Unit 6: Pronouns (Part 1), imperfect tense, adverbs

6.6 The Imperfect Tense

The imperfect tense is one of two simple (versus compound) Spanish verb tenses to express past actions. –Ar verbs have one set of endings; -er and -ir verbs, another.

Estar Comer Vivir
yo estaba comía vivía
estabas comías  vivías
él, ella, Ud. estaba comía vivía
nosotros estábamos comíamos vivíamos
vosotros estabáis comíais vivíais
ellos, ellas, Uds. estaban comían  vivían

The –aba endings stand out, as this is the only occasion in which a b appears in a Spanish verb ending in any tense (except the imperfect tense irregular forms of ir [see below]). The –ía endings appear in other tenses, but with a different stem. Here the infinitive endings are cut off before the new endings are added, unlike other tenses.

¡Ojo! Note in the above endings that the first person and third-person singular forms are identical. Context should always make the subject (I, he, she, you, it) clear.

The imperfect tense has three possible translations:

Ella leía. She read.

She used to read.

She was reading.

Note in the last two examples that the imperfect tense describes habitual actions in the past (“used to read”) as well as ongoing or in-process actions in the past (“was reading”). Given the context, one translation may be more appropriate than another translation, but rarely if ever is one translation versus another truly wrong.

In addition to habitual past and in-progress past actions, the imperfect tense is used to tell time, to give descriptions and to express mental states in the past.

Eran las dos. It was two o’clock.
Hacía viento. It was windy.
Tenía poco dinero. He had little money.
No queríamos ir. We didn’t want to go.

Only three verbs are irregular in the imperfect tense:

ser ir ver
yo era iba veía
eras ibas veías
él, ella, Ud. era iba veía
Nosotros éramos íbamos veíamos
Vosotros erais ibais veíais
ellos, ellas, Uds. eran iban veían

The forms of ser and ir are unlike any Spanish verb endings and should be easily recognizable. Ver is irregular only because it does not drop the e before adding its endings.

Just as the present tense of ira + infinitive expresses what one is going to do in the future, the imperfect tense, followed by the same, expresses what one was going to do in the past:

Iban a comprar un sofá hoy, pero la mueblería estaba cerrada. They were going to buy a sofa today, but the furniture store was closed.

The above is one case in which the one-word translation, “went,” is not accurate. Nor does the translation “used to go” work here.


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