Imperfect Tense in Spanish: The A-Z Guide to Conjugations, Usages, Irregular Verbs and Beyond| FluentU Spanish Blog

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The Spanish imperfect tense is one of the most common past tenses.

It’s used to talk about past habitual actions, describing the past, giving times and dates and more.

In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the imperfect tense in Spanish: how to conjugate it, when to use it, irregular imperfect verbs and common expressions that are used with it.


What Is the Spanish Imperfect Tense?

The imperfect is one of the five past tenses in Spanish. It describes habitual past actions, actions that were ongoing or actions without a specific start and end time.

It’s often confused with the preterite (simple past tense), as these are the two main past tenses in Spanish—but more on this later!

It’s formed by adding -aba, -abas, -aba, -ábamos, -abais and -aban to -ar verbs, and -ía, -ías, -ía, -íamos, -íais and -ían to -er and -ir verbs.

For example:

Juan cantaba una canción mientras Ana regaba las plantas. (Juan was singing a song while Ana was watering the plants.)

Yo comía comida sana cuando estaba en la universidad. (I ate healthy food when I was in college.)

Cuando él era pequeño, visitaba a su abuela todos los sábados. (When he was little, he visited his grandmother every Saturday.)

Conjugating the Spanish Imperfect Tense

Regular Verbs

Remember that each Spanish verb falls into one of three conjugations depending on their ending: -ar verbs, –er verbs and –ir verbs.

Something that makes the imperfect easier than other tenses is that the conjugations for -er and -ir verbs are the same.

Here’s how you conjugate these three verbs in the imperfect tense:

Subject -AR Endings -ER Endings -IR Endings
Yo -aba -ía -ía
-abas -ías -ías
Él/Ella/Usted -aba -ía -ía
Nosotros -ábamos -íamos -íamos
Vosotros -abais -íais -íais
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes -aban -ían -ían

Now that you know the conjugations, let’s look at some examples with -ar, -er and -ir verbs:

Hablar (to speak)

  • Yo hablaba
  • Tú hablabas
  • Él/ella/usted hablaba
  • Nosotros hablábamos
  • Vosotros hablabais
  • Ellos/ellas/ustedes hablaban

Comer (to eat)

  • Yo comía
  • Tú comías
  • Él/ella/usted comía
  • Nosotros comíamos
  • Vosotros comíais
  • Ellos/ellas/ustedes comían

Escribir (to write)

  • Yo escribía
  • Tú escribías
  • Él/ella/usted escribía
  • Nosotros escribíamos
  • Vosotros escribíais
  • Ellos/ellas/ustedes escribían

Irregular Verbs

These are the only three irregular verbs in the imperfect tense:

Subject Ser Ir Ver
Yo Era Iba Veía
Eras Ibas Veías
Él/Ella/Usted Era Iba Veía
Nosotros Éramos Íbamos Veíamos
Vosotros Erais Ibais Veíais
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes Eran Iban Veían

But even though these verbs are irregular, they do follow a certain pattern! 

  • Ser uses the same endings as regular verbs but without the -ab-
  • Ir does the same but only drops the -a
  • Ver has the regular endings it should—there is just an additional -e- that remains from the infinitive

When To Use the Spanish Imperfect Tense

Now that we know how to form the imperfect tense, we need to know the situations that require us to use it.

1. Describing the Past

The imperfect is the tense we use when making descriptions of the past.

Descriptions include physical traits, feelings, mental actions, conditions and states.

Take a look at these examples:

La abuela te quería mucho. (Grandma loved you very much.) → feeling

Estaba muy enfermo. (He was very sick.) → state

Pensaba en su futuro. (He thought about his future.) → mental action

Era de noche y hacía mucho viento. La tormenta estaba casi encima de nosotros. (It was night and very windy. The storm was almost upon us.) → set the stage for a horror story

Wendy era alta y tenía los ojos azules. (Wendy was tall and had blue eyes.) → physical description

2. Habitual Actions in the Past

If an action took place repeatedly in the past, use the Spanish imperfect tense.

You’ll likely come across the verb soler (tend to, used to), which is always followed by an infinitive.

However, you don’t have to use soler to say “used to.” Instead, you can conjugate the infinitive verb into the imperfect.

For example:

María solía comer galletas cada tarde. (María used to eat cookies every afternoon.)

María comía galletas cada tarde. (María used to eat/would eat cookies every afternoon.)

Juan solía sacar a su perro a pasear tres veces al día. (Juan used to take his dog for a walk three times a day.)

Juan sacaba a su perro a pasear tres veces al día. (Juan used to take/would take his dog for a walk three times a day.)

3. Past Actions in Progress

In English, when you have an ongoing action interrupted by another, you use the past continuous for the ongoing action and the past simple for the sudden one:

I was taking a bath when you called.

In Spanish, we use the imperfect tense for the ongoing action and the preterite for the interrupting one.

