How to use the imperfect conjugation in Spanish

How to use the imperfect conjugation in Spanish

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated May 16, 2023

The imperfect conjugation in Spanish (imperfecto or pretérito imperfecto) is one of two main ways to speak in the past tense. The Spanish imperfect conjugation

is used to express either past habits or past situations that were continuous over time. The imperfect tense can also express permanent qualities, so a solid understanding of the difference between ser and estar is helpful when learning this conjugation. 

The correct imperfect conjugation in Spanish depends on the verb ending: –ar, –ir or –er. We’ll cover both regular verbs and irregular verbs in this guide. On that note, here’s how to use the imperfect conjugation in Spanish.

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How to conjugate the imperfect form in Spanish

Let’s begin with how to conjugate imperfect verbs in Spanish. Like the preterite tense, imperfect conjugation in Spanish depends on two qualities: 

  1. Is it a regular or an irregular verb?
  2. What’s the verb ending (-ar, -ir/-er)? 

Regular Verbs

Here’s a table of how to conjugate regular Spanish verbs in the imperfect tense:

estar (to be)leer (to read)

Irregular Verbs

Unlike the preterite form, Spanish imperfect conjugation only has three irregular verbs: ir (to go), ser (to be) and ver (to see). Thank goodness.

ver (to see)ser (to be)ir (to go)

Uses of imperfect conjugation in Spanish

Spanish language learners who speak English shouldn’t have too difficult a time understanding the imperfect tense. It’s used to indicate that the subject:

  • was doing something. In other words, it’s used to express a past action that was continuous.
  • used to do something. In other words, it’s used to express a past action that was habitual, frequent or repetitive.

Note: There are two more uses of this tense in Spanish that don’t exactly translate into English. One is for expressing permanent qualities. The other is for expressing a moment in time (with preterite) by contrasting a completed time period (using imperfect). We’ll explain this in more detail later on.

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1. Past habitual or repetitive actions

The imperfect conjugation in Spanish is often used to express past habits or actions that the subject performed repeatedly. This may include a hobby, work or school. A few examples:

  • Antes, hacía ejercicio cada día, pero hoy en día no tengo tiempo. (Before, I was exercising every day, but nowadays I don’t have time.)
  • En el pasado, trabajaba en cocinas. (In the past, I used to work in kitchens.)
  • Cuando tenía 20 años, era artista, pero ahora soy godin. (When I was 20, I was an artist, but now I’m an office worker.)

Notice that many of these sentences talk about something that the subject “used to do” but no longer does.

  • Estudiaba en Madrid. (I used to study in Madrid/I was studying in Madrid.)

Also note that these sentences often use adverbs of frequency or time words such as:

  • antes (before)
  • hoy en día (nowadays)
  • en el pasado (in the past)
  • cuando tenía XX años (when I was XX years old)
  • nunca (never)
  • cada día (every day)
  • a veces (sometimes)

2. Past situations that were continuous or unfinished

Imperfect conjugation in Spanish also expresses past situations that hadn’t finished at that time/moment.

  • Tenía una reunión cuando los demás de mi equipo almorzaban. (I had a meeting while the rest of my team was eating lunch.)
  • Ayer a las seis me estaba pintando las uñas. (Yesterday at 6 p.m. I was painting my nails.)

The imperfect tense is often used together with the preterite to provide background information for another event:

  • Cuando bajaba los escaleras, me caí. (When I was going down the steps, I fell down.)
  • Mientras comíamos, mi abuela me llamó. (When we were eating, my grandma called me.)

3. Permanent qualities

The imperfect conjugation in Spanish is used to express static or permanent qualities of a person. We use imperfect to describe a person or thing from the past up to now. 

  • ¿Cómo era tu abuela? Era amable y cariñosa. (What was your grandmother like? She was kind and loving.)
  • ¿Cómo era la película? Era mal. (How was the movie? It was bad.)

4. Age and time

Imperfect is also used for age and time in the past: 

  • Cuando tenía 5 años, tenía miedo de la oscuridad. (When I was five years old, I was afraid of the dark.)
  • Eran las 11 cuando la luz se apagó. (It was 6 p.m. when the power went out.)

We used to be confused: Imperfect conjugation in Spanish

Imperfect conjugation in Spanish isn’t so bad. If you used to be confused about how to use it, don’t worry. Generally speaking, you should use the imperfect tense to describe a process or a moment in time or to give background information. Apart from that, past habits, permanent qualities, dates and times are also expressed with the imperfect.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Turkish. Her consulting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

Alison Maciejewski Cortez

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