Today we’re going to be talking about many learners’ biggest fear – the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish.
This tricky subjunctive conjugation is often considered to be one of the most difficult grammar topics for learners to really master since there are lots of irregulars, and even the concept is hard to grasp.
But don’t let that discourage you! Sure, learning the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish might take you some time, but it is absolutely possible to master this mood.
So let’s get right into it!
What is the Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive
The imperfect subjunctive – how can we possibly start to describe it? This grammar concept doesn’t have a one-to-one translation into English, so we’ll have to focus on its different meanings.
A brief explanation is that the imperfect subjunctive is just the regular subjunctive used in the past tense. Although that doesn’t completely do it justice, as you’ll see later on.
So if you’ve already become a pro at the present subjunctive, then imperfect subjunctive Spanish mood shouldn’t be too difficult for you.
And don’t forget – subjunctive is a mood, not a tense! That means that you can have the subjunctive in the present OR the past.
DID YOU KNOW…?
There used to be a future subjunctive in Spanish, too! Lucky for you, you’ll only see it in classical literature now.
In this article, we’ll be learning exactly how to form the imperfect subjunctive, as well as how to use it. This one will take you a bit of time to understand perfectly, so maybe grab un café before getting started!
Forming the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish
To be fair, the imperfect subjunctive can seem super complicated, but we’re going to go over an easy trick to make things as simple as possible. The imperfect subjunctive endings can actually be learned by taking a step back and looking at a different Spanish grammar concept:
Step 1: Simple Preterite Tense Conjugation
If we want to conjugate a verb in the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, the first thing we need to do is figure out the verb’s preterite tense.
This means you do need to have the preterite tense mastered before moving on to this step. But it never hurts to do a quick review!
Check out our guide on the normal preterite vs imperfect in Spanish if you need a quick review.
But don’t panic. This just means you have an excellent opportunity to make the imperfect subjunctive super easy AND master your preterite tense conjugation skills.
So the first step to take is to conjugate any verb in the third person plural
For simplicity’s sake, let’s have a quick chart reviewing the preterite:
|Subject Pronoun||AR verbs||ER verbs||IR verbs|
|Tú / Vos||Caminaste||Bebiste||Abriste|
|Él / Ella / Ud||Caminó||Bebió||Abrió|
|Ellos / Ellas / Uds||Caminaron||Bebieron||Abrieron|
It doesn’t matter which verb we want to use, Step 1 is starting with the third person plural preterite. For example, if we want to conjugate the verb Caminar, then we’ll use Caminaron.
In case you needed a reminder – there is an abundance of irregular verbs, especially in the preterite tense. So you’ll need to make sure you practice your past tense irregular verbs if you want to really get a good grasp of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive.
Here are the conjugations for just a couple of the most common irregular verb patterns:
|Tú / Vos||Tuviste||Dijiste||Pusiste|
|Él / Ella / Usted||Tuvo||Dijo||Puso|
|Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes||Tuvieron||Dijeron||Pusieron|
Step 2: The Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive
The second step in forming the imperfect subjunctive endings is to get rid of just a part of the ending we just conjugated, and replace them with the Spanish imperfect subjunctive form.
Here are the possible endings for this tricky mood:
|Subject Pronoun||AR verbs||ER verbs||IR verbs|
|Yo||Caminara / Caminase||Bebiera / Bebiese||Abriera / Abriese|
|Tú / Vos||Caminaras / Caminases||Bebieras / Bebieses||Abriera / Abrieses|
|Él / Ella / Usted||Caminara / Caminase||Bebiera / Bebiese||Abriera / Abriese|
|Nosotros||Camináramos / Caminásemos||Bebiéremos / Bebiésemos||Abriéremos / Abriésemos|
|Vosotros||Caminarais / Caminaseis||Bebiereis / Bebieses||Abriereis / Abrieses|
|Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes||Caminaran / Caminasen||Bebieran / Bebiesen||Abrieran / Abriesen|
To start things off, you’ll notice that two different possible forms of subjunctive can be used. It truly doesn’t matter which, as there is no difference – so pick whichever one you like best!
If you want to use that –ra forms, you can simply use the third person plural of the preterite tense (for example Caminaron) and remove the -on. Then, you’ll replace it with the verb ending for the correct subject.
For example – Yo Caminara, tú Caminaras.
So let’s look at a few examples of ways you use these two steps to conjugate some common regular and irregular verbs in the imperfect subjunctive yo form.
|Plural 3rd Person Preterite||-ra form (yo)||-se form (yo)|
As you can see, once you have the stem memorized for the preterite, it’s super easy to use the imperfect subjunctive form! The endings now become so much simpler to use once you follow these steps.
Just memorize the conjugation chart for the preterite – and you’ll have the past subjunctive under control!
Remember – there is no difference at all between the two forms. You can use hablara or hablase with no meaning change.
How to actually use the Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive
Let’s move on to the best part of the imperfect subjunctive – how to actually use it!
Luckily, the imperfect subjunctive is used in many of the same ways that you would use the present tense subjunctive. While we have a few exceptions, that’s a pretty good rule you can follow in general.
Though you’re here to absolutely master this tense, so let’s find all the ways you can use the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish.
The WEIRDO clauses
Ah yes – our dear WEIRDO clauses. A simple, yet practical mnemonic device to help you master the subjunctive mood.
