Learning Your Spanish Imperfect Tenses

Published on 28/03/2010 in Learning Spanish

Just like the English language, the Spanish language has its own rules when it comes to speaking about the past. One of these rules is the use of the Spanish imperfect tense, which is quite different from the way the English language refers to the past. But that's getting ahead of the story.

Learning Spanish tensesWhen It Is Used

The imperfect tense in Spanish refers not to the specific actions of individuals or events of the past that took place at a specific time. This is commonly referred to as the preterite, which can also be applied in referring to a past occurrence that has been completed and to a series of events that succeeded each other in a past time.

Instead, you should use the imperfect tense for specific actions under any of the following circumstances:

  • The action is indefinite in that the start and end dates cannot be determined with a certain degree of accuracy.
  • The action is made on a repeated or continuous basis.
  • The action took place over a prolonged period of time.
  • The action started in the past and yet continues till the present day.
  • The condition being talked about happened in the past, be it of the mental, physical and emotional type.


In short, the imperfect tense is used to describe either what used to occur and/or what happens regularly in the past.

The condition being talked about happened in the past, be it of the mental, physical and emotional type.

You will know if and when the imperfect tense is used by the appearance of certain phrases, of which the following are the most commonly used:

  • a veces - sometimes
  • cada año/ cada dia - every year/every day
  • de vez en cuando - once in a while
  • todos los dias - everyday
  • muchas veces - many times
  • mucho - a lot
  • por un rato - for a while
  • siempre - always
  • tantas veces - so many times
  • generalmente - usually
  • frecuentemente - frequently

When you hear these words, you will know that the imperfect tense is being used and, hence, you can react accordingly. Of course, it may take practice to recognize the difference between the imperfect tense from the preterite but your Spanish language lessons should make it as clear as day soon enough.

How to Distinguish

Take note that the emphasis is on practice as distinguishing between the preterite and the imperfect tense is one of the more difficult aspects to learn in the Spanish language for native English speakers. Indeed, the native English speaker will have initial problems understanding the subtle differences between ser and estar. Fortunately, as you progress in your Spanish lessons, you will begin to understand and then ably use the imperfect tense to convey your thoughts of certain present and past actions.

For now, it is sufficient to know that the imperfect tense refers to a timeline while the preterite refers to a specific point on that timeline. For example, the English sentence of "I was taking a bath when he called me from the bedroom". The action of taking a bath happens along the continuity of the timeline while the event of the other person calling is the specific event along that same timeline. Thus, the verb phrase "was taking a bath" is the imperfect portion of the sentence while the verb "called" is the preterite.

Just to make a few examples of the imperfect past tense in Spanish: Juana studied law (Juana estudiaba derecho) for an event with no definite start or end. When I was a child, I was very happy. (Cuando era un niño, estaba muy feliz) to refer to something that happened over a period of time. He was tired and very sad (El estaba cansado y muy triste) to pertain to a previous emotional condition.

Although you will not be severely criticized for your inability to distinguish between the preterite and the Spanish imperfect tense during your first few tries at speaking the language, it is advisable to learn more about it. You will appreciate the difference when you can converse your thoughts about the past in an appropriate manner and, hence, avoiding instances of miscommunication. Now, that is the main purpose of learning any new language - to communicate as effectively as possible and learning Spanish is no different.

Written by: John Rapkin

About the author:

John Rapkin will help you to learn Spanish. Visit http://www.learn-spanish.co.il for Spanish audio and translation.

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Colin said:
30 March 2010 @ 17:26

Very helpful; I am finding it one of the hardest things to do! I think I am correct in saying that if someone is dead this is also in the imperfect (estaba muerto) which always seems odd!

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