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How to use the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish?

An image of terrace at sunset.

The imperfect subjunctive in Spanish is used similarly to the present subjunctive (to express desire, doubt, opinions, etc.), but when we talk about past events. For example: Quería que vinieras conmigo al concierto. (I wanted you to come with me to the concert.) It is also used when we have a situation contrary to present facts, for example: Ojalá estuviera de vacaciones. (I wish I were on vacation.) Did you know it can also be used to make polite requests? The imperfect subjunctive isn’t that imperfect after all!

The Spanish subjunctive has three past tenses: the imperfect, present perfect, and the past perfect. Let’s start with the imperfect subjunctive, how to form it, and how to use it. But, don’t forget to check out “How to use the present perfect and past perfect subjunctive in Spanish?” to learn about the other two past tenses of the subjunctive.

Table of Contents

For review of grammar terms used in the post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end.

How to form the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish

The imperfect subjunctive is formed following a very simple rule.

  1. Take the third-person plural form (ellos, ellas, ustedes) of the preterite in the indicative:
    bailaron (they danced), comieron (they ate), vivieron (they lived)
  2. Take off the ending -ron:
    baila-ron, comie-ron, vivie-ron
  3. And add the following endings:
PersonImperfect subjunctive
-ra endings
Example
yo-rabailara
-rasbailaras
él, ella, usted-rabailara
nosotros-ramosbailáramos
vosotros*-raisbailarais
ellos, ellas, ustedes-ranbailaran

*vosotros is only used in Spain.

⤷ TIP
  • endings are the same for -ar, -er, and -ir verbs, and for regular and irregular verbs
  • the yo form and the él and ella form are the same
  • the nosotros form carries an accent in the last syllable before the ending
For a summary of irregular verb stems in the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, click the link!
IMPORTANT

There are two forms of the imperfect subjunctive that can be used interchangeably:

comer (to eat)
     ⇣

  1. The -ra form: comiera
  2. The -se form: comiese (this form is less common)

If you want to know how the -se form is conjugated, take a look at our conjugation tables!

How to use the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish

Recall that the subjunctive is mostly used in a subordinate clause of a two-part sentence:

MAIN CLAUSE

 

SUBORDINATE CLAUSE

Me gustaría

que

llegaras más temprano mañana.

I would like

that

you arrive earlier tomorrow.

In order to know when to use the imperfect subjunctive, there are two key questions you should ask yourself:

  1. Does the main clause have a trigger for the subjunctive?
  2. Does this trigger refer to the past or to a situation contrary to the present?

If your answer to both questions is yes, then we need the imperfect subjunctive. Let’s get to it!

👉 Need to refresh your memory on the verbs and expressions that trigger the Spanish subjunctive? Look no further! We have a cheat-sheet for you!

Actions in the past

We use the imperfect subjunctive when we talk about the past in the same contexts where we would use the present subjunctive: to express doubt, wishes, opinions, negation, with trigger conjunctions, etc. We express the past in the main clause using a verb in the preterite, imperfect, or pluperfect indicative.

For example:

indicativesubjunctive

Present → Espero que mis amigos lleguen a la cena.
Past → Esperaba que mis amigos llegaran a la cena.

imperfectimperfect
indicativesubjunctive 



I hope that my friends come to the dinner party.
I was hoping that my friends would come to the dinner party.

The phrase esperaba que is a trigger for the subjunctive since it expresses hope. But because the verb in the main clause is in the imperfect indicative then, we must use the imperfect subjunctive in the subordinate clause.

The same is true if the verb in the main clause is in the preterite or the pluperfect:

No creí que fueran a venir.

I didn’t think they were going to come.

El director te dejó ir a la excursión con tal de que sacaras buenas notas.
The principal allowed you to go on the field trip provided that you got good grades.

Les habíamos pedido que trajeran más agua.
We had asked them to bring more water.

IMPORTANT

We can also pair the imperfect subjunctive with a verb in the present but only when we want to give our opinion about something that occurred in the past.

       now       in the past
        ⇣                ⇣
No creo que fuera tan difícil.                I don’t think it was that hard.

