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When to use the imperfect tense in Spanish?

Of all the tenses in Spanish, the imperfect tense has arguably the simplest forms and the fewest irregularities. The problems that often arise with the imperfect tense in Spanish have more to do with when to use it than how. At least these problems arise:

  • when do you use the imperfect tense as opposed to other past tenses such as the preterite?
  • when do you use the simple vs continuous form of the imperfect (caminaba vs estaba caminando), since both can have a meaning of was walking? (See the imperfect continuous section for more information and exercises on this form.)
  • combining these problems, when do you use the imperfect continuous vs preterite continuous, which both generally translate as was/were ...ing? That is, when to say estaba caminando vs estuvo caminando?

In many cases, which tense used is slightly arbitrary, because the choice of tense can depend on the emphasis that the speaker/author wants to place. But in general:

  • the preterite focusses on the completion or endpoint of an event/state;
  • the imperfect focusses on the start or middle of an event/state;
  • the choice between continuous vs simple is often arbitrary, with the continuous being preferred to express "ongoingness" (see below).

Given these generalities, here are some common uses of the imperfect vs other competing Spanish past tenses:

Past tense functionSpanish tenseExample
Notion of used to..., once ...-ed, especially without mentioning a specific end point in time.Imperfect (simple)vivíamos en una casa más grande
we used to live/once lived in a larger house
Describing an ungoing event but without viewing its duration/endpoint
Often the 'background' to another 'simple past' event; often was/were ...ing in English
Imperfect (simple or continuous)estaba viendo la tele cuando él llegó
or: veía la tele cuando...
I was watching TV when he arrived
Describing the beginning of an event/action
Similarly, English often uses was/were ...ing
estaba saliendo de la casa cuando llamó
Or: salía de la casa...
I was leaving the house when he rang
Describing an ongoing state/condition
continuous forms tend not to be used with these types of verb in English or Spanish, so simple past often used in English (but note was going to...)
Imperfect (simple)no sabía si iba a venir
I didn't know whether he was going to come
no tenía dinero para comprarlo
I didn't have any money to buy it
querían llegar antes de las dos
they wanted to get there before two o'clock
Describing an ongoing event but with a specific duration and/or endpointPreterite (simple or continuous possible)
Choice of simple/continuous similar to English
estuvimos caminando durante tres horas
we were walking for three hours
allí viví hasta la edad de trece años
I lived there until I was thirteen
Describing an event with an endpoint or "outcome"Preterite¿tuviste tiempo para comprarlo?
did you have time to buy it?
(i.e. "did you buy it?")
no pude hacerlo
I wasn't able to do it, I couldn't do it
("...and I'm no longer trying to at this moment")
no quiso venir
she didn't want to come
(i.e. "she didn't come")
Telling the time (in the past)Imperfect (simple)eran las cuatro
it was four o'clock

Simple vs continuous; estaba/estuvo caminando

On the next page, we look at a couple of dilemmas that spring up particularly for English speakers: when to use simple vs continuous imperfect forms, and the difference between estaba/estuvo caminando (that is, the imperfect continuous vs preterite continuous).

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