Spanish Past Tenses – Pretérito Imperfecto

After successfully getting through the Spanish Preterite Indefinite and Preterite Perfect, it’s time for the third past tense in Spanish grammar – The Preterite Imperfect. 

“Why so many past tenses?!”- I can almost hear the complaints.

Trust me, I feel your pain. After all, I was an A2-B1 student once. 

Each of the Spanish “Preteritos” has a different function and follows a well-defined pattern of rules. 

If you aim at real fluency, I’m afraid you’ll have to master them all. 

As a reminder, here is the list of all the Spanish past structures:

4 Main Types of Past Tenses in Spanish:

  • Pretérito Indefinido / Preterite Indefinite – equivalent to the English Simple Past. It describes actions / events that happened at a given time in the past

🇪🇸 Ayer almorzé con Lucas.
🇬🇧 Yesterday I had lunch with Lucas.

  • Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto / Preterite Perfect – equivalent to the English Present Perfect. It doesn’t require you to specify when a given action / event took place. The described actions normally have a connection to the present. 

🇪🇸 He comprado un auto nuevo. 
🇬🇧 I’ve bought a new car.

  • Pretérito Imperfecto / Preterite Imperfect– equivalent to the English “used to”. It describes past habits and actions / events that took place on a regular basis. 

🇪🇸 Cuando era joven, hacía ejercicio todos los días.
🇬🇧 When I was young, I used to exercise every day. 

  • Pretérito pluscuamperfecto / Preterite Pluperfect – equivalent to the English Past Perfect. It is used to describe an action / event that took place before another one. 

🇪🇸 Ya habíamos terminado antes de que llegaste. 
🇬🇧 We had already finished before you arrived. 

Spanish Pretérito Imperfecto – How To Use It

The most important thing for you to remember about the Imperfect past tense is that it describes past habits and customs – actions that used to occur regularly and permanent (or extended) states. 

Think about your childhood. 

Or your teenage years. 

Or the time you spent in college. 

Or your first job.

What did you use to do back then? What habits did you have? 

I’ll tell you a little about mine:

🇪🇸 Cuando era niña, no me gustaba mucho el deporte. 
🇬🇧 When I was a girl, I didn’t really like sports. 

🇪🇸 También odiaba ir al jardín infantil y le pedía a mi madre que no me enviara. 
🇬🇧 I also hated going to kindergarten and used to ask my mother not to send me there. 

🇪🇸 Siempre hacía una pataleta antes de salir.
🇬🇧 I would always throw a fit before leaving home. 

🇪🇸 En la escuela me sacaba buenas notas y tenía muchas amigas. 
🇬🇧 I used to get good grades at school and I had many girlfriends. 

🇪🇸 De adolescente, leía mucho. 
🇬🇧 As a teenager, I used to read a lot. 

🇪🇸 Cuando estaba en la universidad, vivía en una residencia estudiantíl. 
🇬🇧 When I was in college, I used to live in dorms. 

🇪🇸 En mi primer trabajo, viajaba casi todos los meses al extranjero.
🇬🇧 In my first job, I used to travel abroad almost every month. 

🇪🇸 Cuando mis hijos eran chicos, ibamos casi todos los días al parque. 
🇬🇧 When my kids were little, we would go to the park almost every day. 

🇪🇸 Test Your Spanish Knowledge 🇪🇸

Surely, each of you could create a list like that, indicating past routines and habits that mark different periods of your life. 

But let’s focus on Spanish grammar. If you take a close look at the verbs in red, you’ll quickly realize they can be grouped according to their endings.

On one hand, you have the ones that finish in -ABA: viajaba, estaba, sacaba, odiaba…

And on the other hand, those with the -íA ending: vivía, leía, hacía, pedía. 

The only odd one is the verb “to be“, whose preterite imperfect form in Spanish for the 1st person singular is era

The conjugation rules of the Spanish Preterite Imperfect Tense 

The -ÍA and -ABA endings are the most recognizable feature of this past tense. You’ll know what ending to use simply by looking at the infinitive form.

The -AR verbs conjugate with -ABA, while the -ER and -IR verbs take up the -ÍA ending in pretérito imperfect.

Pretérito Imperfecto – Conjugation Rules for Regular Verbs

The -AR verbs
The -ER verbs
The -IR verbs
yo trabajaba
tú trabajabas
él trabajaba
nosotros trabajábamos*
vosotros trabajabais
ellos trabajaban 
yo comía
tú comías 
él comía
nosotros comíamos
vosotros comíais
ellos comían 
yo escribía
tú escribías
él escribía
nosotros escribíamos
vosotros escribíais
ellos escribían

* Pay attention to the accent over the “a”, as it indicates the stress over this syllable. 

🇪🇸 De adolescente, trabajaba de mesera en un restaurante cerca de mi casa.
🇬🇧 I used to work as a waitress at a restaurant near my house when I was a teenager.

🇪🇸 Cuando joven, Juan casi no se afeitaba.
🇬🇧 Juan hardly ever shaved when he was young. 

