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Spanish Imperfect Tense: Giving descriptions of the past

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In the previous post, we talked about using the imperfect to discuss habits in the past. Describing the past is another use. Let’s explore and let’s also see where else you can use this tense!

So, you’re talking with your classmates about your first day of work ever. There was a lot going on that day and you want to provide a detailed description. You want to tell them about the place, the people, what was going on, etc… For this scenario, you also need the imperfect tense in Spanish. Let’s see some specific cases and examples:

1.  General descriptions of the past (people, places…)

Imagine you want to describe your boss, your colleagues, and your place of work. To make an accurate description of the past, you’ll need the imperfect. Look: 

Mi jefa era una mujer alta, morena y muy inteligente. 
My boss was a tall, dark-haired, very smart woman.

Mis colegas eran jóvenes y muy amables. 
My colleagues were young and very kind.

Las ventanas de la oficina daban a una avenida. 
The office windows faced an avenue.

Again, the duration of the action is not important here. The description doesn’t convey a specific time in the past.

2.  Describing the background context or circumstances of an action

You’ll also want to use the imperfect when you’re describing the background context of a main event. Let’s continue with the topic of your first day of work ever. Read the following example:

Ese día, mi jefa hablaba por teléfono con los clientes y mis colegas escribían reportes y otros preparaban una presentación importante. Todos estaban muy ocupados. 
That day, my boss was talking on the phone with the customers, some colleagues were writing reports, and others were preparing an important presentation. Everyone was very busy.

As you can see, we’re describing the background context of a main event, but we’re also describing a series of simultaneous actions in the past. In English, the equivalent to this form is was/were + verb in -ing form.

3.  Expressing age in the past

As you probably know, in Spanish we use the verb tener [to have] to express age. When talking about age in the past, we use the imperfect. 

En ese momento tenía 20 años. 
At that moment I was 20 years old.

4.  Indicating the moment of the day in the past 

Do you remember how we said we use the imperfect to describe the background context of an action? Well, if you want to add the part or time of the day to your description, make sure to use the imperfect, like this: 

Era una tarde soleada pero fría. 
It was a sunny but cold afternoon.

Eran las 8 de la mañana y hacía mucho calor.
It was 8 in the morning and it was very hot.

   IMPORTANT:

Remember that here we’re adding the part of the day (the morning, the afternoon, the evening…) or a time of the day (8 a.m., 3 p.m.) to a description of the background context of an action. Please bear in mind that if you talk about the events that took place at a specific time in the past (for example: on November 2nd, 2006), a different past tense will be needed. 

Other uses of the imperfect in Spanish

Besides habits and descriptions in the past, the imperfect tense in Spanish has a couple more uses that are not necessarily connected to expressing past tense. In this section, we’ll have a look at those.

  • Expressing courtesy

With some verbs like querer [to want] or poder [can], the imperfect can be used to express courtesy. Pay attention here: although we’re using the imperfect, we are expressing an idea in the present tense. Look: 

Quería pedirle un favor. 
I would like to ask you a favor.

Quería saber si podía hablar con la doctora ahora mismo. 
I would like to know if I could speak with the doctor right now.

  • Future in the past 

We can also use the imperfect tense to refer to a future event planned in the past.

Iba a viajar a Madrid la próxima semana. 
I was going to travel to Madrid next week.

El concierto era en un mes. 
The concert was a month from now.

Forming the imperfect tense 

Forming the imperfect tense in Spanish is quite easy! We have created this handout that you can use to learn how to make the imperfect form of regular, reflexive, and irregular verbs. You'll be conjugating the Spanish imperfect tense like a pro in no time!

Summary

Let’s quickly recap what we’ve seen in these two posts. The imperfect tense in Spanish is used to: 

  • Talk about habits in the past when the duration of the action is indeterminate or unspecified (similar to “would” or “used to” + verb in English)

  • Describe people, places, circumstances, or time of the day in a past context

  • Express age in a past context

This acronym can also help you remember when to use the imperfect in Spanish. 

If you want to practice, we’ve created a couple of activities that will help you check if you understand when to use the imperfect tense in Spanish. 

  1. In the first activity, you’ll see a list of 10 situations. You need to read them and decide if you would need to use the imperfect in Spanish. There’s an answer key provided for you. 

  2. In the second activity you’ll have to read and complete a mystery story. You’ll also have an answer key to check your work. 

Happy learning!

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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.

Want to practice? Try these activities.

Natalia Molina Ceballos

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