Es ridículo que costara tanto dinero.   It’s ridiculous that it cost so much money.

Situations contrary to present reality

The imperfect subjunctive is used to express situations that are contrary to present reality. In this case, it will refer to present or future actions using the trigger ojalá (I wish), or a verb in the conditional simple tense in the main clause. Let’s break it down!

‘Ojalá’ - impossible present or unlikely future

In a previous post on the Spanish subjunctive, we discussed that we could use the subjunctive to express wishes using ojalá (I wish). We can use ojalá followed by the imperfect subjunctive when we express a wish in the present that is impossible, for example:

Hypothetical present or future

To talk about hypothetical situations we can use the conditional mood in the main clause. When we have an expression in the main clause that triggers the subjunctive with a verb in the conditional simple, then the verb in the subordinate clause must be in the imperfect subjunctive.

Nos gustaría que buscaras otro trabajo.

We would like you to find another job.

Preferiría que sacaras la basura lo antes posible.

I would prefer that you took out the garbage as soon as possible.

If you want to know how the Spanish conditional simple is formed, check out our post!

Ojalá fuera verano.

I wish it were summer.

Or a wish in the future that is unlikely to happen:

Ojalá nos ganáramos la lotería.

I wish we could win the lottery.

‘Si’ clauses

Another very common use of the imperfect subjunctive is when it’s used together with the conditional simple in a si (if) clause. These types of clauses are used to talk about implications of  a condition in the following order:

SI CLAUSE                MAIN CLAUSE
Si imperfect subjunctive + conditional simple

Si tuviera dinero, compraría una mansión. 
If I had money, I would buy a mansion.

These sentences are used to talk about situations that are contrary to the present reality like the example above. They can also be used to express a remote condition that could theoretically be fulfilled:

Si fueras más amable, no tendrías tantos problemas.
If you were nicer, you wouldn’t have so many problems.

IMPORTANT

You can also use the imperfect subjunctive with the phrase como si (as if), to express something contrary to reality.

Tomás habla como si conociera del tema.
Tomas speaks as if he knew about the topic.

Polite requests

Finally, the imperfect subjunctive is used as an alternative to the present indicative or the conditional simple to make a polite request with verbs poder (to be able), querer (to want), and deber (should, ought). For example:

¿Pudieras ayudarme con la tarea?
Could you help me with the homework

Quisiéramos una mesa cerca de la ventana.

We would like a table close to the window.

To sum up

In this post we saw how to form the imperfect subjunctive and the main uses of this tense. The imperfect subjunctive is used:

  1. In subordinate clauses when the main clause has an expression that triggers the subjunctive, and the verb refers to:
    • an action in the past
    • a situation contrary to present reality
  2. Or, in the main clause to express polite requests.

Here’s a chart to show the different tenses that can be paired up with the imperfect subjunctive.

MAIN CLAUSE

+

SUBORDINATE CLAUSE

INDICATIVE

Present
(to give opinions about the past)

Preterite, imperfect, pluperfect
(actions in the past)

Conditional simple
(unreal situations in the present or future)

 

SUBJUNCTIVE


Imperfect

Don’t forget to check out our next post to learn about the other two past tenses in the subjunctive and when you’re done, check out this activity on the Spanish imperfect subjunctive!

Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.
Unpacking the grammar

The main clause refers to a phrase that contains a subject and a conjugated verb and communicates a complete thought.

A subordinate clause is a clause (a sentence within a sentence) that provides extra information about another clause in a sentence (usually the main clause). Usually a subordinate clause cannot stand on its own. Subordinate clauses are sometimes also called dependent clauses.

Although he was only five, Lucien was already good at reading.
Marianne said that she was tired.
Jordan was sleepy after he spent the day in the sun.

Meet The Author:
Author-De Nicolas Foto
Irati de Nicolás Saiz
Irati is a linguist and an experienced University Spanish teacher with a PhD in Hispanic Linguistics.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

Extra Resources:

Subjunctive past tenses

Activities:

Imperfect subjunctive activity

Activities:

Imperfect subjunctive activity

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