Pretérito Imperfecto

(The past tense as Pretérito Imperfecto in Spanish)

How is the Pretérito Imperfecto used?

The Pretérito Imperfecto is a past tense in Spanish, putting the primary focus on habits, states, recurring processes, and repetitive actions. It conveys the imperfective aspect (What does aspect mean?), so it is utilised primarily in a descriptive way. Regarding its form, the Imperfecto is usually made up of one verb; no auxiliary is necessary. Now, compare the usage in detail:

  1. The following cases show the typical use of the Pretérito Imperfecto:
    • Expressing habits and recurring events in the past:
      • “Pablo jugaba mucho al fútbol cuando era joven.” (Pablo played football a lot when he was young.)
      • “Mi hermana me ayudaba mucho con los deberes.” (My sister used to help me immensely with my homework.)
    • Representing past states and descriptions:
      • “Antes la ciudad era mucho más tranquila.” (The city used to be much quieter.)
      • “Aquí había un bosque.” (There used to be a forest here.)
      • “Sonia siempre tenía el pelo rubio.” (Sonia always had blonde hair.)
    • Voicing polite wishes:
      • Quería pedirte un favor.” (I’d like to ask you a favour.)
      • Quería preguntarte si ¿me puedes prestar tu coche?” (I wanted to ask if you could lend me your car?)
  2. Frequently, the Pretérito Imperfecto occurs with the following clues or keywords of the past:
    • antes (in former times, in the past, before), mientras (during, while), siempre (always), porque (because), etc.
      • Antes el deporte no le interesaba mucho.” (In the past, she wasn’t very interested in sport.)
      • “No te ayudó con la mudanza porque estaba enfermo.” (He didn’t help you move because he was ill.)

How is the Pretérito Imperfecto combined with the Pretérito Indefinido?

The Pretérito Imperfecto appears quite typically in conjunction with another Spanish past tense, the Pretérito Indefinido. In such a combination, it describes the background situation (similar to the English past progressive), whereas the Indefinido expresses a foreground event or action that occurs. Narratives are an excellent example of that. Compare the following interaction:

  • Example sentences of the Imperfecto being used together with the Indefinido:
    • “Cuando era joven, fui de camping una vez.” (When I was young, I went camping once.)
    • “Mientras volábamos a Nueva York, un ruido raro en el avión.” (While we were flying to New York, I heard a strange noise on the plane.)
  • Some clue or signal words are often indicators here, for example, ‘de repente’ (suddenly), ‘una vez’ (once), ‘enseguida’ (immediately):
    • Caminábamos tranquilamente por el bosque y de repente un zorro nos atacó.” (We were strolling through the forest, and suddenly a fox attacked us.)

How is the Pretérito Imperfecto formed and conjugated?

The Pretérito Imperfecto is formed only from a main verb without an auxiliary. Like English, Spanish distinguishes between two types of formation or conjugation. Compare the forms:

Regular formation of the Imperfecto

Spanish verbs are almost universally regular in the Imperfecto, even if they are irregular in other tenses. Their conjugation depends on the corresponding suffix, where three different ones are possible. The table shows the example verbs ‘hablar’ (to talk), ‘romper’ (break), and ‘sentir’ (feel):

Personal pronoun Verbs ending in ‘-ar’ (hablar) Verbs ending in ‘-er’ (romper) Verbs ending in ‘-ir’ (sentir)
yo hablaba rompía sentía
hablabas rompías sentías
él/ella/usted hablaba rompía sentía
nosotros/nosotras hablábamos rompíamos sentíamos
vosotros/vosotras hablabais rompíais sentíais
ellos/ellas/ustedes hablaban rompían sentían

Irregular formation of the Imperfecto

Only three verbs are conjugated irregularly, although the endings are similar to the regular ones. The verbs are ‘ir’ (to go), ‘ser’ (be), ‘ver’ (see). Compare the formation:

Personal pronoun ir ser ver
yo iba era veía
ibas eras veías
él/ella/usted iba era veía
nosotros/nosotras íbamos éramos veíamos
vosotros/vosotras ibais erais veíais
ellos/ellas/ustedes iban eran veían

Information: Please consult the Spanish verb pages for a complete overview of all conjugated forms in all tenses.

Further explanations referring to the ‘Pretérito Imperfecto’

The following explanations refer to the Spanish grammar topic ‘Pretérito Imperfecto’ and may also be interesting: