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Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive: A Complete Guide (That ANYONE Can Follow)

The imperfect subjunctive in Spanish might be one of the most challenging tenses to understand and put into practice. However, once you learn it, you will be looking for ways to use the Spanish imperfect subjunctive whenever you can.

If you are learning Spanish and have reached your SOS when it comes to using the imperfect subjunctive, then you have come to the right place. We will be giving you the full and complete guide on everything you need to know about what the imperfect subjunctive is and how you can use it.

To start off, we want to help you conceptualize it by connecting the imperfect subjunctive to other tenses you might have learned in your Spanish learning journey.

What is the Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive?

The imperfect subjunctive tense is very often used in Spanish. This tense is also known as the Spanish past subjunctive, but its real name is the preterite imperfect tense of the subjunctive mood. 

The word “preterite” means past and the word “subjunctive” denotes mood. The subjunctive does not express time. It reveals the point of view of a speaker. That’s why you’ll notice that the Spanish imperfect subjunctive is often used to express a point of view in the past.

The first step to understanding this past subjunctive tense is understanding the present subjunctive. This is because the imperfect subjunctive is basically used to express the same subjectivity as the present subjunctive, except in the past. Since it is in the past, the main difference is the timing. So learning more about the present subjunctive before you get into the nitty and gritty of how to use the imperfect subjunctive is something you might want to do.

After you understand what the Spanish subjunctive mood is and have a better idea of what it means and when it is used, you can start looking at how you can use the imperfect subjunctive.

If you have no idea what the imperfect subjunctive even looks like, we will start by showing you that first. Then we will explain the different scenarios where you can use the Spanish imperfect subjunctive along with examples of each case.

There are some basic rules used to form the imperfect subjunctive. In an imperfect sentence, what will mainly change is the verb.

Let’s look at an example.

Quisiera dos libros, por favor.

This translates to:

I’d like two books, please.

In this sentence, the verb is querer. Conjugating querer into quisiera is what makes this sentence an imperfect subjunctive example.

So, to use the imperfect subjunctive correctly you need to know how to conjugate Spanish verbs with this tense.

How to Conjugate a Regular Verb into Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish

FIRST: When you conjugate a regular verb into imperfect subjunctive in Spanish, you will have to use the  third plural form of the preterite tense.

Take the verbs hablar and tomar as an example.

The third person form of the preterite for these verbs would be as follows:

hablar → hablaron

tomar → tomaron

When you conjugate hablar into the third person plural form, you think about what you would say after ellos or ellas.

Ellos (hablar) toda la noche.

Ellas (tomar) una cerveza antes de bailar.

Now try conjugating the two verbs given below in the third person plural form of the preterite (simple past) tense yourself.

tener →

escuchar →

Remember, if you can’t figure out how to conjugate these, then put an ellos or ellas in front of the verb.

Ellos (tener) mucho dinero.

Ellas (escuchar) la ópera.

Here’s how you should have conjugated it:

tener → tuvieron

escuchar → escucharon

SECOND: The next step after having found the third person plural form of the preterite tense would be to take off the -ron.

After you have conjugated the verb into the third person plural of the preterite tense, you remove the -ron at the end of the verb.

escucharon → escucharon → escrucha_

hablaron → hablaron → habla_

You will be adding different letters to the ending of these verbs in a minute. But first, you should practice.

So I will give you two verbs and you will first conjugate them into the third person plural of the preterite tense and then remove the -ron at the end.

regresar →             →

esperar →              →

Here are the solutions:

regresar → regresaron → regresa_

Esperar → esperaron → espera_

THIRD: Now, you will add the imperfect subjunctive endings to your verb.

Now that you have your verb with an open ending, you need to use one of the two imperfect endings to conjugate the verb into the imperfect subjunctive.

yo -ra                        or -se
-ras                      or -ses
él/ella/usted -ra                        or -se
nosotros/nosotras -ramos                 or -semos
vosotros/vosotras -ráis                     or -séis
ellos/ellas/ustedes -ran                     or -sen

Let me give you some examples so you can get a better visual.

comer → comieron → comie_ → yo comiera o yo comiese

estar → estuvieron → estuvie_ → tú estuvieras o tú estuvieses

Try to do the same with these verbs:

llevar →           →           → yo

encuentran →           →           → ellos

Don’t try to rush until the end. Do it step by step and slowly you will get the hang of it.

Here are the solutions:

llevar → llevaron  → lleva_ → yo llevara o yo llevase

encuentran → encontraron → encontra_ → ellos encontraran o ellos encontrasen

The two options are good to know. You can use either or interchange them; they are both grammatically correct.

