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They say practice makes perfect, so how can one of the most common Spanish past tenses be imperfect? In grammatical terms, "perfect" means "complete," so the Spanish imperfect tense is used to describe an incomplete or ongoing action or state of being, especially when it lasted for a long time.
The imperfecto is often equivalent to "was" or "was ___-ing" in English (past progressive) and is used for all of the following:
|Llovía pero ella tenía paraguas.
|It was raining but she had an umbrella.
|Cuando tenía 6 años, a menudo me enfermaba y le tenía miedo a los perros.
|When I was 6 years old, I was often sick and I was afraid of dogs.
2) Habitual actions or states of being
|Cuando llovía siempre tenía paraguas.
|When it rained I always had an umbrella.
|Bailábamos todos los días.
|We used to dance every day.
There’s an odd quirk in English with regard to the word “would.” In the "every day" example just above, we can use "would" to refer to this habitual action in the past: "We would dance every day" – it’s perfectly correct and grammatical. In Spanish, this example requires the imperfect. In contrast, when we use “would” for something that could or might happen in the future (I would leave if I were you), Spanish requires the conditional mood. So when you see the word "would" in English, it’s vital to know whether you’re talking about the past or the future in order to choose the correct Spanish verb form.
Pro tip: if you can replace "would" with "used to," you need the imperfect.
3) Actions or states of being with unspecified endings
|Iba al parco porque quería dar una vuelta.
|I was going to the park because I wanted to take a walk.
|Cuando trabajaba, siempre me aburría.
|When I worked, I was always bored.
4) Background information
|¿Dónde estabas cuando te enteraste de la noticia?
|Where were you when you heard the news?
|Estaba en la oficina.
|I was at work.
|Me dijo que iba al banco.
|He told me he was going to the bank.
6) Near future in the past
Just as you can use ir in the present followed by a + infinitive to talk about something you are going to do in the near future, you can use ir in the imperfect to talk about something you were going to do.
|Iba a comer con Pepe.
|I was going to eat with Pepe.
|Íbamos a salir a las doce.
|We were going to leave at 12.
Think you’ve got it? Test yourself on imperfecto conjugations with these exercises:
- Imperfect conjugations
- Using the imperfect – PwLS super list
- Pretérito vs imperfecto
- Imperfect subjunctive
- Near future
- Introduction to verbs
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