Are you confused about the use and conjugation of Spanish past tenses? Do you want to know how to translate the Spanish pretérito imperfecto to English? Are you ready to learn how to use and conjugate the Spanish pretérito imperfecto?
If you are looking for a clear explanation of pretérito imperfecto and the role it plays in the universe of Spanish past tenses, you have come to the right place.
But first of all, let me tell you something: don’t worry, you are not alone. I see the panic on my students’ faces every time we introduce past tenses in class for the first time.
The idea of Spanish past tenses being a difficult and confusing matter is widely spread amongst Spanish learners. But I disagree. It is just a topic that needs to be explained in an easy and comprehensible way because unfortunately there is no one-to-one translation between Spanish and English past tenses.
As my students always hear me say, it is all about context.
Contents on this post
An overview of Spanish past tenses
Before studying each Spanish past tense individually and using them in combination, it is important to have a quick overview.
There are 3 + 1 Spanish past tenses. I say +1 because one can be avoided or changed to another past tense in most of the cases. So let’s keep it as a bonus for when we have mastered the 3 main past tenses.
Each past tense has its own name (useful when learning grammar and looking for exercises) but all of them start with the same word: pretérito. Pretérito means ‘past’ in Spanish grammar.
Therefore, the Spanish past tenses are:
I know that at this point the only question you have on your mind is: ‘Ok, but what is that in English?’ Sorry, but I have some bad news for you: as I said before, there is no direct translation to English past tenses. It will depend on the context.
But it’s not all bad news, instead of trying to find translations from one language to another, we can look at the usage of the past tenses and REALLY understand:
To choose the right past tense, you have to consider when the action took place (Was it today or yesterday? Was it this week or last week?) and also if you want to talk about main actions or descriptions.
As a very general rule, we use pretérito perfecto and pretérito indefinido for actions in the past while we use pretérito imperfecto for descriptions of people, places, objects, and situations in the past.
The best advice I can give to you to learn past tenses: do it step by step.
In this article, we will focus on the use and conjugation of the pretérito imperfecto.
How to conjugate the Spanish pretérito imperfecto
Spanish pretérito imperfecto is one of the 3+1 Spanish past tenses. Its conjugation is very simple but it can be hard to understand when to use it as there is no direct translation to English.
One more time, it will depend on the context
But let’s start with the easiest: the Spanish pretérito imperfecto conjugation.
Let’s have a closer look:
Regular conjugation – Spanish pretérito imperfecto
Spanish pretérito imperfecto is formed by taking the infinitive, removing the -ar, -er, -ir and adding a specific ending for each person:
Irregular conjugation – Spanish pretérito imperfecto
I have good news for you! There are only three irregular verbs in the Spanish pretérito imperfecto.
How to use the Spanish pretérito imperfecto
There is not only one context to use the pretérito imperfecto. We use it for different communicative situations. Let’s have a closer look one by one:
- We use pretérito imperfecto to provide descriptions in the past about people, places or things. What is the difference between an action and a description? Check these sentences:
Todos los días voy a la playa. (Action in the present tense)
La playa es grande y bonita. En la playa hay mucha gente. (Description in the present tense)
The same sentences in the past:
El año pasado fui a la playa (Action in the past tense)
La playa era grande y bonita. En la playa había mucha gente. (Description in the past tense)
- We can also use the pretérito imperfecto for actions in the past, but when we use this past tense we refer to actions that were repeated in the past, like habits or routines. For example:
El año pasado iba a la playa todos los días.
Antes me levantaba temprano, pero ahora me levanto tarde.
- Another way to use the pretérito imperfecto is to talk about two or more actions in the past that happened at the same time, simultaneously:
Ayer por la tarde, yo trabajaba mientras mi marido limpiaba la casa.
Cuando el niño jugaba, sus padres hablaban por teléfono.
- Finally, in opposition to the pretérito indefinido, we use the pretérito imperfecto to talk about actions that represent the context when another main action happened. It gives the details of what was happening when something else happened. The context is expressed using the pretérito imperfecto while the main action is expressed using the pretérito indefinido. For example:
Ayer, cuando volvía a casa me encontré a mi amiga Ana.
El domingo por la tarde, cuando salía de casa sonó el teléfono.
Download 19 easy sentences to practice Spanish pretérito imperfecto
Now you have all the information about how to conjugate and use the Spanish pretérito imperfecto. Before reading and learning about other past tenses like the pretérito perfecto and indefinido I strongly recommend you to practise. It will help you to take in all this new information and really understand.
I have created 19 easy sentences for you to practise the use of the Spanish pretérito imperfecto. Download the worksheet below!
Special bonus! The best Spanish song to practice the pretérito imperfecto
Who wrote this post?
We are CactusBCN Languages, a Spanish language school located in Barcelona.
The school was founded and is run by two enthusiastic teachers: Marta and Verónica. We were teaching Spanish around the world for a few years and when we come back to Spain, we decided to start our own school.
Why should I take an online Spanish course?
Online classes are as fun as face-to-face classes but with the added benefits of online learning: