Spanish Lessons


The Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish

What is the imperfect subjunctive tense in Spanish? It is basically the past version of the Spanish present subjunctive! That said, let's begin this lesson with a bit of background on the subjunctive, which is one of the three Spanish moods.


The Spanish Subjunctive Mood

Most simply put, Spanish uses different verb tenses to distinguish between objective states and actions and subjective, uncertain, or emotional ones, for example, things we merely "hope" will happen. So, while there's no difference in verb form between "you come" and "I hope you come" in English, in the equivalent statement in Spanish, (usted) viene (you come) changes to the present subjunctive venga as we see here: 


Espero que venga a ver nuestros productos,

I hope you come see our products,

Caption 70, Otavalo Artesanos

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To get a tad more technical, as we see in the example above, in Spanish sentences with a subjunctive verb, we often (but not always) see the following structure:


1. An independent clause with a verb in the indicative that "triggers" the use of the subjunctive (we'll learn more about these later!)

2. A conjunction, or connecting word, like que

3. A dependent clause with a subjunctive verb


And while a "triggering" present tense verb provokes the present subjunctive, a "triggering" verb in some form of the past tense (e.g. preterite, imperfect, or past perfect) will be followed by a verb in the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, as we see here:


La verdad esperaba que usted viniera con su apoderada.

Truthfully I was hoping that you'd come with your client.

Caption 70, Confidencial: El rey de la estafa Capítulo 1 - Part 10

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How to Conjugate the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish

Now that you know a little bit about the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, let's learn how to conjugate it. If you know how to conjugate the third person plural of the preterite in Spanish, conjugating the imperfect subjunctive is relatively easy. You simply remove the -ron ending to get the imperfect subjunctive stem, then add one of two sets of endings (there are two distinct forms of the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish that are used interchangeably). Let's first take a look at these two ending sets:


Subject Pronoun: Ending 1: Ending 2: 
yo: -ra -se
tú: -ras -ses
él/ella/usted: -ra -se
nosotros/as: -ramos -semos
vosotros/as: -rais -seis
ellos/ellas/ustedes: -ran -sen


Now, let's remove the -ron endings to come up with the imperfect stems for several common Spanish verbs: 


Verb 3rd Person Plural Preterite Stem
hablar hablaron habla-
comer comieron comie-
subir subieron subie-
estar estuvieron estuvie-
ser fueron fue-


Now that we have the stems, let's add the endings to come up with the two versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive for all of these verbs, noting the addition of the accent in the nosotros/as (we) forms to maintain pronunciation. Although the first ending set is more commonly heard, while the second is the more "classic" form, there is no difference in meaning whatsoever.


Ending Set 1:


Pronoun/Verb: hablar comer subir estar ser
yo: hablara comiera subiera estuviera fuera
tú: hablaras comieras subieras estuvieras fueras
él/ella/usted: hablara comiera subiera estuviera fuera
nosotros/as: habláramos comiéramos subiéramos estuviéramos fuéramos
vosotros/as: hablarais comierais subierais estuvierais fuerais
ellos/ellas/ustedes: hablaran comieran subieran estuverian fueran


Ending Set 2:


Pronoun/Verb: hablar comer subir estar ser
yo: hablase comiese subiese estuviese fuese
tú: hablases comieses subieses estuvieses fueses
él/ella/usted: hablase comiese subiese estuviese fuese
nosotros/as: hablásemos comiésemos subiésemos estuviésemos fuésemos
vosotros/as: hablaseis comieseis subieseis estuvieseis fueseis
ellos/ellas/ustedes: hablasen comiesen subiesen estuviesen fuesen


And the good news is... there are no irregular verbs in the Spanish imperfect subjunctive!


When to Use the Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive

So, what are some examples of Spanish verbs that trigger the subjunctive? The acronym W.E.I.R.D.O., which stands for Wishes, Emotions, Impersonal Expressions, Recommendations, Doubt/Denial, and Ojalá, can help you to remember many of them. Keep in mind that because today's lesson focuses on the imperfect subjunctive, all of said verbs will appear in one of the Spanish past tenses.


As you read the English translations, you might notice that while all of the Spanish sentences meet our aforementioned criteria for using the imperfect subjunctive, there is no "one size fits all" formula for translating this verb tense because it is used in a variety of different circumstances that call for varying verb tenses in English.  


1. Wishes

Verbs that describe our wishes, hopes, or desires call for the Spanish subjunctive and include desear (to want/wish/desire), esperar (to hope), exigir (to demand/require), insistir (to insist), mandar (to order), necesitar (to need), ordenar (to order), pedir (to ask), preferir (to prefer), and querer (to want). Let's take a look at two examples where said verbs in the Spanish imperfect tense prompt the use of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive:


que lo único que esperaba era que su madre pudiera acompañarlo a una presentación del colegio.

as the only thing he was hoping for was for his mother to be able to go with him to a school performance.

Captions 2-3, Confidencial: Asesino al Volante Capítulo 2 - Part 11

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Pero dijo que quería que fueran amigos.

But she said she wanted you guys to be friends.

Caption 55, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 11 - Part 4

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In these two examples, the English infinitives "to be" and "to be able" were used to translate the Spanish imperfect subjunctive because in English, we often say that we what we hoped was for something "to happen." However, in the first example "the only thing he was hoping for was that his mother could accompany him to a school performance" could be another viable/equivalent translation.


