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The Imperfect Tense in Spanish

The Imperfect Tense in Spanish
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  • 0:07 A Story
  • 0:44 Incomplete or Unspecific
  • 2:22 When to Use the Imperfect
  • 3:40 Conjugations
  • 5:41 Three Irregulars
  • 6:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Geary

Danielle teaches at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She holds a Doctor of Education with research concentration in Study Abroad and Foreign Language Acquisition.

What did you do when you were little? Where did you like to go? What did you look like? Where did you live? In this lesson, you'll learn how to use the imperfect tense to describe the past.

A Story

The imperfect can be challenging because it's a tense we don't have in English. Let's think incomplete or unspecific as we listen to this story:

De niña, yo jugaba con peluches.

Me gustaba mucho mi elefante, y todas las noches yo dormía con él.

También trepaba los árboles y subía hasta el sol.

Recuerdo que nuestro gato, Bruno, me seguía y se sentaba conmigo en una rama del árbol.

Él era una buena mascota.

Incomplete or Unspecific

Bien, now let's look at the Spanish and English together:

De niña, jugaba con peluches. - As a little girl, I played with stuffed animals.

Me gustaba mucho mi elefante, y todas las noches yo dormía con él. - I liked my elephant a whole lot, and every night I'd sleep with him.

También trepaba los árboles y subía hasta el sol. - I'd also climb trees and I'd go as high as the sun.

Recuerdo que nuestro gato, Bruno, me seguía y se sentaba conmigo en una rama del árbol. - I remember that our cat, Bruno, would follow me and he'd sit with me on a branch.

Él era una buena mascota. - He was a good pet.

Bien, it says, as a little girl, I played with stuffed animals. We know a vague time frame, we know it happened in the past over a period of time, and we know that I was a little girl, but we don't have specific information about exactly when it happened or was completed.

Next, it says, I liked my elephant a whole lot, and every night, I'd sleep with him. Now, again, we know it happened in the past, we know that I preferred my elephant and would sleep with him nightly, but we don't have any dates or times, and we know it was ongoing - but for how long? It's unspecific.

Moving on to the rest of the story, we also know that when I was a little girl, I'd climb trees, my cat Bruno would accompany me and sit beside me on a branch, and that he was a good pet. All of this happened repeatedly, over a period of time in the past, so we use the imperfect.

When to Use the Imperfect

Of course it's a little more complicated than this, but the story should give you an idea of how and why we use the imperfect. Use the imperfect tense for talking about the following in the past:

  1. Habitual or repeated actions
  2. Actions that were in progress
  3. Physical traits
  4. Mental or emotional states
  5. Age
  6. And telling time

1. Habitual or repeated actions

De niña, yo dormía con mi elefante. - When I was a little girl, I slept with my elephant.

2. Actions that were in progress and have no specified end point

Yo trepaba el árbol. - I was climbing the tree.

3. Physical traits

Yo era pequeña y pelirroja. - I was little and had red hair.

4. Mental and emotional states

Yo quería mucho a Bruno. - I loved Bruno a lot.

5. Age

Yo tenía 8 años y Bruno tenía 2. - I was 8 years old and Bruno was 2.

6. Telling time

Eran las dos de la tarde. - It was 2 in the afternoon.

Conjugations

We are in luck today because the imperfect endings are some of the easiest in the language.

The -AR endings are And the -ER/-IR endings are
-aba -ía
-abas -ías
-aba -ía
-ábamos -íamos
-aban -ían

There are two the same for the -AR: aba and aba, and two the same for the -ER/-IR: ía and ía. Not to worry...Context will tell us who the subject is.

Let's do jugar for example. 'Cuáles son las conjugaciones?

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