How to Talk About What You “Used to do” in Spanish Using the Imperfect Tense

Spanish ImAs a Spanish learner you may not realise it but in everyday conversation Spanish speakers use about eight different past tenses! On the other hand, English only has four past tenses.

This can be quite scary to find out as a Spanish learner. However, the good news is that you do not need to know all of them to be able to communicate effectively in Spanish.

In this blog post we are going to concentrate on just one past tense, the imperfect tense which you will be pleased to hear is one of the easiest tenses to learn in Spanish!

When to use the imperfect tense

We will look in more detail later on about when to use the imperfect tense, however it is mainly used to talk about actions that were happening in the past or what used to happen. Basically, it involves repeated or ongoing actions that took place in the past.

Let’s look at some example:

Felipe trabajaba mientras Ana preparaba la cena.
Felipe was working whilst Ana was preparing the dinner.

Escuchaba la radio mientras bebía un café.
I listened to the radio whilst I drank coffee.

Why is it an easy tense to learn?

You will probably think that after learning the preterite past tense that all the other past tenses in Spanish will be just as difficult to master. However, this isn’t the case at all. The imperfect tense is so much easier than the preterite tense and even easier than the present tense which you learnt as a beginner.

The reason the imperfect tense is much easier than other tenses is that there are only two sets of verb endings to learn for the regular verbs; –ar verbs have one set and both -er verbs and -ir verbs have another set.

What is very unusual though is that there are only three irregular verbs to learn: ir (to go), ser (to be) and ver (to see).

Conjugating regular verbs

Let’s look at how to form the verb endings starting with regular -ar verbs:

hablar (to speak)
yo hablaba
tú hablabas
él/ella/usted hablaba
nosotros/as hablábamos
vosotros/as hablabais
ellos/ustedes hablaban

Notice that the yo form and él/ella verb forms are exactly the same. This is the case with any verb in the imperfect tense.

Also note that there is only one accent needed; this is on the “we” verb ending: -ábamos.

Now let’s look at a regular -er verb:

comer (to eat)
yo comía
tú comías
él/ella/usted comía
nosotros/as comíamos
vosotros/as comíais
ellos/ustedes comían

You can see below that the -ir verb endings are identical to the -er verbs:

vivir (to live)
yo vivía
tú vivías
él/ella/usted vivía
nosotros/as vivíamos
vosotros/as vivíais
ellos/ustedes vivían

Notice that the -er and -ir endings all need the accent on the -i throughout.

Irregular verbs

This is not a joke! There really are only three irregular verbs to learn!

ir (to go)
yo iba
él/ella/usted iba
nosotros/as íbamos
vosotros/as ibais
ellos/ustedes iban

Note the accent on -íbamos.

Ser (to be)
yo era
él/ella/usted era
nosotros/as éramos
vosotros/as erais
ellos/ustedes eran

ver (to see)
yo veía
él/ella/usted veía
nosotros/as veíamos
vosotros/as veíais
ellos/ustedes veían

Ver is slightly irregular as it is very much like a regular -er ending verb but if you look closely you will see that it just keeps the -e of the root form, rather than taking it off.

Time expressions used with the Imperfect Tense

One easy trick to help you work out when you should be using the imperfect tense is to learn the time phrases that imply repeated actions:

siempre – always
cada día/fin de semana/mes/domingo – every day/weekend/month/Sunday
todos los días – every day
de vez en cuando – from time to time
frecuentemente – frequently menudo
muchas veces – many times
nunca – never

When to use the imperfect tense

Descriptions of people or places

Whenever you are describing what a place was like or what a person looked like, you need to use the imperfect tense.
As well as physical descriptions this could also mean feelings, conditions and states.

Estaba muy triste.
He was feeling very sad.

Juan tenía el pelo moreno.
Juan had dark brown hair.

Hacía mucho frío.
It was really cold.
María lo amaba tanto.
María loved him so much.

Repeated actions in the past

Yo nadaba en la piscina cada sábado.
I used to swim in the pool every Saturday.

Mis padres siempre iban de vacaciones en agosto.
My parents always went on holiday in August.

Mis vecinos ponían música muy alta por las tardes.
My neighbours used to play loud music in the evenings.

Continuous past actions

To talk about an action that was in progress you need to use the imperfect tense:

Yo veía una película.
I was watching a film.

Mi amigo estaba leyendo el periódico.
My friend was reading the newspaper.

Often you talk about something that happened whilst you were doing something. With this type of structure you often need to use the imperfect tense to talk about the ongoing or background action and a preterite verb to talk about the one off thing that happened during that time.

Yo estaba leyendo cuando mi hermano llamó.
I was reading when my brother called.

Me estaba duchando cuando el teléfono sonó.
I was having a shower when the telephone rang.

Time and Age in the past

You also need to remember to use the imperfect when talking about the time in the past.

Era la una cuando llegué a casa.
It was one o’clock when I arrived home.

Tenía once años cuando fui en avión por primera vez.
I was 11 years old when I went on an aeroplane for the first time.

You now know everything you need to know in order to be able to use the imperfect tense correctly.

As you can see the imperfect is very straightforward to learn. Perhaps the only tricky part is remembering when to use the preterite and when to use the imperfect.

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