A NOT SO PERFECT SPANISH TENSE
The Imperfect is a past tense. I think of it as a kind of a hybrid of the simple past tense or the preterite. The most difficult thing about speaking in the imperfect is knowing when to use it verses the preterite. But! We are lucky again in that there are obvious situations of when to use the imperfect. First let's review the basics of the preterite tense. By comparing the two, it will be easier to recognize when to use the imperfect.
Most of us are already familiar with the preterite tense. If you recall, the preterite refers to things that happened at a fixed point in time (You called me at 8:00pm last night.), a specific number of times or actions (I ate three times yesterday.), or something that happened in a fixed time frame. (The lecture lasted for one hour.). Note that the number of actions or times something happened does not have to be stated, they can also be implied:
I went fishing. - I went fishing in the past, and it's implied I only went once.
We ate at The Bay View. - It is implied we ate there only once.
The lecture was not very good. - Within the time frame of the lecture, it was not a good lecture.
The imperfect on the other hand, describes things in the past that were on- going, happening over and over again, in an undefined, often extended period of time. The imperfect does not state exactly when, only in when in general.
Before we look at some of the obvious situations on when to use the imperfect, let's look at how the verbs are conjugated:
For regular AR verbs drop the AR : For regular ER and IR verbs, drop the ER or IR:
For usted, el, ella add ABA. ĺA
For tú add: ABAS. ĺAS
Ellos, Ellas add ABAN. ĺAN
Nosotros add: ABAMOS. ĺAMOS
We are lucky too in that there are only three irregular verbs in the Imperfect:
SER: Era, Eras, Eran, Eramos.
IR: Iba, Ibas, Iban, Ibamos.
VER: Veía, Veías, Veían, Veíamos.
Now let's look at some examples for when to use the Imperfect:
Anytime there is an English present participle in the past (“ing” words), you use the imperfect:
The children were playing in the park. - Los niños jugaban in el parque.
I was studying Spanish last night. - Estudiaba español anoche.
We were reading in the library yesterday. Leíamos en la biblioteca ayer.
Also, anytime you want to say “used to” do something, you will speak in the imperfect:
I used to live in Houston. - Vivía in Houston.
Did you used to play the piano? - ¿(Tú) tocabas el piano?
We used to take the train to the city. Tomabamos el tren a la ciuadad.
They used to be friends. - Eran amigos.
If you are referring to what time it was in the past, the imperfect is always used. Notice the use of both the imperfect and the preterite in the below examples:
What time was it when you called me? ¿Qué hora era cuándo me llamó?
It was 5:30 when I arrived. - Eran las cinco y media cuándo llegué.
When talking about a person or thing's age in the past, the imperfect is used:
When she was five years old, she fell in the pool, but swam well. - Cuándo tenía cinco años, ella se cayó en la piscina, pero nadó bien.
I was twenty-five when I met my wife. - Tenía veinticinco años cuando conocí a mí esposa.
Do you remember “Hay”? There is, there are. When we want to describe something that existed in the past (there was), we use había, the imperfect form of hay:
There were a lot of people at the party last night. - Había mucha gente en la fiesta anoche.
There was not enough money to pay the bill. - No había suficiente plata para pagar la cuenta.
Remember that if we want to express an action that took place, rather than existence, we use the preterite form of hay, Hubo:
There was an accident near El Rey yesterday. - Hubo un accidente cerca de El Rey ayer.
Were you ever going to do something? Use “Iba, Ibas, Iban, Ibamos, the Imperfect forms of “Ir”, to say what you or others were going to do (“ing” in the past):
I was going to do it later. - Iba a hacer(lo) más tarde.
Were you going to Panama today? - ¿Iba(s) a Panamá hoy?
They were going fishing. - Iban a pescar.
We were going to leave earlier. - Ibamos a ir(nos) más temprano.
There are other situations on when to use the Imperfect. But being familiar with the easy situations that call for it, will take you along way. Study the examples above. Practice using these and similar examples with your friends or people that work for you. It will improve your Spanish.
Hope this helps!
Hi, my name is Fred. My background in Spanish is a year in high school
(long ago) and the last seven years taking private lessons almost daily, in
the States and in Panamá'. I am not yet fluent, but maybe I can pass on
to you some tips to help your Spanish learning experience.