Imperfect Tense

The companion to the preterite, the imperfect (or copreterite) tense also refers to the simple past. However, whereas the preterite is enclosed by time, the imperfect is not. An action can have occurred over a span of time with no clear beginning or ending point. There may or may not be a connection with the present; it may or may not still be happening. This vagueness regarding the end to an action, or this developing and lasting quality of past action, is the reason for this tense's being named the “imperfect” tense. The action of the imperfect tense may be tied to the following:

  • An unspecified amount of time. For example: De niño, quería un caballo. (As a boy, I wanted a horse.)

  • An indefinite number of occurrences, such as a habit or custom. For example: Cada vez que la veía, me sentía feliz. (Each time I saw her, I felt happy.)

Conjugating Verbs in the Imperfect Tense

The following table includes the verb endings for verbs in the imperfect tense. Notice that the yo form and él, ella, usted form of these verbs is the same. To avoid confusion, simply add the relevant pronoun to identify the correct person. And as with the preterite tense endings, imperfect –er and –ir verbs share the same set of endings.

–Ar Verb Endings in the Imperfect Tense

–ar cantar to sing (infinitive) –aba (yo) cantaba I sang –abas (tú) cantabas you sang (informal, singular) –aba (él, ella) cantaba he, she, it sang (usted) cantaba you sang (formal, singular) –ábamos (nosotros, nosotras) cantábamos we sang –abais (vosotros, vosotras) cantabais you sang (informal, plural) –aban (ellos, ellas) cantaban they sang (ustedes) cantaban you sang (formal, plural)

–Er Verb Endings in the Imperfect Tense

–er aprender to learn (infinitive) –ía (yo) aprendía I learned –ías (tú) aprendías you learned (informal, singular) –ía (él, ella) aprendía he, she, it learned (usted) aprendía you learned (formal, singular) –íamos (nosotros, nosotras) aprendíamos we learned –íais (vosotros, vosotras) aprendíais you learned (informal, plural) –ían (ellos, ellas) aprendían they learned (ustedes) aprendían you learned (formal, plural)

–Ir Verb Endings in the Imperfect Tense

–ir vivir to live (infinitive) –ía (yo) vivía I lived –ías (tú) vivías you lived (informal, singular) –ía (él, ella) vivía he, she, it lived (usted) vivía you lived (formal, singular) –íamos (nosotros, nosotras) vivíamos we lived –íais (vosotros, vosotras) vivíais you lived (informal, plural) –ían (ellos, ellas) vivían they lived (ustedes) vivían you lived (formal, plural)

Preterite and Imperfect Together

It's not uncommon to combine the preterite and the imperfect verbs in the same sentence, especially with the words de and cuando. Take a look at the following examples.

A la vez que hacía la broma, sonrió. As he was telling the joke, he smiled. Ayer cuando caminaba al trabajo, vio un accidente. Yesterday when he was walking to Nunca hablaba mal de otros, pero lo hizo hoy. work, he saw an accident. He never used to speak badly of others, but today he did.

For additional vocabulary words that will help you form similar sentences in the imperfect and preterite tense, refer to the following table.

Vocabulary Often Used with the Imperfect and Preterite Tense

a la vez at the same time algunas veces sometimes ea menudo often a veces at times

Vocabulary Often Used with the Imperfect and Preterite Tense

cada día each day, every day contadas veces seldom de vez en cuando once in a while esta vez this time frecuentemente frequently muchas veces many times nunca never repetidas veces repeatedly siempre always tantas veces so many times toda la semana all week long toda la vida whole life

Take a look at the following two phrases: cada mes (each month) and cada semana (each week). Though mes is a masculine noun and semana is a feminine noun, the word cada does not change its ending. And, of course, it does not exist in the plural—“each” is always a singular idea.

Preterite Versus Imperfect

Non-native English speakers often have trouble differentiating between the preterite and the imperfect. Though verbs in these two tenses may sometimes be translated as the same verb tense in English, differences do exist.

The preterite is a precise and limiting tense. The imperfect, on the other hand, is less restricted; it represents the vagueness of time with respect to the action. For a detailed review of when to use the preterite and the imperfect, refer to the following table.

Preterite Versus Imperfect

Preterite Imperfect An act that occurs as a single event. An act that was customary in the past. An act limited in the times it is performed. An act that may be ongoing indefinitely. An act that is defined within specified time frames. An act that is defined within broad frames.

The following are some examples to help you differentiate between the imperfect and the preterite.

Ella fue al cine ayer. She went to the movies yesterday. De niña, ella iba al cine cada sábado. As a young girl, she used to go to the movies every Saturday. Me gustó la película. I liked the movie. A Jonathan le gustaba mucho el programa de televisión de Los Tres Chiflados. Jonathan liked The Three Stooges television program very much. La cita comenzó a las diez de la mañana. The meeting began at ten in the morning. De niños, comenzaban a llorar cada vez que oían el trueno. As children they used to begin to cry every time they heard thunder.
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