6.6 The Imperfect Tense

The imperfect tense is one of two simple (versus compound) Spanish verb tenses to express past actions. –Ar verbs have one set of endings; -er and -ir verbs, another.

Estar Comer Vivir
yo estaba comía vivía
estabas comías  vivías
él, Ella, Ud. estaba comía vivía
Nosotros estábamos comíamos vivíamos
Vosotros estabáis comíais vivíais
ellos, ellas, Uds. estaban comían  vivían

The -aba endings stand out, as this is the only occasion in which a b appears in a Spanish verb ending in any tense (except the imperfect tense irregular forms of ir [see below]). The -ía endings appear in other tenses, but with a different stem. Here the infinitive endings are cut off before the new endings are added, unlike other tenses.

¡Ojo! Note in the above endings that the first person and third-person singular forms are identical. Context should always make the subject (I, he, she, you, it) clear.

The imperfect tense has three possible translations:

Ella leía. She read.

She used to read.

She was reading.

Note in the last two examples that the imperfect tense describes habitual actions in the past (“used to read”) as well as ongoing or in-process actions in the past (“was reading”). Given the context, one translation may be more appropriate than another translation, but rarely if ever is one translation versus another truly wrong.

In addition to habitual past and in-progress past actions, the imperfect tense is used to tell time, to give descriptions and to express mental states in the past.

Eran las dos. It was two o’clock.
Hacía viento. It was windy.
Tenía poco dinero. He had little money.
No queríamos ir. We didn’t want to go.

Only three verbs are irregular in the imperfect tense:

ser ir ver
yo era iba veía
eras ibas veías
él, Ella, Ud. era iba veía
Nosotros éramos íbamos veíamos
Vosotros erais ibais veíais
ellos, ellas, Uds. eran iban veían

The forms of ser and ir are unlike any Spanish verb endings and should be easily recognizable. (Ver is irregular only because it does not drop the e before adding its endings.)

Just as the present tense of ira + infinitive expresses what one is going to do in the future, the imperfect tense, followed by the same, expresses what one was going to do in the past:

Iban a comprar un sofá hoy, pero la mueblería estaba cerrada. They were going to buy a sofa today, but the furniture store was closed.

The above is one case in which the one-word translation, “went,” is not accurate. Nor does the translation “used to go” work here.

Vocabulario básico 

Verbos:

bajar (de)- to drop, to go down (to descend), to get off (public transportation)
había- there was, there were
incluir- to include
regatear- to bargain, to haggle
subir (a)- to go up (to ascend), to climb, to rise, to get on (public transportation)

Sustantivos:

las afueras- suburbs
la aldea- village
el almacén- department store
el centro comercial- shopping mall
la cita- date, appointment
el/la dios/-a- god/goddess
la fecha- date (of year)
la ganga- bargain (false friend)
los gemelos- twins
la guerra- war
la isla- island
la obra- work of literature, work of art
la paz- peace
el peligro- danger, peril
la reina- queen
el rey- king (los reyes- king and queen [occasionally, “kings”])
el suburbio- slum (false cognate); suburb (at times)
el terremoto- earthquake

Números cardinales:

cien(to)- one hundred
doscientos- two hundred
trescientos- three hundred
cuatrocientos- four hundred
quinientos- five hundred
seiscientos- six hundred
setecientos- seven hundred
ochocientos- eight hundred
novecientos- nine hundred
mil- one thousand
un millón (de)- one million

Números ordinales:

primero- first
segundo- second
tercero- third
cuarto- fourth*
quinto- fifth
sexto- sixth
séptimo- seventh
octavo- eighth
noveno- ninth
décimo- tenth

Adjetivos:

actual- present, current (false friend)
ambos- both
congelado- frozen, cold
demasiado- too many, too much
infeliz- unhappy
los/las dos- both
mejor- better
nublado- cloudy
peligroso- dangerous
sumiso- submissive
triste- sad

Adverbios:

(a)dentro- inside, indoors
(a)fuera- outside, outdoors
algo- somewhat
demasiado- too much, too
entonces- then
ya- already (now, later on)

Preposiciones:

(a)dentro de- inside of, within
(a)fuera de- outside of

Pronombre relativo (Relative Pronoun):

lo que- what, that which

Expresiones:

de todo- everything
en aquel/ese entonces- at that time
ya no- no longer

*Be careful to distinguish the ordinal number cuarto from the cardinal number cuatro. Remember also that, as a noun, cuarto means “room.” Context always clarifies the intended meaning.

Last revised on June 16, 2021.