Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish | Grammar Tip

Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive Grammar TipThe Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish

The imperfect subjunctive is a past form of the verb which is very frequently used in Spanish, although its English equivalent has nearly disappeared in our lifetime.

To form the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, take the third person plural of the preterite tense (ellos/ellas), remove the final –ron and add these endings:

hablar (to speak)

→ hablaron → habla_

comer (to eat)

→ comieron → comie_

vivir (to live)

→ vivieron → vivie_

(I) hablaracomieraviviera
(you) hablarascomierasvivieras
(he) hablaracomieraviviera
(we) habláramoscomiéramosviviéramos
(you lot) hablaraiscomieraisvivierais
(they) hablarancomieranvivieran

 

Uniquely, the imperfect subjunctive presents an alternative set of endings, like no other Spanish tense. Indeed, following the same rule as above, the endings below can be added.

hablar (to speak)

→ hablaron → habla_

comer (to eat)

→ comieron → comie_

vivir (to live)

→ vivieron → vivie_

(I) hablasecomieseviviese
(you) hablasescomiesesvivieses
(he) hablasecomieseviviese
(we) hablásemoscomiésemosviviésemos
(you lot) hablaseiscomieseisvivieseis
(they) hablasencomiesenvivieses

 

Although some may argue the former set is more used in daily speech whilst the latter is considered more literary, the choice of endings does not really have much to do with register or sociolect but certainly offer more variety in both speaking and writing.

Regardless of the form, should the third person plural (ellos/ellas = they) of the preterite tense be irregular, the imperfect subjunctive form takes the same base.

Here are some examples:

ser (to be) / ir (to go) → fueron → fue_ → fuera, fueras, fuera…

ver (to see) → vieron → vie_ → viese, vieses, viese…

hacer (to do/make) → hicieron → hicie_ → hiciera, hicieras, hiciera…

 

In terms of its uses, as a rule the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish indicates an action in the past in the same instances where the subjunctive would be employed in the present.

In particular, it is used after the expression era (or fue) + adjective + que. Here’s an example:

 

PRESENT SUBJUNCTIVE = Es necesario que esta tarde hagamos la compra para mañana. →    It is necessary that we do tomorrow’s grocery shopping this afternoon.

IMPERFECT SUBJUNCTIVE = Era necesario que esa tarde hiciéramos la compra para el día siguiente. → It was necessary that we did the grocery shopping for the next day that afternoon.

Additional uses

Additionally, we must use the imperfect subjunctive paired with the conditional in if clauses when describing unlikely events:

Me iría a Cadiz, si pudiera viajar. → I would go to Cadiz if I could travel.

Se teñirían el pelo de verde, si no fueran calvos. → They would dye their hair green if they weren’t bold.

 

Moreover, the imperfect subjunctive is used in the dependent clauses of those sentences whose main verbs are conjugated in one of the Spanish past tenses or conditional.

No quería (imperfect tense) que el niño saliera a jugar a la calle. → I didn’t want my child to go play out in the street.

No querría (conditional) que el niño saliera a jugar a la calle. → I would not want my child to go play out in the street.

 

Similarly, when the present tense verb in the main clause refers to a previous occurrence, the verb in the dependent clause takes the imperfect subjunctive:

Me pone de los nervios que me gritara delante de todo el mundo. → It drives me mad that he shouted at me in front of everybody.

Me alegro mucho de que volvieran juntos. → I am very happy that they got back together.

 

As seen with its present equivalent, the imperfect subjunctive also follows the expression ojalá (que):

Ojalá se acordara de nuestro aniversario. → I wish he remembers our anniversary.

Ojalá mis padres me regalaran un cachorro. → I wish my parents got me a puppy as a gift.

 

Lastly, the imperfect subjective is often used in Spanish as a way to express courtesy:

Quisiera un café con leche, por favor. → I would like a latte, please.

Quisiera probar esos zapatos, gracias. → I would like to try on those shoes, thank you.

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