Unit 3 - Imperfect Tense - Regular Forms
Lesson 3.1 - Introduction to the Imperfect Tense

What is the imperfect tense, and when do you use it?

Introduction to the Imperfect Tense

Back in Lesson 2.1 we began to discuss the difference between the two past tenses, and now we're going to focus specifically on the imperfect tense and when to use it.

The preterite tense that you previously studied is used for actions that happened at a specific point in time or for a specific number of times. The imperfect tense that you will learn in this Unit is used for actions that occurred repeatedly, habitually, or for a non-specific amount of time.

A good rule of thumb is that the preterite is used to say what happened, while the imperfect is used to say how things were.

Let's take a look at some of the most common ways that the imperfect is used.

1) Used To in English

In English, we use the phrase used to to indicate an action that occurred at some non-specific time in the past.

Consider the sentence I used to swim. We don't know how often the speaker swam, or how many times. Instead, he or she is conveying the idea that they swam on many occasions, although they may not do so any more.

Any time that you would use the phrase used to in English, you should use the imperfect in Spanish. In this case, a Spanish speaker would simply say Nadaba, which is the imperfect past tense of the Spanish verb nadar, meaning to swim.

2) Mental States or Feelings

Emotions and mental states in the past are usually described using the imperfect. For example, to say My mother worried about me when I was young, a Spanish speaker would likely use preocupaba, an imperfect form of the verb preocupar, to worry.

She didn't worry for a specific amount of time, so the imperfect makes sense here.

3) Setting a Scene

The imperfect is often used when setting a scene for a story in the past. For example, It was dark in the theater. This sentence would likely use estaba, the imperfect form of the verb estar, to be. Estaba oscuro en el teatro.

4) When One Action is Interrupted by Another

When an ongoing action is interrupted by something, the ongoing action will be expressed in the imperfect and the interruption will use the preterite tense. This is similar to the previous usage Setting a Scene, because it is as if one verb is setting the scene for the other.

For example, I was washing the dishes when you called. We would express washing in the imperfect (lavaba) and you called me in the preterite tense (me llamaste). The washing sets the scene for the phone call.

Yo lavaba los platos cuanda me llamaste.

5) Talking about Time in the Past

Anytime that you talk about what time it was when something happened or how old someone was, you will use the imperfect tense. Tenía quince años, I was fifteen years old.

Choosing Between the Two Can Be Tricky

Native speakers just know what sounds correct when they choose between the two past tenses, while for us Spanish learners it can be quite confusing. Moreover, while some situations clearly demand one or the other, sometimes it is actually more of a gray area and either could be correct.

There Is Not Always a Clear Cut Choice

Sometimes a sentence could be expressed equally correctly with the preterite or the imperfect form of the verb. It really boils down to the nuance of what the speaker wants to say.

However, more often than not, it does sound more natural to use a specific tense. Knowing when to use each will come with time but it takes practice. Repeated exposure to sentences that use these tenses is the best way to truly learn them. Fortunately, you are in the right place for that with our huge library of exercise sentences.

Onward to the Conjugations

Now that you've had a taste of when to use the imperfect, let's learn to form the conjugations. Meanwhile, there are additional explanations for this topic listed in the resources below.

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Additional Study Resources

The first half of this video does a good job explaining the uses of the imperfect. (19:42)
This video has a quick explanation of when to use the imperfect, plus how to form the conjugations. (6:10)
Another excellent explanation of the two tenses. (9:55)
Fabulous explanation of the differences, including time illustrations for visual learners. Recommended.
Useful article with lists of phrases that usually trigger either the preterite or the imperfect.
A good explanation of how the two past tenses are often used together.
Chapter 14 "The imperfect tense"
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