After a long digression away from verbs whilst we investigated all sorts of other aspects of the Spanish language, I’ve decided it’s time to come back to that wonderful subject again.  In previous articles we investigated the use of the infinitive of the verb in sentences:

(eg comer voy a comerI’m going to eat) and also looked at the gerund or present participle:

(eg comiendoestoy comiendoI am eating) and the past participle:

(eg comido  he comidoI have eaten).

We then went on to spend quite a long time looking at what happens to verbs in the present simple tense:

(eg como, comes, come – I eat, you eat, he eats etc.)  This latter present tense is the one that a lot of people find themselves learning first of all and yet it is quite a bit more difficult and also to some extent less immediately useful than the first three tense we have learnt.

What we are now going to do is take a look at one of the past tenses and in true ‘Cronin style’ we’ll make sure it’s the easiest one and also we’ll see exactly when we are supposed to use it.  There is no point in rushing ahead and especially not rushing head-long in the things that can get us into a muddle.

The tense we are going to look at is called the past continuous tense. Some people call it the imperfect tense and in Spanish it is called the imperfecto.   It is a tense that we use when we want to express a state or an action that lasts for a period of time in the past.   Sometimes, (but far from always) we can translate it with ‘used to’ and this might give us a clue as its basic meaning.

When I was a child I played (or I used to play) in the park every day. – Cuando yo era niña, jugaba en el parque todos los días.

The other main use of this tense is to express descriptions in the past – that is background scenes, situations or people.  For example:

Mi tío era un hombre alto y tenía el pelo canoso y corto.

My uncle was a tall man and he had short grey hair.

El día de mi cumpleaños el sol brillaba todo el día.

On my birthday the sun shone (or was shining) all day.

For this reason we could also (if we wished) call it the past descriptive tense as these descriptions in the past account for a large proportion of its use.   

Looking back at these sentences, here are the past continuous verbs we have used:

era from the verb ser (to be)

jugaba from the verb jugar (to play)

tenia from the verb tener (to have)

brillaba from the verb brillar (to shine)

In all of the sentences we are focusing on a period of state rather than a single or completed action.

For us as English speakers the main difficulty of this tense lies in the translation, in that there is not always just one way to express the same idea in English.  The actual concept behind the tense is pretty straightforward and, best of all, the way the tense is formed is really very easy; in fact it’s about the easiest tense of the whole lot.  You’ll have to take my word for all of that though until next month.  I hope you can wait that long!

Jane Cronin’s “Step by Step Spanish” articles are available as e-books at where you can also obtain Jane’s “Step by Step Internet Spanish” course.