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The imperfect tense in Spanish

On this and the following pages, we look at the imperfect tense in Spanish: its various forms, both regular and irregular, and when to use it. This tutorial is accompanied by a number of on-line exercises to allow you to practise the imperfect tense as you go along.

What is the imperfect tense?

The imperfect tense is:

  • a past tense that is a single word in Spanish (i.e. it is a simple tense);
  • often translated in English by used to ... or was/were ...ing;
  • generally used to describe an event or state but without viewing its "end point".

Often, the imperfect tense expresses the "background" to other events that are expressed in other tenses such as the preterite (simple past). We'll look in more detail at its precise meaning and translation later.

How to form the imperfect tense: general

The forms of the imperfect tense in Spanish fall into one of two patterns:

  • -ar verbs have imperfect tense forms ending in -aba (plus a person ending);
  • other verbs have imerfect tense forms ending in -ía (plus a person ending).

For the purpose of the imperfect tense, the category of "-ar verbs" actually includes a couple of verbs (dar, estar) ending in -ar that in other tenses would be classed as irregular.

Imperfect tense of -ar verbs

To start with, we'll consider just the forms of -ar verbs, which are based on the ending -aba plus a person ending in some cases. For example, the imperfect tense of the verb cantar (to sing) looks as follows:

PersonStem-aba formPerson endingImperfect form
I used to sing; I was singing
you used to sing; you were singing
he/she used to sing; he/she was singing
nosotros, -as-ába--moscantábamos
we used to sing; we were singing
vosotros, -as-aba--iscantabais
you (all) used to sing; you were (all) singing
they used to sing; they were singing

This is essentially the pattern for regular -ar verbs, although as mentioned it applies to "irregular" verbs that happen to end in -ar. So the imperfect of dar is daba, dabas etc; the imperfect of estar is estaba, estabas etc; andar gives andaba etc.

Notice that in pronouncing these forms, the accented syllable always falls on -aba. In the nosotros/as form, this is marked with a written accent1. Notice too that the person endings are by and large similar to other tenses (regardless of tense, every form in the language ends in -s, every nosotros/as form ends in -mos etc).


On the next pages:

1. The reason for this is that the ending -ábamos is three syllables. In the Spanish spelling system, the stressed syllable does not generally need a written accent if it is the second-to-last syllable. But in cantábamos, the stress ends up falling on the third-to-last syllable, so a written accent is required to represent this.

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