How to use and conjugate the Spanish pretérito imperfecto

How to use and conjugate the Spanish pretérito imperfecto

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:¬†pret√©rito.¬†Pret√©rito¬†means ‚Äėpast‚Äô in Spanish grammar.

Therefore, the Spanish past tenses are: 

I know that at this¬†point the only question you have on your mind is: ‚ÄėOk, but¬†what¬†is that in English?‚Äô¬†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. 

Let’s start!

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¬†ūüôā

But let’s start with the easiest: the Spanish pretérito imperfecto conjugation.

Let’s have a closer look:

Regular conjugation ‚Äď Spanish pret√©rito imperfecto

Spanish pretérito imperfecto is formed by taking the infinitive, removing the -ar, -er, -ir and adding a specific ending for each person:

Spanish pretérito imperfecto regular conjugation

For example:

Spanish pretérito imperfecto regular conjugation example

Irregular conjugation ‚Äď Spanish¬†pret√©rito imperfecto

I have good news for you! There are only three irregular verbs in the Spanish pretérito imperfecto.

They are:

Spanish pretérito imperfecto irregular verbs
Spanish pretérito imperfecto irregular verbs

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¬†pret√©rito 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 a√Īo 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¬†pret√©rito 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 a√Īo pasado¬†iba¬†a la playa todos los d√≠as.

Antes me levantaba temprano, pero ahora me levanto tarde.

  • Another way to use the¬†pret√©rito 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 ni√Īo¬†jugaba, sus padres¬†hablaban¬†por tel√©fono.

  • Finally, in opposition to the¬†pret√©rito indefinido, we use the¬†pret√©rito 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¬†pret√©rito imperfecto¬†while the main action is expressed using the¬†pret√©rito 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?

Spanish online class

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big learning.

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. 

It is a small local business. We work with small groups because we like to get to know all our students and design personalized lessons.

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