply remove the -AR ending of the infinitive and add the following endings:

aba
abas
aba
ábamos
abais
aban

This table shows the imperfect tense of one regular -AR verb: hablar (meaning to talk / speak).

This remains the case for all –AR verbs with no irregular exceptions.

Be sure to check out our post on AR verbs in Spanish.

Personal PronounInfinitive Verb+ Imperfect EndingImperfect Conjugation
Yo hablar+ abahablaba
hablar+ abashablabas
Él / Ella / Ustedhablar+ abahablaba
Nosotros / Nosotrashablar+ ábamoshablábamos
Vosotros / Vosotrashablar+ abaishablabais
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedeshablar+ abanhablaban

ER and IR Verbs

In order to form the imperfect of any regular -ER or -IR verb, simply remove the -ER or -IR ending of the infinitive and add the following endings:

ía
ías
ía
íamos
íais
ían

The first table below shows the imperfect tense of one regular -ER verb: beber (meaning to drink). The second table below shows the imperfect tense of one regular -IR verb: vivir (meaning to live).

Personal PronounInfinitive Verb+ Imperfect EndingImperfect Conjugation
Yo beber+ íabebía
beber+ íasbebías
Él / Ella / Ustedbeber+ íabebía
Nosotros / Nosotrasbeber+ íamosbebíamos
Vosotros / Vosotrasbeber+ íaisbebíais
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedesbeber+ íanbebían

Personal PronounInfinitive Verb+ Imperfect EndingImperfect Conjugation
Yo vivir+ íavivía
vivir+ íasvivías
Él / Ella / Ustedvivir+ íavivía
Nosotros / Nosotrasvivir+ íamosvivíamos
Vosotros / Vosotrasvivir+ íaisvivíais
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedesvivir+ íanvivían

Imperfectly Irregular: Irregulars in the Imperfect Tense

Until now, you may have noticed how simple this tense is, especially when compared to the preterite tense.

Fortunately, there are no stem changing verbs in the imperfect tense in Spanish. This means that each verb is conjugated from its infinitive form. This is also the rule for reflexive verbs.

Unfortunately, however, there are still some irregular verbs in the imperfect tense that you will need to learn.

These are as follows:

Ser (to be)
Ir (to go)
Ver (to see)

Personal PronounInfinitive VerbImperfect Conjugation
Yo serera
sereras
Él / Ella / Ustedserera
Nosotros / Nosotrasseréramos
Vosotros / Vosotrassererais
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedessereran

Personal PronounInfinitive VerbImperfect Conjugation
Yo iriba
iribas
Él / Ella / Ustediriba
Nosotros / Nosotrasiríbamos
Vosotros / Vosotrasiribais
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedesiriban

Personal PronounInfinitive VerbImperfect Conjugation
Yo verveía
verveías
Él / Ella / Ustedverveía
Nosotros / Nosotrasverveíamos
Vosotros / Vosotrasverveíais
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedesverveían

Time Expressions that trigger the Spanish Imperfect Tense

In Spanish, there are numerous time expressions which require use of the imperfect tense. An example of this is desde (meaning since), desde hacía (meaning for) and hacía … que (meaning for) to talk about activities or states of being that had started previously and continued during the past.

Several expressions of time are used when talking about an action that is (or was) repeated or habitual. They also indicate whether the action may be ongoing.

These expressions of time include some of the following common words and phrases:

🇪🇸 Siempre – always
🇪🇸 A menudo – often
🇪🇸 De vez en cuando – from time to time
🇪🇸 A veces – sometimes
🇪🇸 Todo los días/años – every day/year
🇪🇸 Con frecuencia – frequrntly

Summarizing The Spanish Imperfect Tense 

As we are sure you are now aware, learning the imperfect tense in Spanish is not too difficult. Like any other tense in Spanish, you’ll need to memorize the correct corresponding endings before you are able to use this tense naturally in conversation.

The fact that there are only three irregular verbs in the Spanish imperfect tense certainly makes doing so much less complicated.

We all learn differently, but one of the most effective ways to memorize Spanish tenses is to put them onto paper. Consider starting with the time trigger words listed above.

Be sure to understand fully when the and why the imperfect tense is used in Spanish. If you are still a little confused, trying watching the video below for additional clarity.

If you want to learn more about Spanish grammar and how to learn Spanish effectively, you can check out our Spanish Language Resources page. We have trialled and reviewed dozens of online language apps and products, making your choice much easier when it comes to online study.

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