You just need at least two subjects in the past tense, a connector, and a requirement for the WEIRDO clause category – then you’ll be using the imperfect subjunctive.
Let’s check out a quick example for each of the 6 WEIRDO clauses:
W – Wishes
- Esperaba que me llamaras antes. – I was hoping you’d have called me sooner.
- Yo quería que la cerveza estuviera más fría. – I wanted the beer to be colder.
So in both of these sentences, there is a subject change (from I to you / I to the beer), a connector (que), and a wish or desire. This means that in the dependent clause of the sentence, we’ll use the past subjunctive.
I – Impersonal expressions
- Era importante que trabajara mucho. – It was important he worked hard.
- Lo malo era que tuvieran que cancelar el viaje. – The bad thing was that they had to cancel the trip.
E – Emotions
- Me alegró que me dijeras que habías aprobado el examen. – I was happy that you told me you had passed the exam.
- Le gustó que lo ayudaras con sus deberes. – He was happy that you helped him with his homework.
Many times, you’ll see the imperfect subjunctive in combination with the past tense like in habías aprobado. If you need some help with this tense, make sure to check out our guide on the past perfect Spanish tense.
R – Recommendations / Requests
- Nos sugerió que cenaramos en el restaurante tailandés. – He suggested we eat dinner in the Thai restaurant.
- Mi madre me dijo que limpiara el baño. – My mom told me to clean the bathroom.
D – Doubt / Denial
- Dudaba que lo lograra. – I doubted that he would manage (achieve) it.
- No creías que llegáramos a tiempo. – You didn’t think we would arrive on time.
O – Ojalá
- Ojalá tuviera más tiempo para estar de vacaciones. – I wish I had more time be on vacation.
- Ojalá que fueran a visitarme.– I wish they went to visit me.
Ojalá is one of the most common uses of the WEIRDO clauses – so you’ll absolutely be using it often. Using ojalá or ojalá que in the imperfect subjunctive typically expresses the meaning of “I wish”.
Be careful here! Ojalá + present subjunctive means “Hopefully”. So the choice of present subjunctive or past subjunctive makes a difference!
Once you’ve mastered the WEIRDO clauses, we can move on to using the imperfect tense in the subjunctive mood with si clauses. These are one of the easiest ways to use the imperfect subjunctive, so you should have this mastered in no time.
You could translate this Spanish grammar concept as “If I were to” or the simple past in English. For example:
- Si tuviera más tiempo, lo haría. – If I had more time, I would do it.
- Si lo cambiaran, quedaría mal. – If they were to change it, it would look bad.
- Si quisiera, podría hacerlo, pero no quiere. – If he wanted to, he could, but he doesn’t want to.
Just like in English, we can use “if + the past”. It’s used to express a hypothetical situation that isn’t necessarily real.
Remember that the imperfect subjunctive always goes with si. The conditional goes with the other clause.
Next, there’s one more simple way to use the imperfect subjunctive. An easy way to use the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish is to simply ask yourself – would it work in the present tense?
If the answer is yes – then you can probably use it in the past, too!
Here are a couple of examples:
- Podrías haber elegido lo que quisieras. – You could have chosen whichever one you wanted.
- Me avisó que lo hicieran ellos. – He told me that they were going to do it.
In both of these sentences, you could change it to the present tense and still need to use the subjunctive mood. For example, you could say puedes elegir lo que quieras. Since it meets the requirements for the present tense, then you’ll still need to use the subjunctive in the past tense.
The next way the imperfect subjunctive is used is to express politeness. Politeness is something that is expressed in many different ways in languages, so it’s not always easy to translate them 100%.
Here are a few examples:
- Juan quisiera saber si lo podrías ayudar. – Juan would like to know if you could help him.
- Si tuvieras tiempo, ¿me podrías ayudar con esto? – If you had time, could you help me with this?
In both of these sentences, you’re simply giving a connotation of politeness in your request.
But you should note that you could use the conditional in both of these sentences and it would be perfectly fine. But the past subjunctive indicates a higher level of politeness.
If you need a reminder on this tense, make sure to check out our complete guide on the conditional tense in Spanish.
Levels of politeness
While the imperfect subjunctive doesn’t always imply politeness – but you can use it in some contexts, rather than the present tense or the conditional to do so.
- Quiero una cerveza. (present)
- Quería una cerveza. (imperfect)
- Querría una cerveza. (conditional)
- Quisiera una cerveza. (imperfect subjunctive)
Depending on the context, most of these are probably more polite than necessary if you’re just pidiendo una cerveza. But it progresses from least polite to most polite here.
In general, you’ll see the imperfect subjunctive to express politeness in official letters or anything formal – like writing to the government, for example. Although the normal imperfect tense is often polite enough if you’re in a restaurant.
Ojalá tuviéramos más tiempo
Congratulations! You’re well on your way to becoming a master of the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish.
But like you already know – practice makes perfect! So keep reviewing this tricky grammar tense and take it one day at a time. You won’t become a pro overnight, so just keep working at it.
Go ahead and sign up for a free private class or a 7-day free trial of our group classes to practice what you learned!
Want to learn Spanish, fast?
Download our e-book, Easy Spanish Shortcuts, and learn your first 1,000 Spanish words in under a day!