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How is the imperfect tense used in Spanish?

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The imperfect tense in Spanish is mostly used for:

  • Habits in the past: Cuando vivía en Colombia, viajaba a la playa en vacaciones.
    When I lived in Colombia, I used to travel to the beach on vacation.

  • Descriptions in the past: La chica era alta, tenía el pelo largo y llevaba un vestido azul.
    The girl was tall, had long hair and was wearing a blue dress.

We use it when the duration of the action is indeterminate or unspecified. This means it is not important when or if the action has ended. Let’s see how we can use the imperfect tense in the various scenarios you may encounter along your Spanish-learning journey, starting with habits.

 

Talking about habits in the past

Imagine you’re talking with your friends about when you were school students. Or maybe you’re talking about your first job. When you want to talk about the everyday actions you did in the past, then you need to use the imperfect tense. 

Let’s have a look at some specific cases and examples!

1.  Continuous actions in the past 

The imperfect can be used in Spanish to talk about the ongoing duration of an action. Look: 

De niña le gustaba leer historias de suspenso. 
As a child she liked to read suspense stories.

This example refers to the past, but we don’t know for how long she used to read suspense stories. We just want to emphasize that this was a continuous action in the past.

2.  Repeated actions in the past

For the case of habitual actions in the past, it’s also necessary to use the imperfect. Let’s see an example: 

Cuando estudiaba en la escuela, tenía clases hasta las 3 de la tarde. 
When I studied at school, I used to have class until 3 in the afternoon.

In this sentence, we’re not told exactly when the subject (I) was in school or for how many years. This exact information is not specified and it’s not important for the message. The priority here is to highlight the repeated nature of the action.

3.  Mental states or mental actions in the past

What happens if you’re talking about a habit in the past that describes a mental action or past thought? If you’re using the verbs sentir [feel], creer [believe], conocer [know], pensar [think], querer [want], and saber [know], you should use the imperfect to express that mental action. Read the following example below: 

Cuando era niño, pensaba que la luna era un planeta. 
When I was a child, I used to think that the Moon was a planet.

Remember that we’re still talking about a mental action or state of indefinite duration.

  IMPORTANT

As you can see from the previous examples, the imperfect tense in Spanish is, in many cases, equivalent to the English construction used to + verb (or would + verb). This is because these English forms, just like the Spanish imperfect, refer to actions that took place repeatedly in the past. 

But pay attention! Remember we’re talking about habits in the past. The equivalent would + verb is not to be confused with the conditional form. When we use it to express the past, there’s no condition to be met. Look:

Screen Shot 2021-08-05 at 3.19.04 PM

NOTE: 
Since we’re talking about habits in the past, it’s important that you use the right phrases along with the imperfect to convey the exact idea. Let’s see an example: 

En mi adolescencia, a menudo practicaba deporte con mis amigos. 
In my teenage years, I often used to play sports with my friends.

In the example above, we use a menudo [often] to indicate that we’re talking about a habit in the past and therefore, we need to use the imperfect. 

We’re sure you want to learn more phrases for talking about your habits in the past. That’s why we’ve created this list of phrases or indicators to talk about habits for you. It provides useful phrases and examples in the context of a person speaking about their life as a school student. 

And continue learning about the imperfect in the next post.

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Adventures in Language, from Mango Languages, is the best place online if you want to elevate your knowledge of linguistics and your proficiency at language learning and teaching. This wealth of knowledge is just a couple clicks away.

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Natalia Molina Ceballos

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