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The Imperfect Tense in Spanish: The Past That Just Won't Quit

What is the imperfect tense in Spanish? In contrast to the Spanish preterite, or simple past tense, which typically describes completed actions in the past, the imperfect tense in Spanish depicts past actions that were carried out regularly, over a longer period of time, or were in progress at a specified point. In addition to these uses of the imperfect tense in Spanish, there are other specific contexts in which it is necessary to use this tense, many of which we hope to illuminate for you today. 

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When Do You Use Imperfect Tense in Spanish? 

Let's take a look at some situations in which it is necessary to use the Spanish imperfect tense.

 

 

1. To Describe Habitual Actions in the Past

 

The imperfect tense in Spanish distinguishes actions that occurred on a habitual basis in the past from isolated incidents. Let's begin to understand this by examining how this idea might be expressed in English:

 

When I was young, I used to visit my grandparents every summer.

 

When I was young, I would visit my grandparents every summer.

 

When I was young, I visited my grandparents every summer. 

 

Interestingly, all of these English sentences could be translated to Spanish using the same sentence in the imperfect tense:  "Cuando yo era joven, visitaba a mis abuelos todos los veranos." This is because, despite their structural differences, they all mean the same thing: that the speaker would regularly visit his or her grandparents in the past. 

 

Armed with this idea that the imperfect tense in Spanish can encompass various English constructions, let's take a look at some additional examples of sentences with verbs in the imperfect tense:

 

Cuentan los cronistas que veían desfilar a las tropas bajando desde lo que era el Cuartel de San Telmo hasta lo que hoy es conocido como el Bulevar donostiarra, 

The chroniclers tell that they would see the troops parading, coming down from what used to be the San Telmo Barracks to what is known today as the "Bulevar donostiarra" [Donostiarra Boulevard]

Captions 26-28, Días festivos La Tamborrada de San Sebastián

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eh... -Sí. -... practicaba fútbol.

um... -Yes. -...I used to play soccer.

Caption 27, Club 10 Capítulo 2 - Part 2

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In this second example, although an English speaker might say either, "Oh! I used to play soccer too!" or "Oh! I played soccer too!" to talk about something he or she did regularly at a previous juncture, the Spanish language would always employ the imperfect tense to distinguish this as a habitual action in the past. In contrast, if the speaker had just completed a game of soccer yesterday, he would instead use the preterite tense:

 

Ayer practiqué fútbol.

I played soccer yesterday. 

 

All that said, at the moment of constructing a sentence, in order to decide when to use the imperfect tense in Spanish, an English speaker must consider whether a past action took place just once or over an extended period, in which case it will be necessary to choose the imperfect tense. 

 

 

2. To Describe Incomplete or Interrupted Actions in the Past 

 

The imperfect tense in Spanish is also used to describe past actions that were incomplete or interrupted at the depicted moment. Let's take a look:

 

Vi que me acompañaba, mientras yo cantaba. -Sí.

I saw that you were accompanying me while I was singing. -Yes.

Caption 28, Yago 1 La llegada - Part 7

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Notice that imperfect verbs that describe past actions in progress are most commonly (but again, not always) expressed in English in the past progressive tense, e.g., "You were accompanying," "I was singing," etc. The same can be said of interrupted past actions, where the action in progress is conjugated in the imperfect tense in Spanish, while the interrupting action is in the preterite tense:

 

OK, o sea que vos pensás que yo iba por la calle y de repente conocí a una chica y la llevé a una obra en construcción para seducirla.

OK, in other words, you think that I was going down the street and suddenly, I met a girl and took her to a construction site to seduce her.

Captions 22-23, Muñeca Brava 45 El secreto - Part 2

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Me sentía perdido hasta que un día me llegó un email.

I was feeling lost until, one day, I got an email.

Caption 24, Con ánimo de lucro Cortometraje - Part 10

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Notably, although the Spanish past progressive tense can also be used to describe incomplete or interrupted actions in some cases (e.g. Yo cocinaba cuando mi marido llegó a casa and Yo estaba cocinando cuando mi marido llegó a casa both mean "I was cooking when my husband got home"), in our examples above, the imperfect tense in Spanish would be the more likely choice. 

