I'm confused because my first language (Spanish) has imperfect and perfect tenses that don't exist in English.

How do you know which English tense to use? Here's an example taken from the first chapter in Don Quixote (here in Spanish and here in English).

Spanish imperfect past

"In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing."

"En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor."

Spanish simple past

"You must know, then, that the above-named gentleman whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all the year round) gave himself up to reading books of chivalry with such ardour and avidity that he almost entirely neglected the pursuit of his field-sports, and even the management of his property;"

"Es, pues, de saber que este sobredicho hidalgo, los ratos que estaba ocioso, que eran los más del año, se daba a leer libros de caballerías, con tanta afición y gusto, que olvidó casi de todo punto el ejercicio de la caza, y aun la administración de su hacienda."


English verbs can't be inflected as strongly as in many languages. But as in many other areas, English makes up for this in many ways. The imperfect tense can be expressed in English; it just can't be expressed simply, by conjugating a verb.

As I understand it (as a rudimentary Spanish speaker), in Spanish, the imperfect tense indicates that the action of a verb took place, and was completed, before the present. So:

Yo caminaba

means that, at some unspecified point in time, I walked, repeatedly or for a long time, but that I don't necessarily do that type of walking any more.

Sometimes, in English, we express this meaning using the simple past tense, and the meaning is made clear by context. For example:

You were trapped in the library for eight weeks? How did you pass the time?

I read.

In Spanish, I'm guessing this would be expressed in the past imperfect. In English, the imperfective aspect of the verb--that it happened repeatedly or over a period of time--is not expressed in the verb, but it is clear from the context.

Sometimes, the imperfective nature of the action is expressed by the use of a phrase associated with the noun. So:

I ate raisins constantly.

is understood as an action taken repeatedly and completed in the past, because of the use of the adverb of time "constantly." Most of the examples of the Spanish imperfect I found also used a similar term--"a menudo," "cada dia". In English, combining one of these words with the past tense expresses the imperfect.

It's surprising how much can be expressed by context. I'm currently studying Chinese, which doesn't inflect its verbs at all and has no conventional tenses or moods at all. "You shi" can can mean "I am, "I was," or "I will be." When you ask a Chinese speaker how he or she can tell whether it's a statement about the past or future, the Chinese speaker will tell you: if I say "yesterday" it's the past, and if I say "tomorrow," it's the future. The same is, to a lesser extent, true for English. In most cases. even without the verb inflection, you can tell from context whether we're talking about the imperfect or the simple past.

  • 1
    You got it right. No tenses at all in Chinese. We don't even try to think whether it's a statement about the past or future. Time is generally not the key information in our conversation. In a sense, language is just a habit.
    – Kinzle B
    Jul 21 '14 at 16:14
  • +1, but I think the description of the Spanish imperfect "tense" is not quite right. It seems as if you were actually describing a perfect "tense". See this answer for a comparison.
    – Nico
    Jul 21 '14 at 17:08
  • My Spanish is just about good enough to order a cerveza and find the baño, so I'm perfectly willing to believe I missed some nuances in the imperfect tense. If you can give me some better examples, I'll edit them in.
    – chapka
    Jul 22 '14 at 13:48

I study Spanish and I believe we have the same "perfect" tenses in English but no, we don't have a specific "imperfect" past tense. I wouldn't worry about it as you should only have to remember to use the past tense (preterite). Just as the Spanish don't need to use pronouns very often due to the verb inflection confirming who we're talking about, it's usually very obvious if we're talking about something in the past with a set start and finish time as opposed to an action without a specific end. Where it's not obvious, we just add a time frame.

Here's a link with the best verb conjugation layout I've ever come across:


Obviously, you'll only be able to use the one English column! But it should at least provide you (and others) with some insight into the translation.

In terms of English conjugation, I find Verbix to be excellent: http://www.verbix.com/languages/english.shtml

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