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How to use the imperfect tense in Spanish?

A young woman wearing a hat.
The imperfect tense in Spanish is mostly used for habits and descriptions in the past, for example:
  • Habits in the past: Cuando vivía en Colombia, viajaba a la playa en vacaciones.
    When I lived in Colombia, I used to travel to the beach on vacation.
  • Descriptions in the past: La chica era alta, tenía el pelo largo y llevaba un vestido azul.
    The girl was tall, had long hair, and was wearing a blue dress. 
We use it when the duration of the action is indeterminate or unspecified. This means it is not important when or if the action has ended. Let’s see how we can use the imperfect tense in the various scenarios you may encounter along your Spanish-learning journey, starting with habits.

Table of Contents

Talking about habits in the past

Talking about habits in the past is one of the several uses of the imperfect. Imagine you’re talking with your friends about when you were school students. Or maybe you’re talking about your first job. When you want to talk about the everyday actions you did in the past, the imperfect tense will be your friend. 

Let’s have a look at some specific cases and examples! 

Continuous actions in the past

Continuous actions in the past are one case where the imperfect can be used in Spanish. Look: 

De niña le gustaba leer historias de suspenso.
As a child, she liked to read suspense stories.

This example refers to the past, but we don’t know for how long she used to read suspense stories. We just want to emphasize that this was a continuous action in the past.

Repeated actions in the past

For the case of repeated actions in the past, it’s also necessary to use the imperfect. Let’s see an example:

Cuando estudiaba en la escuela, tenía clases hasta las 3 de la tarde.
When I studied at school, I used to have class until 3 in the afternoon.

In this sentence, we’re not told exactly when the subject (I) was in school or for how many years. This exact information is not specified and it’s not important for the message. The priority here is to highlight the repeated nature of the action.

Mental states or mental actions in the past

Mental states and mental actions in the past also require the imperfect. What happens if you’re talking about an old feeling or past thought? If you’re using the verbs sentir (feel), creer (believe), conocer (know), pensar (think), querer (want), and saber (know), you should use the imperfect to express that mental action. Read the following example below:

Cuando era niño, pensaba que la luna era un planeta.
When I was a child, I used to think that the moon was a planet.

Remember that we’re still talking about a mental action or state of indefinite duration.

IMPORTANT

As you can see from the previous examples, the imperfect tense in Spanish is, in many cases, equivalent to the English construction used to + verb (or would + verb). This is because these English forms, just like the Spanish imperfect, refer to actions that took place repeatedly in the past.

But pay attention! Remember we’re talking about habits in the past. The equivalent would + verb is not to be confused with the conditional form. When we use it to express the past, there’s no condition to be met. Look: 

ImperfectConditional

Cuando vivía con mis padres, comíamos pizza todos los domingos.

When I lived with my parents, we would eat (used to eat) pizza every Sunday.

Compraría una pizza, pero no tengo dinero.

I would buy a pizza, but I don’t have money.

NOTE: 

Since we’re talking about habits in the past, it’s important that you use the right phrases along with the imperfect to convey the exact idea. Let’s see an example: 

En mi adolescencia, a menudo practicaba deporte con mis amigos.
In my teenage years, I often used to play sports with my friends.

In the example above, we use a menudo [often] to indicate that we’re talking about a habit in the past and, therefore, we need to use the imperfect. 

We’re sure you want to learn more phrases for talking about your habits in the past. That’s why we’ve created this list of phrases or indicators to talk about habits for you. It provides useful phrases and examples in the context of a person speaking about their life as a school student. 

Let’s continue. So, you’re talking with your classmates about your first day of work ever. There was a lot going on that day and you want to provide a detailed description. You want to tell them about the place, the people, what was going on, etc… For this scenario, you also need the imperfect tense in Spanish. Let’s see some specific cases and examples.

General descriptions of the past (people, places…)

To make general descriptions of the past, you’ll use the imperfect tense. Imagine you want to describe your boss, your colleagues, and your place of work. Look: 

Mi jefa era una mujer alta, morena y muy inteligente.
My boss was a tall, dark-haired, very smart woman.

Mis colegas eran jóvenes y muy amables.
My colleagues were young and very kind.