2.  Emotions

Emotional verbs like alegrarse (to be happy/glad), enojarse (to be/get angry), encantar (to delight), lamentar (to regret/be sorry), molestar (to bother), sentir (to be sorry), and sorprender (to surprise) also provoke the subjunctive. Let's see two examples of the imperfect subjunctive sparked by the imperfect and preterite tenses:


¿Y por eso te preocupaba tanto que él viniera a verme, que me contara algo?

And that's why it worried you so much that he'd come to see me, that he'd tell me something?

Caption 54, Yago 12 Fianza - Part 2

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No, me encantó que me llamaras, escucháme, eh...

No, I loved it that you called me; listen to me, um...

Caption 63, Muñeca Brava 2 Venganza - Part 3

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The first example describes one's past worry about what might happen (whether or not it did), and since in English, we often say we were worried about what "would happen," it was translated in this fashion. The second example, on the other hand, describes an action that actually took place: "you called". And yet, despite the necessary differences in the English translations, we see that in both cases, the use of an "emotional" verb in the first clause triggered the use of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive in the second. 


3. Impersonal Expressions

Impersonal expressions are constructions that don't involve any particular person and typically begin with the third person singular of some form of ser (to be) plus almost any adjective. Examples include bueno (good), curioso (interesting), dudoso (doubtful), extraño (strange), importante (important), necesario (necessary), probable (probable), raro (strange), urgente (urgent), and many more (the exception being adjectives that indicate certainty, such as cierto (certain) or seguro (sure). Let's see some examples of impersonal expressions in the imperfect tense that call for an imperfect subjunctive verb in the second clause:


Es que era muy raro que no abrieran la puerta.

It's just that it was very strange that they weren't opening the door.

Caption 20, Tu Voz Estéreo Embalsamado - Part 10

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Y para mí era bien importante que el grupo tuviera letras...

And it was really important to me that the band had lyrics...

Caption 61, La Gusana Ciega Entrevista - Part 1

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Again, the first caption describes an action that was actually happening (they weren't opening the door), while the second describes someone's past preference (which may or may not have come to fruition). Regardless, an impersonal expression in the imperfect tense triggered the use of the imperfect subjunctive. Note that an alternative translation for the second example might be: "And it was really important to me for the band to have lyrics."


4. Recommendations

Verbs that either recommend or don't recommend other actions, such as aconsejar (to advise), decir (to tell), dejar (to allow), exigir (to demand), hacer (to make/force), insistir (to insist), mandar (to order), ordenar (to order), prohibir (to forbid), proponer (to suggest), recomendar (to recommend), rogar (to beg), sugerir (to suggest), and suplicar (to beg) call for the subjunctive mood. Let's look at some examples in the preterite:


Le propuse que hiciéramos un pequeño taller de artesanía,

I suggested to him that we open a small craft studio,

Caption 40, Playa Adícora Francisco - Part 2

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Yo sé que les dijimos que no vinieran por acá pero

I know we told them not to come here, but

Caption 65, Confidencial: Asesino al Volante Capítulo 2 - Part 11

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Although we might find out later whether or not someone's advice was actually taken, in the moment it was given, the aforementioned "advising" verbs always trigger the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. 


5. Doubt/Denial

When conjugated in some form of the past, doubt verbs like dudar (to doubt), no creer (to not believe) or no poder creer (to not be able to believe), no parecer (to not seem), no pensar (to not think), and no suponer (to not suppose) call for the imperfect subjunctive:


Bueno, por un instante llegué a dudar de que estuvieras.

Well, for a moment, I even began to doubt that you would be [here].

Caption 41, Yago 4 El secreto - Part 11

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Yo no podía creer que me pasara que una chica así se me acercara

I couldn't believe this was happening to me that such a girl would approach me

Captions 7-8, Enanitos Verdes Cuánto Poder

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In these examples, past "doubt" causes the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, regardless of whether the situations were actually unfolding. The second example is interesting because it has been translated with both the past progressive "was happening" and the conditional "would approach" in English to represent that the speaker still can't believe such a situation "would happen" to him, even as it was. 


6. Ojalá

Although ojalá and ojalá que aren't technically verbs but rather conjunctions, they are roughly equivalent to such English expressions as "I hope," "let's hope," or "God willing" and require the subjunctive. When used with the imperfect subjunctive, these expressions are often to describe hypothetical situations that one wishes "were" true (interestingly, the change from "was" to "were" to represent a hypothetical situation is the only time we see a verb change in the subjunctive mood in English). Let's look at some examples:


No es crucial. Ojalá todos los problemas fueran estos.

It's not crucial. If only all problems were [like] these.

Caption 19, Cómetelo Crema de brócoli - Part 9

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Y ojalá todo el mundo estuviera lo suficientemente entusiasmado.

And I wish everyone were excited enough.

Caption 8, Club 10 Capítulo 1 - Part 1

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We hope that these examples have helped you to understand how to conjugate the Spanish imperfect subjunctive tense, some scenarios in which to use it, and some of the many ways in which it might be translated to English. In future lessons, we hope to focus on some additional, common uses of this tense, but in the meantime... don't forget to leave us your suggestions and comments


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