Lesson 9:
The Past Imperfect

The Past Imperfect

It is used to describe situations that are perceived as verbal indefinite or unfinished in a past context.

Regular Verbs

The conjugation of regular verbs is as follows:

For the verbs that end in -ar/-er/-ir, in the imperfect, simply drop the ending -ar/-er/-ir and add the endings of imperfect according to the personal pronoun. The endings are:

ar er/ir
Yo aba ía
abas ías
usted/Él/ella aba ía
Nosotros ábamos íamos
Ellos/ellas aban ían
Ustedes aban ían

Example:

Ayudar (to help) Vender (to sell) Abrir (to open)
Yo ayudaba vendía abría
ayudabas vendías abrías
usted/Él/ella ayudaba vendía abría
Nosotros ayudábamos vendíamos abríamos
Ellos/ellas ayudaban vendían abrían
Ustedes

ayudaban vendían abrían

Irregular Verbs

In the past imperfect, there are only three irregular verbs. In this tense there are not stem-changing verbs, only regular verbs and these irregular verbs:

Ser Ver Ir
Yo era veía iba
eras veías ibas
Él / ella era veía iba
Nosotros éramos veíamos íbamos
Ellos / ellas eran veían íban
Ustedes eran veían íban

Rules for using the imperfect:

Rule 1 – To express what used to happen, to express habitual or continuous actions in the past.

Example:

Íbamos a México todos los veranos.
We used to go to Mexico every summer.

Yo tocaba la guitarra.
I used to play the guitar.

Yo trabajaba a menudo durante las vacaciones.
I often used to work during vacation.

Pablo me llamaba mucho.
Pablo used to call me a lot.

Rule 2 – To describe what was going on at a particular time.

Example:

Él leía el periódico durante el concierto.
He was reading the newspaper during the concert.

La maestra observaba a los estudiantes durante el examen.
The teacher was observing the students during the exam.

Rule 3 – To describe simultaneous actions in the past; “mientras” is usually used to connect the two actions.

Example:

Yo escribía una carta mientras escuchaba la radio.
I was writing a letter while I listened to the radio.

La mamá preparaba la comida mientras los niños jugaban en el jardín.
The mom was preparing the food while the kids played in the garden.

Rule 4 – To describe what was going on in the past when something else happened; “cuando” usually connects the two actions.

Example:

Yo escribía una carta cuando Carlos entró.
I was writing a letter when Carlos entered.

Mi papá hablaba por teléfono cuando yo llegué a la casa.
My dad was talking on the phone when I got home.

Rule 5 – To describe persons or things in the past, to describe characteristics, conditions, and emotional states in the past attitudes, opinions, feelings and circumstances.

Example:

Jane era alta y bonita.
Jane was tall and pretty.

Los aviones eran muy grandes.
The planes were very large.

Rule 6 – To express the day or time in the past.

Example:

Eran las once.
It was eleven o’clock.

Eran las doce de la medianoche cuando tembló.
It was twelve midnight when the earthquake happened.

Rule 7 – To describe the age in the past.

Example:

Yo tenía quince años cuando mi abuela murió.
I was fifteen when my grandmother died.

Ellas tenían cinco años cuando se mudaron a Canadá.
They were five years old when they moved to Canada.

Rule 8 – To express the intention of doing something which for some reason is not done. In this rule we use the following formula:

Ir (conjugated in imperfect) + a + infinitive = describes the action

Querer (conjugated in imperfect) + infinitive = describes the desire

Example:

Yo iba a subir el volcán pero tuve que trabajar.
I was going to climb the volcano but I had to work.

Nosotros íbamos a cenar en casa pero decidimos ir a un restaurante.
We were going to have dinner at home but we decided to go to a restaurant.

Yo quería estudiar en la universidad pero no tengo suficiente dinero.
I wanted to study at college but I don’t have enough money.

Ella quería ir a la fiesta pero su mamá no le dio permiso.
She wanted to go to the party but her mother did not give her permission.

Rule 9 – To express desire, need, and may even express a future in the past with the verbs: querer, desear, necesitar, esperar, pensar, decir, sentir, saber.

Example:

Ella dijo que iba a viajar a Europa la semana pasada.
She said that she was going to travel to Europe last week.

Yo creí que él iba a venir pronto.
I thought that he was going to come soon.

Él me dijo que tenía hambre.
He told me that he was hungry.

La mamá pensó que todos estaban bien.
The mom thought that everyone was fine.

Rule 10 – To describe a change from the past to the present.

Example:

Yo no sabía la historia de Guatemala, hasta que leí este libro.
I did not know the history of Guatemala, until I read this book.

Antes de la caída del muro en Alemania, había muchos problemas en este país.
Before the fall of the German Wall, there were many problems in this country.

Verbs that change meaning in Preterit and Past Imperfect

Preterit Past Imperfect
Conocer met for the first time to know
Poder succeeded to be able to
Querer tried to want
No querer refused to want
Saber found out to know
Tener got, received to have

Expressions more common used in Preterit Tense and Past Imperfect

Preterit tense:

Alguna vez once in a while
Anteayer the day before yesterday
Ayer yesterday
De pronto suddenly
De repente suddenly
Dos veces twice
El día anterior the day before
El domingo pasado last Sunday
El fin de semana pasado last weekend
El sábado pasado last Saturday
Finalmente finally
Por fin finally
Por primera vez for the first time
Un día one day
Una vez once

Past Imperfect tense:

A menudo often
A veces sometimes
Algunas veces sometimes
Antes before
Cada día every day
De vez en cuando Occasionally / from time to time
En el pasado in the past
Entonces then
Generalmente generally
Los domingos on Sundays
Los fines de semana on weekends
Los sábados por la noche Saturday evenings
Por lo general generally
Rara vez rarely
Raramente rarely
Siempre always
Todos los días every day
Usualmente usually

The differences between Past Tense and Past Imperfect Tense

1. The preterit is used to indicate the beginning or the end of an action or event occurring in the past. It may also indicate the complete event both beginning and end.

Example:

Él empezó a trabajar.
He began to work.

Cesó de llover.
It stopped raining.

Visité a María ayer.
I visited Mary yesterday.

2. The imperfect is used to indicate the continuance of a situation or event in the past. Neither the beginning nor the end is indicated. Thus, it is used:

a. To express what was happening, used to happen, or happened repeatedly in the past.

Example:

¿Qué hacían ellos mientras el niño dormía?
What were they doing while the child slept?

Vivíamos en Madrid.
We used to live in Madrid.

Yo lo veía a menudo.
I used to see him often.

b. To describe persons, things, or situations in the past.

Example:

María tenía los ojos azules.
Mary had blue eyes.

La imprenta era una maquina útil.
The press was a useful machine.

c. To express the time of day in the past.

Example:

Eran las ocho.
It was eight o’clock.

Eran las nueve de la noche cuando ellos salieron de la fiesta.
It was nine o’clock when they left the party.

d. In the construction hacía + time expression + que + imperfect; to describe an action or event
that began in the past and continued in the past. In questions like, “how long?”, is expressed by
¿cuánto tiempo hacía que + imperfect?

Example:

Hacía una hora que estudiaban.
They had been studying for an hour.

¿Cuánto tiempo hacía que tú trabajabas?
How long had you been working?

e. With the preterit, to describe what was going on in the past imperfect when another action or event occurred, that is, began or ended in the preterit.

Example:

Yo leía cuando mi hermana entró.
I was reading when my sister entered.

Ellos hacían el examen cuando el director dio la señal de alarma.
They were doing the test when the director gave the alarm.