How to Conjugate Irregular Verbs into the Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive

Like with most rules in Spanish, or any language really, there are exceptions. Though the system I have taught you above is the general rule, there are some irregular verbs that stray from this rule.

The best thing to do is to understand and get used to conjugating the verbs into the imperfect subjunctive and once you get the hang of it, start memorizing the irregular verbs that do not follow the general guidelines.

I am going to give you the three of the most commonly used irregular verbs for the imperfect subjunctive and will show you how to conjugate them. Two of these are actually conjugated identically even though they are not used in the same context.

ir

yo fuera                        o fuese
fueras                      o fueses
él/ella/usted fuera                        o fuese
nosotros/nosotras fuéramos                o fuésemos
vosotros/vosotras fuerais                     o fueseis
ellos/ellas/ustedes Fueran                    o fuesen

ser

yo fuera                        o fuese
fueras                      o fueses
él/ella fuera                        o fuese
nosotros/nosotras fuéramos                o fuésemos
vosotros/vosotras fuerais                     o fueseis
ellos/ellas Fueran                    o fuesen

ver

yo viera                       o viese
vieras                     o vieses
él/ella viera                       o viese
nosotros/nosotras viéramos               o viésemos
vosotros/vosotras vierais                   o vieseis
ellos/ellas vieran                   o viesen

When to use the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish

Now that you have a good grasp of how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the imperfect subjunctive tense, you need to learn when the imperfect subjunctive structure is used in Spanish. We’ll go over all of the different times the imperfect subjunctive can be used along with specific examples in each category.

1. Past and Present

The imperfect subjunctive is used when you are indicating an action in the past in the same situation where the subjunctive would be required in the present.

For example, look at this sentence in the present subjunctive:

Es emocionante que Maria me lea el periódico.

This translates to:

It is exciting when Maria reads the newspaper to me.

This is when you can use what you have learned to good use. If you want to say the same thing but in the past, you use the imperfect subjunctive. To change something that is in the present to the imperfect subjunctive you change the verbs.

So you change es and lea

es → era

lea → leyera

The sentence will now look like this:

Era emocionante que Maria me leyera el periódico.

This now translates to:

It was exciting that Maria would read the news to me.

2. Expressions of Desire/Wishes or Doubt

The imperfect subjunctive is commonly when you are trying to express a desire of something you wish to happen, or when you are expressing doubt for something you are unsure of.

A. Wishes

In situations where you are hoping for something to happen in Spanish, the phrase ojála que is used often.  Ojála que basically means hopefully or I wish.

So, let’s say you want to say “I hope it would rain on Wednesday.”

Then you would take the present sentence in spanish:

Ojalá que llueva el miércoles.

Which means:

I hope it rains on Wednesday.

And then you change the verb into imperfect subjunctive.

llueva → lloviera

Then you make that change in the sentence:

Ojalá que lloviera el miércoles.

You can also use ojalá without the word que. Let’s see some examples.

¡Ojalá lloviera ahora!
(I wish it rained now!)

¡Ojalá nevara!
(I wish it snowed!)

¡Ojalá pudiera descansar mañana!
(I wish I could rest tomorrow!)

¡Ojala me ganara la lotería!
(I wish I won the lottery!)

Other expressions that usually indicate your desire or wish for something include sentences that start with the following phrases:

  • Espero que…
  • Deseo que…
  • Quiero que…
  • Exigo que…
  • Prefiero que…
  • Pido que…

B. Doubt

If you take the same example from above, you could also use imperfect subjunctive when you are expressing doubt about something you are unsure about. So instead of using the imperfect subjunctive before phrases that indicate your desire or wish for something, you can also use it to express doubt for a certain issue.

Expressions that usually indicate your doubt for something include sentences that start with the following phrases:

  • Dudo que…
  • No creo que…
  • No estoy seguro que…
  • No pienso que…
  • Niego que…

3. Si (If) Events

The imperfect subjunctive is also used when you use an if clause when trying to explain something that is contrary-to-fact or unlikely to happen.

So, for example when you say:

If I worked harder, I would get promoted.

This would translate to:

Si trabajara más duro, me promovieran. 

This sentence is using the if clause to explain why the person cannot do something. So contrary to the fact that that person did their job, they were not promoted because they did not work hard enough. But using the if clause simplifies this sentence.

