When you learn Spanish, the subjunctive, including the imperfect subjunctive is one of the most important parts of Spanish to master in order to sound like a native speaker.
Not only is the subjunctive a large part of everyday expressions and communication, but it is also a mood that doesn't really exist in English—at least not in the frequency that it does in Spanish.
In this post, you're going to learn how to use the imperfect Spanish subjunctive—in other words, the subjunctive in the past tense.
The imperfect subjunctive is very similar to the present tense subjunctive in Spanish. The trick is knowing when to use the imperfect as opposed to the present, all while following the same subjunctive rules. As you'll see, it's not as tricky as it might first seem.
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Forming the Imperfect Subjunctive (& A Quick Review)
Remember that sentences that use the Spanish subjunctive have three requirements:
1. The sentence has two different subjects and two verbs.
2. The second subject and verb are separated from the first pair by the word “que“.
3. The sentence conveys emotion or uncertainty.
When these conditions are met, the second verb is conjugated in the subjunctive.
How To Conjugate This Mood
Where the simple present subjunctive uses the present yo tense to form subjunctive stems, the imperfect subjunctive is formed by conjugating the second verb in the third person plural preterite (ellos/ellas/Uds.) and dropping the –ron to get the subjunctive stem:
Conjugating the imperfect subjunctive is even more simple because there are no irregular conjugations specific to the imperfect subjunctive. Whatever conjugation the verb has in the third person plural preterite, regular or irregular, it keeps the same stem in the imperfect subjunctive.
Take a look at these verbs that are irregular in the present tense subjunctive and pay attention to how the stem is formed from the third person plural preterite—no changes necessary:
Once you have your stem, all you need to the ending. One simple part of the imperfect subjunctive is that the endings are the same for all verbs. There is no need to keep track of different endings for -ar, -er, or -ir verbs!
There are actually two different ways the imperfect subjunctive can end. Both are correct, but one is more common. Let's start with the ending you are more likely to hear first:
This is probably the imperfect subjunctive that you will hear and see the most when interacting with native Spanish speakers. It's important to learn the second endings as well, however, so that you aren't confused when you hear it in the middle of a conversation:
¡Ojo!: No matter which imperfect subjunctive ending you are using, pay attention to the spelling of verbs conjugated for nosotros. In order to maintain the verb pronunciation, the “e” or “a” at the end of the stem is always accented.
When To Use This Subjunctive Form
As with the simple present subjunctive, the imperfect subjunctive is used when expressing the following moods:
When the second verb in the sentence is in the past, use the imperfect subjunctive. This is true both if the first verb is in the present tense or if it is in the past tense.
For example, here is a sentence that uses the simple present subjunctive:
- Estoy seguro que ellos vayan al vacaciones. (I am sure that they are going on vacation.)
In this sentence, both verbs (estoy and vayan) are in the present tense. But what if you wanted to say “I was sure that they went on vacation?” That's where the imperfect subjunctive comes in:
- Estaba seguro que ellos fueran al vacaciones.
Remember, the imperfect subjunctive is used any time the second verb takes place in the past, so it would also be correct to say:
- Estoy seguro que ellos fueran al vacaciones. (I am sure that they went on vacation.)
In addition to sentences that meet the three requirements for the subjunctive, there are three other specific situations when you the imperfect subjunctive is needed:
1. Polite Requests Or Suggestions
The imperfect subjunctive is used to express deference or politeness, especially when making a request. In these cases, the first verb is the one in the subjunctive and the second is used in its infinitive form.
- Quisiera ir con Uds. (I would like to go with you.)
2. Hypothetical (Especially Unlikely) Situations That Begin With “Si”
When someone starts a sentence with, “If I had a million dollars…”, you know what comes next is next to impossible. In Spanish, those unlikely hypotheticals are expressed with the imperfect subjunctive:
- Si tu estuvieras en mi lugar, harías lo mismo. (If you were in my place, you would do the same.)
- Compraría este coche si tuviera dinero. (I'd buy this car if I had money.)
3. To Express A Desire Or Wish
Whenever you see or hear the word “ojalá” or the phrase “ojalá que“, that's a great indication the imperfect subjunctive is not far behind.
Even though the sentiments below are all current desires, the imperfect subjunctive mood is how Spanish speakers communicate that sense of longing or wishing.
- Ojalá mi hermano vivieria aquí. (I wish my brother lived here.)
- Ojalá que estuvieras en Peru conmigo. (I wish you were in Peru with me.)
How To Master The Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive
The basics of the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish are relatively simple, but there are so many specific uses that it can feel overwhelming at first.
But don't let that keep you from trying it out yourself.
The best way you can master the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish is to listen to real Spanish and read authentic, native Spanish as much as possible. You will notice the imperfect subjunctive all over the place!
Then, use it yourself. It may feel clunky at first, but you will get more comfortable with which tense of the subjunctive mood to use the more you notice it and use it yourself.