When to Use the Imperfect Tense in Spanish

One of the trickiest tenses to learn in Spanish is the Imperfect (or el imperfecto). Although its conjugations are relatively straightforward, its use can be complicated. One reason for the complexity is the Imperfect tense, as it’s used in Spanish, does not really exist in English.

Hacía calor aquella tarde. Hacía calor aquella tarde.

Not to worry though! This guide will walk you through this difficult tense and unlock all the answers to your most pressing questions concerning the Imperfect.

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When to Use the Imperfect

The Imperfect is used to talk about past actions. However, as opposed to the Preterite tense, the Imperfect tense emphasizes a repetitiveness or continuity of time. This can most easily be translated into English as “was doing something, would do something or used to do something.” Let’s take a look at some general uses of the Imperfect along with some examples:

Use #1: to describe a situation, a setting or a person in the past

Examples:

El muchacho parecía enojado. → The man seemed angry.
Mi abuela siempre era muy tranquila. → My Grandmother was always very calm.
Hacía calor aquella tarde. → It was a warm afternoon.

Use #2: to describe a repeated action, habit or custom in the past

Examples:

Yo jugaba al béisbol cada sábado. → I used to play baseball every Saturday.
Mi padre se despertaba a las 5:00 am. → My father used to wake up at 5:00 am.
El autobús siempre pasaba a las 6:15 am. → The bus would always pass by at 6:15 am.

Use #3: to describe an action that was in process before another action interrupted it

Examples:

Llamaste cuando me bañaba. → You called when I was taking a shower.
Mientras cocinabas, me fui a correr. → While you were cooking, I went for a run.
Pensé en ti muchas veces mientras/cuando estudiabas en Londres. → I thought of you many times while/when you were studying in London.

Use #4: to describe when two actions were happening simultaneously in the past

Examples:

Mientras mis hijos dormían, yo trabajaba por la noche. → While my children slept, I worked during the nights.
El pianista tocaba mientras cantaban el coro. → The pianist played while the choir sang.
Mis tías preparaba los verduras mientras mi abuela cocinaba la carne. → My aunts prepared the vegetables while my Grandma cooked the meat.

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Phrases that Signal the Imperfect

The following expressions are typically used to express the Imperfect tense.

a menudo

often

a veces

sometimes

antes

before

cada día/mes/año

every day/month/year

constantemente

constantly

cuando

when

de vez en cuando

occasionally

de niño/de niña

as a child/little boy/little girl

frecuentemente

frequently

generalmente

generally

mientras

while

normalmente

normally

por lo común

in general

por lo general

in general

rara vez

rarely

raras veces

seldom

siempre

always

todos los días/meses/años

every day/month/year

usualmente

usually

Idioms and Other Uses of the Imperfect

Apart from the most common uses, there are several idioms and expressions that utilize the Imperfect.

  • Erase una vez… → Once upon a time…
    The beginning of any fairytale or classic Disney movie starts with these magic words, which happens to be in the Imperfect tense!
  • To show respect
    Native speakers will often use the Imperfect, much like the conditional tense, as a way to show respect. For example, you may hear:

¿Qué deseaba? → What would you like?
¿Quería preguntar si… → I wanted to ask if…
Dígame, ¿qué buscaba? → What are you looking for?
Veníamos a la cita programada. → We are here for the scheduled appointment.

  • iba/ibas/íbamos/ibais/iban a hacer algo → was/were going to do something
    When talking about something that you or anyone else was going to do in the past this is a common expression. For example:

Iban a recogerme pero se estropeó su coche. → They were going to pick me up but their car broke down.
Íbamos a ver la película pero se agotaron las entradas. → We were going to see the movie but it was sold out.
Iba a llamarte pero se fue la señal. → I was going to call you but I didn’t have service/I lost the signal.

  • acababa/acababas/acabábamos/acababais/acababan de hacer algo → just been done
    The use of the expression “acabar de” conjugated in the imperfect tense plus another verb in it’s base form is used to explain something that was just done. For example:

Acababa de regresar de vacaciones. → I just got back from vacation.
Acabábamos de llegar. → We just arrived.
Acababan de preparar la cena. → They just prepared dinner.

  • hacía + general time + que + verb in the imperfect tense imperfect tense → it’s been (time) since (action)
    This expression, while utilizing a general time marker, is used when talking about something you haven’t done in awhile. For example:

Hace mucho tiempo que veíamos una película. → It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a movie.
Hace muchos años que visitaba el pueblo donde nací. → It’s been many years since I’ve visited the town where I was born.
Hace meses que no trabajaba menos de 70 horas a la semana. → It’s been months since I’ve worked less than 70 hours a week.

With this guide a la mano, at hand, you will be able to breeze through correctly using the Imperfect tense in various situations.