The imperfect tense in Spanish
On this and the following pages, we look at the imperfect tense in Spanish: its various forms, both regular and irregular, and when to use it. This tutorial is accompanied by a number of on-line exercises to allow you to practise the imperfect tense as you go along.
What is the imperfect tense?
The imperfect tense is:
Often, the imperfect tense expresses the "background" to other events that are expressed in other tenses such as the preterite (simple past). We'll look in more detail at its precise meaning and translation later.
How to form the imperfect tense: general
The forms of the imperfect tense in Spanish fall into one of two patterns:
For the purpose of the imperfect tense, the category of "-ar verbs" actually includes a couple of verbs (dar, estar) ending in -ar that in other tenses would be classed as irregular.
Imperfect tense of -ar verbs
To start with, we'll consider just the forms of -ar verbs, which are based on the ending -aba plus a person ending in some cases. For example, the imperfect tense of the verb cantar (to sing) looks as follows:
This is essentially the pattern for regular -ar verbs, although as mentioned it applies to "irregular" verbs that happen to end in -ar. So the imperfect of dar is daba, dabas etc; the imperfect of estar is estaba, estabas etc; andar gives andaba etc.
Notice that in pronouncing these forms, the accented syllable always falls on -aba. In the nosotros/as form, this is marked with a written accent1. Notice too that the person endings are by and large similar to other tenses (regardless of tense, every tú form in the language ends in -s, every nosotros/as form ends in -mos etc).
On the next pages:
1. The reason for this is that the ending -ábamos is three syllables. In the Spanish spelling system, the stressed syllable does not generally need a written accent if it is the second-to-last syllable. But in cantábamos, the stress ends up falling on the third-to-last syllable, so a written accent is required to represent this.