For early Spanish learners, the preterite tense is the first way you learn to talk about events in the past, but as soon as you begin Section 4 on Duolingo (which covers language at the A2 level), you learn a second way to talk about the past: the Spanish imperfect. This is another verb form that helps you talk about how you used to spend your childhood summers, your favorite high school hang-outs, and also what you were up to just yesterday. Here's everything you need to form the Spanish imperfect and use it to tell your own stories!
How to form the imperfect tense in Spanish
The imperfect is used to describe ongoing or repeated actions in the past. There are two sets of endings you'll need to know for regular verbs: one you'll use with -ar verbs, and the other you'll use with -er and -ir verbs.
Notice that the yo and él/ella/usted imperfect forms are always identical, and they both end in either -aba for -ar verbs or -ía for -er and -ir verbs. There are also a lot of accent marks to remember for the imperfect forms, but there are 2 easy rules:
- The nosotros form for -ar verbs always has an accent mark on the first "a" of the ending.
- All endings for -er and -ir verbs have an accent mark, on the letter "i."
Verbs that are irregular in the Spanish imperfect
Luckily, there are only three irregular verbs you need to look out for in the imperfect:
When to use the imperfect tense in Spanish
There are 3 main uses for el imperfecto in Spanish:
- Descriptions. Use the imperfect forms to describe people, places, or things in the past. It is what you want to use when you are setting the scene of your story!
- Cuando era pequeña, Olga era baja y tenía el pelo rubio. (When she was little, Olga was short and had blond hair.)
- En los 90, Riobamba, Ecuador no era una ciudad muy grande. (In the '90s, Riobamba, Ecuador was not a big city.)
- Había una princesa que se llamaba Xochitl. (There was a princess that was named Xochitl.)
- Repeated activities. Use the imperfect forms to describe activities that were done repeatedly in the past. (In these situations, we often use “used to” in English.)
- Cuando nosotros vivíamos en Granada, nosotros salíamos a tomar una caña todos los jueves. (When we lived in Granada, we used to go out to drink a beer every Thursday.)
- ¿Pasabas los veranos con tus abuelos? (Did you used to spend the summers with your grandparents?)
- Activities in progress. Use the imperfect forms to describe activities that were in progress in the past.
- No le estábamos molestando a nadie. Solo estábamos hablando. (We weren’t bothering anyone. We were just talking.)
There are many helpful clues to let you know that a situation requires el imperfecto—you can look out for these keywords! These words and phrases indicate that something happened repeatedly or is part of setting the scene for a story:
|todos los días/meses||every day/month|
|todas las semanas||every week|
|cada día/semana/mes/año||every/each day/week/month/year|
|muchas veces||many times|
|en aquella época||at that time/in that era|
|de vez en cuando||sometimes, occasionally|
|por lo general||in general|
|los lunes/martes/miércoles/etc||on Mondays/Tuesdays/Wednesdays/etc|
When to use preterite vs. imperfect in Spanish
The preterite and imperfect are 2 most important ways learners will talk about things that happened in the past. Here are some ways you can remember when to use el pretérito and el imperfecto:
- Determine if the action is ongoing or completed. If the action is ongoing or repeated, use the imperfect. If the action is completed, use the preterite.
- Consider the context. The context of the sentence can often give you a clue as to which form to use. If the sentence is describing a scene or setting the stage, you should use the imperfect. If the sentence is describing a specific event or action, you should use the preterite.
- Pay attention to keywords. Look out (or listen!) for the keywords to help you learn when to use the preterite and imperfect. You can also use them in your own speech and writing to help remind you which to use!
- Practice, practice, practice. The best way to learn the preterite and imperfect is to practice using them in context! Start your own list of keywords when you do your Duolingo lessons, and make lists of sentences using the imperfect for descriptions, repeated actions, etc. Reading Spanish in books, subtitles, or social media posts will also help you get practice with what situations require the preterite and when you need the imperfect. Music and even Bad Bunny can be fun ways to get in extra practice, and soon you'll be humming along to real uses of these verbs!
Practice makes (im)perfect!
There are many uses of the Spanish preterite and imperfect, and it takes a long time for learners to study all of them! Focus on learning just one conjugation at a time, for just a couple of uses, and build up your language skills gradually. And stick with Duolingo to keep you motivated on your learning journey!
TLDR: Quick summary of the Spanish imperfect conjugations