 

3. To Describe Conditions and Characteristics

 

Since they tend to be ongoing, rather than having a definite beginning or end, the imperfect tense in Spanish is additionally used to describe physical and other characteristics of people or things in the past.

 

Tenía una barba blanca que le llegaba hasta la cintura y una larga cabellera. Tenía además una corona dorada y vestía un manto blanco.

He had a white beard that went down to his waist and long hair. He also had a golden crown and wore a white robe.

Captions 12-14, Aprendiendo con Carlos América precolombina - El mito de Bochica

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Pero no era la... mi... la Connie, mi esposa, sino era la otra, la rubia, que era muy bonita de ojos azules. 

But it wasn't the... my... Connie, my wife, but rather it was the other one, the blonde, who was very pretty with blue eyes.

Captions 29-30, Gonzalo el Pintor Vida - Part 1

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In this second example, it is notable that, even though the third person singular form of the verb ser (to be) in its preterite form (fue) can also be translated as "was" in some cases, the imperfect tense in Spanish is the correct manner of talking about traits in the past. The imperfect is also the preferred tense for describing past states of being, as in the following example:
 

Tenía su pata rota. Esta pata de aquí, la tenía rota.

His leg was broken. This leg here, it was broken.

Captions 17-18, Amaya La historia de Lukas

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This descriptive nature of the imperfect tense in Spanish makes it ideal for explaining "how things were," or "setting the scene" in literature, which is the focus of this additional Yabla lesson on the imperfect tense. 
 

4. To Talk About Age

 
Since age can also be thought of as characteristic rather than something that "occurs" in a given moment, the imperfect tense in Spanish is used to talk about it in past tense: 
 

Desde cuando tenía doce años, más o menos. 

Since I was twelve years old, more or less.

Caption 13, Encuentro Volkswagen en Adícora Escarabajos en la playa - Part 2

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4. To Talk About Dates and Time

 

Additionally, since "setting the scene" might entail recounting what day or time it "was," dates and times must be described in the Spanish imperfect tense:

 

Eran las cinco de la tarde.

It was five o'clock in the evening. 

 

ya que recuerdo que hacía un calor terrible, aunque todavía era el mes de junio

as I remember that it was terribly hot, despite the fact that it was still the month of June,

Captions 38-39, Fermín y los gatos Mi gata Poeska

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5. To Talk About Feelings

 

The imperfect tense in Spanish is also utilized to speak about emotions in the past:

 

Un poquito y ajá, y estaba triste porque dejaba mi familia y eso y ya.

A little bit, and uh-huh, and I was sad because I was leaving my family and all that and that's it.

Caption 70, Cleer Entrevista a Lila

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Todos en la casa estaban muy emocionados

Everyone in the house was very excited,

Caption 17, Cuentos de hadas Cenicienta - Part 1

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The Imperfect Tense in Spanish: Final Thoughts 

So... when do you use the imperfect tense in Spanish? We hope that this lesson has made it more clear that, in contrast to the Spanish preterite tense, the Spanish imperfect is reserved for past events that "kept on going" for an extended period. For more examples of imperfect tense in Spanish, we recommend Carlos' video on this topic, where he explores not only when to use imperfect tense in Spanish, but also how to conjugate its regular and some of its most common irregular forms.

 

That's all for today, and don't forget to leave us your suggestions and comments

 

 

 

 

 

Verb tenses

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps!

How can we express the idea of "maybe" or "perhaps" in Spanish? Although a lo mejor, quizá(s), and tal vez are often used interchangeably, let's take a look at some of the nuances of each as well as exploring some additional options. 

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A lo mejor

Despite its literal translation ("at the best"), the Spanish expression a lo mejor is used colloquially to express the idea of "perhaps" or "maybe." A lo mejor can fall anywhere in a sentence, and the verb that follows it is always conjugated in the indicative rather than the subjunctive. Let's take a look:

 

He pensado que como tú tienes más experiencia en estos temas, a lo mejor me puedes ayudar.