🇪🇸 Cuando mi mamá me peinaba las trenzas, yo me quejaba mucho.
🇬🇧 When my mom braided my hair, I would complain a lot. 

🇪🇸 De chica, no comía tomates. ¡Ahora me encantan!
🇬🇧 When I was little I wouldn’t eat tomatoes. Now I love them. 

🇪🇸 Mis hermanos y yo siempre veíamos los Looney Tunes los domingos por la tarde. 
🇬🇧 My brothers and I would always watch the Looney Tunes on Sunday afternoons. 

🇪🇸 Cuando vivía con mis papás, solo podía salir los viernes y los sábados. 
🇬🇧 When I was living with my parents, I could only go out on Fridays and Saturdays. 

🇪🇸 Mis abuelos siempre tenían muchas mascotas.
🇬🇧 My grandparents always had many pets. 

🇪🇸 Antes del internet la gente escribía cartas. 
🇬🇧 Before the Internet people used to write letters. 

Spanish Preterite Imperfect – Irregular Verbs

I know what you’re thinking: 

“Learning the regular conjugations is a piece of cake. It is the irregular verbs that ALWAYS give me a headache”. 

But you know what? El Pretérito Imperfecto hardly has any exceptions at all!

Isn’t it great?

The ONLY two verbs that don’t follow the rules are SER (to be) and IR (to go)

Here’s how you conjugate them:

yo era
tú eras
él era
nosotros éramos
vosotros erais
ellos eran
yo iba
tú ibas
él iba
nosotros íbamos
vosotros íbais
ellos iban

Whenever you want to use any of these two verbs in the Spanish imperfect past tense, you can say, for instance:

🇪🇸 Mi casa era grande y tenía un jardín.
🇬🇧 My house was big and had a garden.

🇪🇸 Mis ambos padres eran ingenieros. 
🇬🇧 My both parents were engineers.

🇪🇸 Siempre íbamos a la playa en el verano.
🇬🇧 We’d always go to the beach in the summer. 

🇪🇸 A pesar de que mi escuela quedaba lejos, ibamos caminando. 
🇬🇧 Even though my school was far, we went there on foot. 

Spanish Preterite Imperfect – Other Uses

Can Pretérito Imperfecto be used in situations other than those that describe past habits and routines?

As it turns out, it can. 

Use the Preterite Perfect Tense in Spanish when you:

Make Descriptions of People and Things from the Past

What were you like as a kid? 

And your first car – what was it like? How about the house you grew up in?

Do you remember your first boyfriend or girlfriend? Tell me about them!

Here’s a bunch of ideas you can use as reference:

🇪🇸 María era una niña tímida y dulce. Tenía unos grandes ojos verdes y cabello castaño.
🇬🇧 María was a shy and sweet girl. She had big green eyes and brown hair. 

🇪🇸 Mi primer carro fue un Nissan de segunda mano. Era viejo, pero andaba bastante bien. 
🇬🇧 My first car was a second-hand Nissan. It was old, but it ran quite well.  

🇪🇸 Mi primer novio se llamaba Lucas. Era alto y apuesto, pero muy inmaduro. 
🇬🇧 My first boyfriend’s name was Lucas. He was tall and good-looking, but very immature. 

🇪🇸 Crecí en la casa de mis abuelos. Estaba hecha de ladrillos, era acogedora y olía a leña.
🇬🇧 I grew up in my grandparents’ house. It was made of bricks, cozy, and smelled of firewood. 

Describe 2 Past Actions That Were Happening Paralelly

Señor Perez is such a great husband. But his wife is the laziest woman in the world. 

This is what they were doing at different times of the day:

🇪🇸 Mientras la Sra. Pérez aún dormía, su marido ya estaba en la ducha.
🇬🇧 While Mrs. Perez was still asleep, her husband was already showering. 

🇪🇸 A las 9 de la mañana, el buen hombre ya trabajaba, mientras que ella recién se vestía.
🇬🇧 At 9 AM, the good man was already working, while she was only getting dressed. 

🇪🇸 A las 6, mientras que su marido preparaba la cena, esa mujer perezosa se pintaba las uñas.
🇬🇧 At 6 PM, when her husband was preparing dinner, this lazy woman was painting her nails

🇪🇸 Y cuando él, agotado, lavaba la loza, ella veía la tele y se reía. 
🇬🇧 And when he, exhausted, was washing the dishes, she was watching TV and laughing. 

What a terrible, ungrateful woman! I’m sure you could find more Spanish adjectives to describe her!

Adjectives in Spanish is a topic for another day, though. 

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Joanna Lupa
Joanna Lupa
Polish by birth, Chilean by the turns of life. Has spent 20 years in that beautiful South American country working as a language teacher and translator. Has taught Spanish and English to students of all proficiency levels. Passionate about languages, books, and traveling. A mother of 2 trilingual teenagers.

Your Spanish Journey
Starts Here