Of the main three Spanish past tenses, the Spanish past imperfect can be the most problematic for Spanish students.
This is because the past imperfect tense, as known as el pretérito imperfecto, is used for setting the scene, talking about habitual behaviour in the past, for descriptions of things and people, and in combination with the el pretérito indefinido to describe the context for past events.
To help you manage the use of this Spanish past tense, I have put together a list of 9 ‘phrase triggers’, that nearly guarantee the use of the past imperfect tense.
This is the third article in a series of phrase trigger articles to help distinguish the use of the Spanish past tenses. Here is the first post on phrases that trigger the past simple tense, and the second on phrases that trigger the present prefect tense.
And just like the other two, I’m going to start with a quick overview of the Spanish past imperfect.
An overview of the Spanish past imperfect tense
Starting with this graph, you can see the timeframe where each of the three main Spanish past tenses occurs:
Notice the arrows for the imperfect tense. These arrows signify that events in the past imperfect tense don’t have a well defined start and end time.
For example, if I said in English:
I used to play card games with my grandma when I was young.
How long did the events in this sentence take place? Did we use to play card games every week for one year or for many years?
The fact that we don’t know from the sentence how long the card games went on means that we need to use the imperfect tense for this sentence in Spanish.
Similarly, if I said ‘I used to shop a lot’, then the question would be when did the shopping habit start and when did it stop?
All you know from the statement is that the shopping habit occurred for an undefined timeframe. It could have been a behaviour that lasted for months, years, or decades. This means that the Spanish past imperfect tense should be used in this context.
As you will see shortly, the ‘phrase triggers’ below imply an undefined start and end time for a past event, therefore naturally triggering the use of the Spanish past imperfect.
Spanish phrases that trigger the past imperfect tense
There are two phrases that can help you think about the past imperfect tense. I mentioned the first above, ‘I used to…’ and ‘when I was young…’.
As you are going through the examples below, think about adding the phrase ‘when I was young…’ or ‘when we were young’. It will help with the mindset of thinking about events that didn’t start and stop at specific times. Almost all of the examples below could easily add this phrase without any grammatical issues.
The other phrase that you could add to the end of almost all of the examples is ‘ya no‘ which means ‘not now’, ‘no longer’, or ‘not any more’. For example, ‘we used to go to the swimming pool a lot, not any more’.
1. Always – Siempre
If you wanted talk about something that ‘always’ used to happen, you will need to use the past imperfect.
English: We always used to watch television after dinner.
Español: Siempre veíamos la televisión después de la cena.
English: I always used to go to bed early during the week.
Español: Siempre me acostaba temprano entre semana.
2. Almost always – Casi siempre
Closely related to the first phrase trigger, this time you are talking about things that happened ‘almost always’.
English: They almost always arrived late to work.
Español: Ellos casi siempre llegaban tarde al trabajo.
English: She almost always used to call me when I was busy.
Español: Ella casi siempre me llamaba cuando estaba ocupada.
3. Everyday, every week, every month… – Todos los días, todas las semanas…
This third phrase trigger is again related to the idea of always, and doesn’t give an indication of start and end moments for the action.
English: I used to do exercise everyday.
Español: Hacía ejercicio todos los días.
English: My friends and I used to eat dinner every friday night in town.
Español: Mis amigos y yo cenábamos cada viernes por la noche en el centro.
4. Usually – Normalmente
You could also talk about things you usually used to do.
English: I usually used to practice my Spanish before lunch.
Español: Normalmente practicaba mi español antes de la comida.
English: Did you normally spend a lot of time with your friends from school?
Español: ¿Normalmente pasabas mucho tiempo con tus amigos del colegio?
5. Frequently – Con frecuencia
Similarly you can mention the things you used to do frequently.
English: My siblings and I used to frequently go to the football.
Español: Mis hermanos y yo íbamos al fútbol con frecuencia.
English: We frequently used to eat more dessert than we were allowed.
Español: Comíamos con frecuencia más postres de los que estaban permitidos.
6. A menudo – Often
Another similar phrase trigger for the past imperfect is things you used to do often.
English: There often used to be big parties at my cousin’s house.
Español: A menudo había grandes fiestas en la casa de mis primos.
English: We often used to tell each other stories.
Español: A menudo nos contábamos historias.
7. Sometimes – A veces
The pattern of phrase triggers is hopefully obvious by now. We are stepping slowly from always to never. Here is how to talk about things we sometimes used to do:
English: When I was young I sometimes went to the beach with my best friend.
Español: Cuando era pequeño, a veces iba a la playa con mi mejor amigo.
English: My father sometimes used to travel for his work.
Español: Mi padre a veces viajaba por su trabajo.
8. Almost never – Casi nunca
Here are some examples of things you may have almost never did.
English: We almost never went to my grandparents house.
Español: Casi nunca íbamos a la casa de mis abuelos.
English: I almost never used to get up before 8am.
Español: Casi nunca me levantaba antes de las ocho.
9. Never – Nunca
The last phrase trigger that will help you to remember to use the past imperfect is nunca.
English: I never used to like mushrooms, but now I do.
Español: Nunca me gustaban champiñones, pero ahora sí.
English: We never used to go to the mountains, we always stayed in the city.
Español: Nunca íbamos a la montañas, siempre nos quedábamos en la ciudad.
In contrast to the challenge of using the Spanish past imperfect in all of the right contexts, the pattern for these phrase triggers is straightforward.
Choose a few phrase triggers from the list above and try to use them in your next Spanish conversation.
What other Spanish sentences can you create using these past imperfect triggers?