I've thought that since you have more experience in these matters, maybe you can help me.

Captions 7-8, Raquel y Marisa Español Para Negocios - Nuestro perfil profesional en la red

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Quién sabe, a lo mejor a partir de ahora confías un poquito más en ella.

Who knows? Maybe from now on, you'll trust it a little bit more.

Caption 72, Club de las ideas Intuición - Part 2

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Tal vez

Tal vez is more typically (but not always) placed at the beginning of a sentence and can be used with either the indicative or the subjunctive

 

Tal vez cure el tiempo las heridas que dejaste en mi vida y que marcaste en mi alma

Perhaps time will cure the wounds that you left in my life and you marked on my soul

Captions 20-21, Reik No desaparecerá

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Y ahora, en tiempos de pandemia, tal vez es mejor tenerla tapada para cualquier tipo de contacto con otras personas.

And now, in this period of pandemic, perhaps it's better to keep it covered for any type of contact with other people.

Captions 80-82, Ana Carolina Gérmenes

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In the first example, the verb curar (to heal) has been conjugated in the subjunctive, while in the second passage, ser (to be) is in the indicative. Although the use of either the subjunctive or the indicative in a sentence may or may not affect its translation into English, the subjunctive gives the idea of additional doubt. For example, the substitution of the indicative form cura in the first example would convey greater hope on the part of the speaker about the prospect of time healing his wounds whereas the use of the subjunctive form, sea, in the second example would convey less certainty on Ana Carolina's part. 

 

Quizá(s)

Quizá(s) also tends to fall at the beginning of a sentence and can be used in either the indicative or subjunctive, also depending upon the degree of doubt. Let's look a couple of examples, with the first one in indicative and the second one in subjunctive:

 

Quizás esa persona ya sabe que en San Sebastián hay tres playas,

Perhaps that person already knows that there are three beaches in San Sebastian,

Captions 80-81, Clase Aula Azul Información con subjuntivo e indicativo - Part 2

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Este... y... y quizás me atropelle un carro, ¿verdad?

Um... and... and maybe I could be hit by a car, right?

Caption 13, Seva Vive 5. La historia se da cuenta - Part 1

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All that said, which of the aforementioned adverbs for "maybe" should we choose? As all three can be used to express the same thing, let's take a look at the previous example, substituting quizás with both tal vez and a lo mejor:
 
Y tal vez me atropelle un carro, ¿verdad?
And maybe I could be hit by a car, right?
 
a lo mejor me atropella un carro, ¿verdad?
And maybe I could be hit by a car, right?

 

Note that while the translations for all three sentences are identical, with the substitution of tal vez, the sentence is otherwise unaltered. In order to employ a lo mejor correctly, on the other hand, the sentence's verb must be changed to indicative

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Puede ser (que)

Yet another Spanish expression, puede ser, can also be used in lieu of quizá(s) and tal vez. While this literally means "it can be," alternative translations include "it could be," "it's possible" and even "perhaps" or "maybe."

 

Probablemente tengas gripe. Puede ser.

You probably have the flu. It's possible.

Captions 21-22, Ariana Cita médica

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Alternatively, the construction puede ser que employs the subjunctive to introduce a possibility in a similar way to the English idea of "might":

 

Hasta puede ser que entonces podamos entender a Joan.

We might even be able to then understand Joan.

Caption 55, Con ánimo de lucro - Cortometraje - Part 10

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Acaso

Acaso also means "perhaps" or "maybe" and can be used with either the indicative or the subjunctive. Let's see an example with the verb creer (to think) in the indicative mood:

 

¿O acaso usted cree que las azafatas somos millonarias?

Or maybe you think that we flight attendants are millionaires?

Caption 43, Confidencial: El rey de la estafa Capítulo 2 - Part 2

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Armed with these possibilities for expressing the idea of "maybe" in Spanish, a lo mejor (perhaps) it's time to say goodbye for the time being. Don't hesitate to contact us with your suggestions and comments.

 

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