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CSEC Spanish: The Imperfect Tense

In this lesson we will discuss:

  1. How to conjugate a verb to the imperfect tense

  2. When the imperfect tense is used


The imperfect tense is used to say someone was doing something or a group were doing something.

Every tense in Spanish is formed first by finding the stem. This stem is usually found by removing the -ar/-er/-ir ending of the infinitive form of the verb (exceptions being irregular verbs and the subjunctive) and adding the correct ending based on the subject.

In that way, (regular) verbs are sort of like open-faced sandwiches, with the stem being the bread and the ending being the topping.

Above is the open-faced sandwich for the verb lavar. The stem, our bread, is lav-, and the ending is -ar, since it is in the infinitive. But considering that this is only a lettuce sandwich, it wouldn't really have a flavour at all.

However, when we form the imperfect tense, we switch out this lettuce so that we can add something a bit more tasty.


There are a different set of endings for -ar and -er/-ir verbs.

The endings for the imperfect tense are as follows for -ar verbs:

Yo -aba

-abas

él/ella/usted -aba

nosotros -ábamos

vosotros -abais

ellos/ellas/ustedes -aban


The endings for the imperfect tense are as follows for -er/-ir verbs:

Yo -ía

-ías

él/ella/usted -ía

nosotros -íamos

vosotros -íais

ellos/ellas/ustedes -ían



For example, the verb lavar again. When we remove the ending (our flavourless lettuce topping) we're left with the stem, lav-. So, all we need then is a subject to know which ending to use.


This translates to I was washing. (Yo lavaba).

In this sandwich, we used the subject yo, and switched out the infinitive ending (lettuce) for the imperfect tense ending for yo (cheese). Again, cheese on bread might not seem very appetizing to you, but, you have to admit, it's better than just lettuce.


Now, we can do the same with an -ir/-er verb. For this sandwich, we will use the verb decir (to say/tell) and conjugate it to the 2nd person singular in the imperfect tense (tú).


This translates to: You were saying (Tú decías) .

Here, we have the infinitive decir. So, we remove the -ir ending (lettuce) and that leaves us with our stem dec- (a slab of white bread). Then, we add the 2nd person singular ending in the imperfect tense, -ías (the non-descript slab of 'meat' on the right).


This formula remains the same for basically every verb except for these three: ver, ir and ser.

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

ver

yo veía

veías

él/ella/usted veía

nosotros veíamos

vosotros veíais

ellos/ellas/ustedes veían


ir

yo iba

ibas

él/ella/usted iba

nosotros íbamos

vosotros íbais

ellos/ellas/ustedes iban


ser

yo era

eras

él/ella/usted era

nosotros éramos

vosotros érais

ellos/ellas/ustedes eran



When Do We Use the Imperfect Tense?

The imperfect tense is a past tense. The imperfect tense expresses an action or a state of being that was continuous in the past and its completion is not indicated. This tense is used, therefore, to express:


(a) An action that was going on in the past at the same time as another action.

Example: Mi hermano leía y mi padre hablaba. My brother was reading and my father was talking.

(b) An action that was going on in the past when another action occurred.

Example: Mi hermana cantaba cuando yo entré. My sister was singing when I came in.

(c) A habitual action in the past.

Example 1: Cuando estábamos en Nueva York, íbamos al cine todos los sábados. When we were in New York, we used to go to the movies every Saturday.

Example 2: Cuando vivíamos en California, íbamos a la playa todos los días. When we used to live in California, we went to the beach every day.

(d) A description of a mental, emotional, or physical condition in the past.

Examples:

1. (mental condition) Quería ir al cine. I wanted to go to the movies.

2. (emotional condition) Estaba contento de verlo. I was happy to see him.

3. (physical condition) Mi madre era hermosa cuando era pequeña. My mother was beautiful when she was young. (e) The time of day in the past.

Examples: ¿Qué hora era? What time was it?

Eran las tres. It was three o’clock.

(f) An action or state of being that occurred in the past and lasted for a certain length of time prior to another past action. This is an idiomatic use of the imperfect tense of a verb with hacía, which is also in the imperfect.

Example: Hacía tres horas que miraba la televisión cuando mi hermano entró. I had been watching television for three hours when my brother came in.

(g) An indirect quotation in the past.

EXAMPLE:

Present: Dice que quiere venir a mi casa. He says he wants to come to my house.

Past: Dijo que quería venir a mi casa. He said he wanted to come to my house.

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