For example:

Me estaba bañando cuando llamaste. (I was taking a bath when you called.)

However, you don’t need an interruption to describe past ongoing actions. You can use the imperfect to make it clear that you are talking about an action in progress:

Estaba leyendo un libro. (I was reading a book.)

Antonio caminaba hacia el parque. (Antonio was walking towards the park.)

Ayer a las 5 de la tarde estaba leyendo un libro. (Yesterday at 5 p.m. I was reading a book.)

Antonio caminaba hacia el parque antes del accidente. (Antonio was walking towards the park before the accident.)

4. Times and Dates

Times and dates in the present tense use the present simple.

But how do you say it was 3 a.m. when something happened, or it was April 15 when you came back from Spain? We use the imperfect when talking about times and dates in the past.

For example:

Eran las 3 de la mañana cuando volviste. (It was 3 a.m. when you came back)

Era 15 de abril. Estaba soleado y yo me sentía muy feliz. (It was April 15. It was sunny and I was feeling very happy.)

Era el año 1939, y nunca más volvería a verlo. (It was 1939, and I would never see him again.)

5. Talking About Age

When talking about how old you were at a certain time period, you’ll need to use the imperfect form of the verb tener.

For example:

Yo empecé a aprender español cuando tenía 25 años. (I started learning Spanish when I was 25 years old.)

Mi papá tenía 8 años cuando se mudó a los Estados Unidos. (My dad was 8 years old when he moved to the United States.)

You’d still use the imperfect even if you don’t want to give a specific age but instead want to say something like “when I was young.”

For example:

Cuando era pequeña, jugaba en la calle con mis primos. (When I was little, I would play in the street with my cousins.)

Mis colegas eran más jóvenes que yo. (My colleagues were younger than me.)

Expressions Used with the Spanish Imperfect Tense

Just as the English present simple is associated with time expressions such as never, always, often, sometimes, etc., Spanish also has a set of expressions that can give you a hint that the imperfect tense is coming.

Here are some of those expressions:

  • Cada día/semana/mes/año/domingo… Every day/week/month/year/Sunday…

Iba a almorzar a casa de mi abuela cada sábado. (I used to go have lunch at my grandma’s house every Saturday.)

Lloraba cada día. (She would cry every day.)

  • De vez en cuando From time to time

Me escribía de vez en cuando. (She wrote to me from time to time.)

Quedaba con ella de vez en cuando hasta que cumplí los 18. (I met up with her from time to time until I turned 18.)

  • Frecuentemente / con frecuencia Frequently

Nos veíamos con frecuencia durante el verano. (We used to see each other frequently during summer.)

María mentía frecuentemente cuando era pequeña. (María would frequently lie when she was little.)

  • En aquel tiempo / en aquella época At that time, during that time

Yo comía mucho más en aquella época. (I used to eat a lot more during that time.)

En aquel tiempo, ninguno de nosotros tenía un ordenador. (At that time, none of us had a computer.)

Generalmente iban a la playa por la mañana. (They usually went to the beach in the morning.)

Generalmente sacabas mejores notas que yo. (You usually got better grades than me.)

A menudo comía pizza cuando vivía en España. (I would often eat pizza when I was living in Spain.)

Íbamos a pescar a menudo cuando estábamos de vacaciones. (We would often go fishing when we were on holiday.)

  • Muchas veces Many times

Muchas veces trabajaba los fines de semana. (Many times I would work on weekends.)

Pedro solía cantar muchas veces la misma canción. (Pedro used to sing the same song many times.)

Ellos nunca jugaban en el parque. (The would never play in the park.)

María nunca llegaba tarde. (María would never arrive late.)

Siempre comíamos helado los viernes. (We always used to eat ice cream on Fridays.)

Cuando era niño siempre dibujaba todo lo que veía. (When I was a child I would always draw everything I saw.)

Difference Between Spanish Imperfect and Preterite

Here’s the difference between the past imperfect and preterite in a nutshell:

The imperfect is usually used to tell stories, talk about past routines or habits (or to say “used to”) and ongoing actions that were interrupted.

The preterite is used with actions that had a specific start and end, only happened a specified number of times or that interrupted a previous ongoing action.

Here are some example sentences in the past imperfect followed by sentences in the preterite, so you can compare them side by side:

Caminaba con mi esposo cada mañana. (I walked with my husband every morning.)
Caminé con mi esposo esta mañana. (I walked with my husband this morning.) 

Iba al mercado los miércoles. (I went to the market on Wednesdays.)
Fui al mercado ayer. (I went to the market yesterday.)

Plus, here’s a sentence which features both tenses!

Estabas limpiando la casa cuando llegué(You were cleaning the house when I arrived.)

For more practice with the preterite vs. imperfect—and to learn more differences—check out our complete guide here.

Extra Practice with the Spanish Imperfect Tense


The imperfect tense is one of those super easy Spanish tenses almost every learner enjoys for its simplicity, and now you know why!

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