You can see that the two verbs in the Spanish sentence were conjugated according to the trick that I showed you above.

trabajar →yo  trabajara

promover → ellos promovieran

Spanish speakers use the Spanish imperfect subjunctive in the “if clause” of these conditional sentences. The English equivalent of these unreal sentences is the second conditional.

In English, second conditional sentences are the ones that have a past verb in the “if clause” and the auxiliary verb “would” in the main clause. Let’s see some examples.

Si tuviera mucho dinero, compraría una casa.
(If I had a lot of money, I would buy a house.)

Si supiera la respuesta, te la diría.
(If I knew the answer, I would give it to you.)

Si ellos me ofrecieran el trabajo, lo aceptaría.
(If they offered me the job, I would accept it.)

Si fuera más alto, entraría al equipo.
(If I were taller, I would enter the team.)

Si no fumaras, no estarías enfermo.
(If you did not smoke, you would not be sick.)

¿Dónde vivirías si pudieras vivir en cualquier parte del mundo?
Where would you live if you could live anywhere in the word?

4. Que → That

When you hear people speak in Spanish, you might hear the word que a lot. The que might actually mean different things depending on where it is placed in a sentence and where the accent mark falls.

For this imperfect subjunctive example, the closest translation we can get to expressing que is with the word “that”.

For instance, if you wanted to say something like “I study so that I can speak better Spanish”, the that would be the replacement of the word que when using the imperfect subjunctive.

The imperfect subjunctive is used in the dependent clause after you use the word que but only when the independent clause is in the past tense.

Let me give you an example of this:

Yo quería que él tomara un tequila conmigo.

Which is:

I wanted him to drink a tequila with me.

As you can see, you don’t necessarily need “that” in this sentence. In fact, it sounds better without “that” in English. But in Spanish you need to use it because you are expressing the imperfect subjunctive of what you want or expect to happen.

When you say “I wanted him to drink a tequila with me”, you have to use the imperfect subjunctive because you want someone to do something that is not a concrete moment or thought. It is a desire or expectation that is not substantially real.


Important: Never use the subjunctive mood to express positive opinions in Spanish. As we learned before, you can use it to express doubts or negative opinions. 

  • Creí que llegaras a tiempo (incorrect)
  • Creí que llegarías a tiempo (correct)
  • No creí que llegaras a tiempo. (correct)  

5. Being Polite

The imperfect subjunctive is also used in some polite expressions that contain Spanish modal verbs. Let’s us see!

For example:

I would like to attend the party.

Would translate to:

Quisiera asistir a la fiesta.

How would you say:

Should I go with you?

The word should is the same as the verb deber. So how would you translate this sentence? Keep in mind that you need to use the imperfect subjunctive. Try writing it down and then continue to scroll down for the answer.

Here’s the answer:

¿Debería ir con ustedes?

Let’s see an example with the verb poder.

Could you bring me my purse, please?

Try writing down your answer so that you can compare it with the answer below. Sometimes when you just say your answer, you don’t realize you got something wrong. Trust me, write your answers down.

This should translate to:

¿Pudiera traerme mi cartera, por favor?

Now I’ll share with you some set expressions that are formed with the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. All of these expressions contain one of the following Spanish modal verbs: querer (want), poder (can), deber (should), parecer (seem).

¡No quisiera perderme esa película!
(I would not like to miss that movie!)

Quisiera hacer una pregunta.
(I would like to ask a question.)

¿Pudieras ayudarme?
(Could you help me?)

Pudiera hacerlo ahora mismo.
(I could do it right now.)

Tú deberias ser humilde.
(You should be humble.)

Pareciera que no sabes de qué hablo.
(It seems to be that you don’t know what I am talking about.)

Pareciera que estás disfrutando tus vacaciones.
(It seems to be that you are enjoying your vacations.)

Click here to read our comprehensive guide to all Spanish tenses!

Mastering the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish

The key to mastering the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish, like any other grammatical topic, is lots of practice. Using an app like Clozemaster is perfect since it allows you to see and practice conjugating Spanish verbs in context. You can quiz yourself on the example sentences used in this article right here on the page.

Wrap up

Congratulations on getting through the entire guide on how to use the imperfect subjunctive tense in Spanish. We hope that you now have a better understanding of what the imperfect subjunctive is, how to use it, and most importantly, when to use it! Make sure you keep practicing the imperfect subjunctive so that you can get better at using this tense when it is necessary. If you get confused, you can always use this page as a reference.

Check out Clozemaster to learn and practice the imperfect subjunctive as well as learn thousands of other Spanish words in context!

5 thoughts on “Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive: A Complete Guide (That ANYONE Can Follow)”

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