It just occurred to me that in English, when we use what Spanish would refer to as the "imperfect tense", we are actually adding a mode of termination to the action. Whereas in Spanish, there is no termination of time.

For example

I used to eat pennies

When you hear this phrase, most people interpret it as, ... you don't still eat pennies. Sure, someone might be inclined to ask them, "Do you still eat pennies?" But, the speaker used the "imperfect" tense for a reason, and that was to indicate that they don't still eat pennies.

In Spanish, it would read

Yo comía centavos

This has three interpretations.

  • I used to eat pennies

  • I was eating pennies

  • I ate pennies

But, the spanish sentence is not complete without context. Without another action or state, no one reading that sentence would know when, where, why, who, etc...

In order to have the sentence make sense, you would need to add this missing context

Yo comía centavos cuando era joven

I used to eat pennies when I was young

A better example of this anomaly being demonstrated is in a quote by Mitch Hedburg.

I used to do drugs; I still do, but I used to too.

He extends and negates the "termination" of doing drugs into the present, simply by saying "I still do".

What I'm getting at is that, in English, we can get away without adding context, and when that context is absent, it implies termination.


  • I used to run in the park

  • He used to pick his nose

  • They used to beat me

  • You used to swim naked

These all imply that the action is not happening anymore. It's almost as if the English version of the imperfect tense is... ditransitive?

I believe this question has been addressed before, but I feel as though I needed to gather more insight to what is going on. Why is our imperfect so... non-existent?

English translation of Spanish imperfect tenses

  • Simple Past vs Used To: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/49816/…
    – lurker
    Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 19:28
  • You're quite right, but your examples with used to may be misleading, since the idiomatic periphrastic modal used to has the sense of a past-but-not-present habit built into it. Note that until about 150 years ago it was still common to use this idiom in the present tense, too, and with that form the sense is imperfective: "He uses to eat pennies". Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 19:46
  • I used to -> Solia in spanish.
    – njzk2
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 5:23
  • Since I don't see the word "inflection" on this page, one easy answer to "Why is our imperfect so... non-existent," suitable only for a comment, is that English is very weakly inflected, whereas the Romance languages are much more heavily inflected—because Latin itself was hugely inflected. They even came up with a third gender! To compensate for this lack of inflection (we really have only four verb forms) the language has evolved other ways to express things like the imperfect, e.g. I used to speak for hablaba. (As StoneyB points out, we need context just as Spanish does.) Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 0:31

1 Answer 1


The technical term for the default aspect expressed by the English "past tense" is perfective—it expresses an action seen from the outside, as a whole. As you say, it implies that the action is "terminated", complete.

That's why we never call this English verbform "imperfect".

Imperfectivity is expressed in English with the progressive (continuous) construction BE + VERBing.


Stative verbs—verbs like know, love, which express a state rather an action or event—may be used in the past form with an imperfective sense, because a state is assumed to persist until it is explicitly terminated.

John knew English.
John loved Anne.

And activity verbs—verbs like run, study which express an action which has no endpoint 'built in' to its sense—may be used in the past form with an imperfective sense in narrative sequence; in this case the verb is 'recategorized' as an inchoative, a verb which expresses the beginning of an activity.

Jack charged. John fled. Jack followed.

And telic verbs—those which do have built in endpoints, like fall, or eat with a Direct Object—may be used in the past form with an imperfective sense in contexts where the action can be understood as repeated or habitual.

I ate pennies when I was young.
I fell whenever I tried to catch that pig.

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