Unit 13: Past subjunctive, informal commands, translation considerations (part 3)

13.4 The Imperfect Subjunctive

The imperfect ([simple] past) subjunctive in Spanish is formed from the third person plural of the preterite tense (caminaron, comieron, hicieron, etc.), cutting off the –aron or –ieron, and adding one of two different sets of endings. The endings are the same for regular and irregular verbs, though technically no verb is irregular in this tense, as all verbs form this tense in the same manner, whether using an irregular or regular stem.

caminar comer hacer
yo caminara comiera hiciera
caminaras comieras hicieras
él, ella, Ud. caminara comiera hiciera
nosotros camináramos comiéramos hiciéramos
vosotros caminarais comierais hicierais
ellos, ellas, Uds. caminaran comieran hicieran


caminar comer hacer
yo caminase comiese hiciese
caminases comieses hicieses
él, ella, Ud. caminase comiese hiciese
nosotros caminásemos comiésemos hiciésemos
vosotros caminaseis comieseis hicieseis
ellos, ellas, Uds. caminasen comiesen hiciesen

The endings in –ase and -iese are more prevalent in Spain, but both forms of the imperfect subjunctive are heard and written in both Spain and Latin America. If you have learned the preterite well, especially that or irregular verbs, the imperfect subjunctive should be easy to recognize.

¡Ojo! The accent mark on the second and third persons singular as well as on the third person plural form of all regular –ar verbs is the only distinguishing feature between the future tense and the imperfect subjunctive:

  • caminarás (future), caminaras (imperfect subjunctive)
  • caminará (future), caminara (imperfect subjunctive)
  • caminarán (future), caminaran (imperfect subjunctive)

The following verbs, like hacer, have irregular preterites, which are the basis for the imperfect subjunctive, listed below in the first person singular (identical in form to the third person singular):

andar anduviera, anduviese
caber cupiera, cupiese
dar diera, diese
decir dijera, dijese
estar estuviera, estuviese
haber hubiera, hubiese
hacer hiciera, hiciese
ir fuera, fuese*
poder pudiera, pudiese
poner pusiera, pusiese
querer quisiera, quisiese
saber supiera, supiese
ser fuera, fuese*
tener tuviera, tuviese
traducir tradujera, tradujese
traer trajera, trajese
venir viniera, viniese

*Note again that, as the preterite forms of ir and ser are identical, so are the forms of the imperfect subjunctive. Context clarifies which is the verb in question.

The imperfect subjunctive is used in the same cases in which the present subjunctive appears, with the difference that the action of the subordinate (subjunctive) clause is normally in the past. The verb in the main clause is usually also in a past tense (preterite, imperfect, or conditional).

Quería que lo trajeras. I wanted you to bring it.
Era buena idea que Débora viniera. It was a good idea for Deborah to come.
Sería preferible que él no dijese eso. It would be preferable that he not say that.
Esperaban que pudiera asistir. They hoped I could attend.

As the present subjunctive at times may be translated as “may” + main verb, the imperfect subjunctive may at times be translated as “might” (technically, the past tense of “may”) + main verb:

Esperaba que lo hiciese. I hoped she might do it.

The above example could also be translated as “I hoped she would do it.” Both are equally correct, although the first translation emphasizes doubt. As with the present subjunctive, note in the above examples that there is no pattern for translating all imperfect subjunctives.

With three verbs, querer, poder and deber, one may find the imperfect subjunctive in the main clause to render a polite or “softening” effect. This is especially common with the verb querer:

¿Quisiera ayudarme? Would you please help me?
Debieras hacerlo. You really ought to do it.
¿Pudieras traerlo? Could you please bring it?

Although the above is the norm, other combinations of verb tenses are encountered. For example, a present tense verb in the main clause may be followed by a past subjunctive.

Esperan que tuviéramos éxito. They hope we were successful.

Inversely, a present subjunctive may appear after a main verb in a past tense or the conditional when the action of the subordinate clause clearly refers to a present or future moment.

Nos gustaría que vengas ahora. We would like you to come now.

The imperfect (or past perfect [see section 15.1.]) subjunctive is also found in a pseudo-main clause (i.e., when the main clause is not present, but rather understood, leaving what was the original subordinate clause now as the only one) to indicate a contrary-to-fact situation, an unlikely action or a regret, depending on the tense employed:

¡Ojalá cantara como ella! If only (He wished) he could sing like her.*

Quién + imperfect or past perfect subjunctive also refers to the wishes of the speaker, expressing improbability or regret:

¡Quién pudiera viajar a Nueva Zelanda! If only I could travel to New Zealand!
¡Quién lo hubiéramos ganado! ** If only we had won it!

*The present subjunctive, as you have seen, may also follow ojalá, and indicates a desire that still may be carried out: Ojalá nos digan los resultados hoy. (“I hope they tell us the results today.”)

** See Past Perfect (Pluperfect) Subjunctive, section 15.1.


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