Giving Hazy Details in Spanish with the Imperfect Verb Tense

Nothing’s perfect in Spanish, not even verb tenses. The imperfect tense is vague and imprecise. That’s why it’s called imperfect. It describes continuous, ongoing, or habitual past action.

When you know something happened in the past, but you’re not really sure when or how often, you use the imperfect tense. In English, you typically use the expressions used to or always to describe these actions:

  • I used to golf every Sunday.

  • My mom always made tamales for the holidays.

  • Chico used to run five miles a day.

The imperfect is a very useful past tense for expressing background actions or actions that were going on when they were suddenly interrupted by a preterit tense action. The actions described by the imperfect tense are ongoing or habitual past actions that don’t show their beginning or their end or any particular time limitations.

When forming the regular imperfect tense of -ar verbs, add the endings shown in the following table to the verb stem:

Imperfect Tense -ar Verb Endings
Yo -aba
él/ella/ello/uno -aba
Usted -aba
nosotros/nosotras -ábamos
vosotros/vosotras -abais
ellos/ellas -aban
ustedes -aban

To conjugate -er and -ir regular verbs into the imperfect tense, add the endings shown in the following table to the verb stem.

Imperfect Tense er and -ir Verb
Yo -ía
él/ella/ello/uno -ía
usted -ía
nosotros/nosotras -íamos
vosotros/vosotras -íáis
ellos/ellas -ían
ustedes -ían