Las ventanas de la oficina daban a una avenida.
The office windows faced an avenue.

Again, the duration of the action is not important here. The description doesn’t convey a specific time in the past.

1. Describing the background context or circumstances of an action

When you’re describing the background context of a main event or circumstances of an action, you’ll also want to use the imperfect. Let’s continue with the topic of your first day of work ever. Read the following example:

Ese día, mi jefa hablaba por teléfono con los clientes y mis colegas escribían reportes y otros preparaban una presentación importante. Todos estaban muy ocupados. 

That day, my boss was talking on the phone with the customers, some colleagues were writing reports, and others were preparing an important presentation. Everyone was very busy.

As you can see, we’re describing the background context of a main event, but we’re also describing a series of simultaneous actions in the past. In English, the equivalent to this form is was/were + verb in -ing form. 

2. Expressing age in the past

The imperfect is also used for expressing age in the past. As you probably know, in Spanish we use the verb tener [to have] to express age. 

En ese momento tenía 20 años.
At that moment I was 20 years old.

3. Indicating the moment of the day in the past

To indicate the moment of the day in the past, you will use the imperfect. Do you remember how we said we use the imperfect to describe the background context of an action? Well, look how you’ll add the part or time of the day to your description: 

Era una tarde soleada pero fría.
It was a sunny but cold afternoon.

Eran las 8 de la mañana y hacía mucho calor.
It was 8 in the morning and it was very hot.

IMPORTANT

Remember that here we’re adding the part of the day (the morning, the afternoon, the evening…) or a time of the day (8 a.m., 3 p.m.) to a description of the background context of an action. Please bear in mind that if you talk about events that took place at a specific time in the past (for example: on November 2nd, 2006), a different past tense will be needed.  Do you know which one? If you guessed the simple past (aka the preterite) you are correct! And do you know what the difference is between the imperfect and the preterite in Spanish? Then, check out our post!

Other uses of the imperfect in Spanish

There are a couple of other uses of the imperfect in Spanish, besides habits and descriptions in the past, that are not necessarily connected to expressing past tense. In this section, we’ll have a look at those.

Expressing courtesy

To express courtesy, the imperfect can be used with some verbs like querer [to want] or poder [can]. Pay attention here: although we’re using the imperfect, we are expressing an idea in the present tense. Look: 

Quería pedirle un favor.
I would like to ask you a favor.

Quería saber si podía hablar con la doctora ahora mismo.
I would like to know if I could speak with the doctor right now.

Future in the past

To refer to a future event planned in the past, we can also use the imperfect tense.

Iba a viajar a Madrid la próxima semana.
I was going to travel to Madrid next week.

El concierto era en un mes.
The concert was a month from now.

How to form the imperfect tense in Spanish?

Forming the imperfect tense in Spanish is quite easy! We have created a handout that you can use to learn how to conjugate the imperfect form of regular, reflexive, and irregular verbs. You’ll be conjugating the Spanish imperfect tense like a pro in no time!

Summary

Let’s quickly recap what we’ve seen in this post. The imperfect tense in Spanish is used to: 

  • Talk about habits in the past when the duration of the action is indeterminate or unspecified (similar to “would” or “used to” + verb in English)
  • Describe people, places, circumstances, or time of the day in a past context
  • Express age in a past context

This acronym can also help you remember when to use the imperfect in Spanish. And, to review all the different Spanish past tenses in Spanish, be sure to read our comprehensive post!

If you want to practice, we’ve created a couple of activities that will help you check if you understand when to use the imperfect tense in Spanish. 

  1. In the first activity, you’ll see a list of 10 situations. You need to read them and decide if you would need to use the imperfect in Spanish. There’s an answer key provided for you. 
  2. In the second activity you’ll have to read and complete a mystery story. You’ll also have an answer key to check your work. 

Happy learning!

Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.
Meet The Author:
Natalia Molina
Natalia Molina Ceballos
Spanish Coach
Natalia is a Spanish coach at Mango Languages.

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

Extra Resources:

Imperfect Indicators
Imperfect Tense Conjugations

Activities:

Imperfect activity 1
Imperfect activity 2

Activities:

Imperfect activity 1
Imperfect activity 2

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