The Difference Between the Imperfect Indicative and the Conditional in Spanish

Foreground and Contrast Patterns: Then Drill!

In most textbooks, the conditional is usually presented after the future. This is good because the same verbs that are irregular in the future — altered stems — present the same irregularities in the conditional. It is good also because, like the future, there is one set of endings for all three conjugations (or families) of verbs in the conditional.

It is interesting that in second-year classes, the conditional and the future are reviewed together. Often, their conjugations are presented in chart form on the same page, in a side-by-side comparison. Often too, there is a note there about avoiding confusion between the -ER/-IR endings of the imperfect with the conditional endings generally. The point is — these distinctions belong in first year, explicitly stated, in chart form and without withholding anything. Why wait? Even high school students are required to remember formulaic matter in chemistry or mathematics classes.

Review Process

Begin by reviewing the imperfect, without even telling them that they are about to learn the conditional (and ideally too, the future). If they have had the future, simply announce that you are going to set aside the future for a moment and do a summary of the verb tenses they have learned up to that point. To do that, do a synoptic review of the present, preterite and imperfect. If they have had the future, include it too. Do about twenty verbs in at least two or three persons and numbers, including verbs that are irregular in the preterite and the future. Always include ser, estar and tener. Write the tense names across the top of the board and in a vertical column to the left, the twenty verbs.

Next, draw attention to the imperfect and do only a synoptic conjugation of that tense, using hablar, comer, vivir — and ser, ir and ver (the latter three being the only irregular verbs in that tense). Get them to notice how verbs are conjugated (answer: by removing the infinitive and adding one set of endings for the -AR verbs and another for both the -ER and -IR verbs).

If they have had the simple future, ask them how the formation of the future is done differently from the imperfect (answer: by adding one set of endings to either the infinitive or the altered or new infinitive).

Now it is time to write the conjugation of the three model verbs of the imperfect to one side, far left on the board and tell them they are going to compare it with the new tense they are about to learn — the conditional.

Introduce the conditional by explaining that its various endings mean “would” — in the sense of what would be IF something else were true. Tell them that later, on a different day, they will learn another verb form for how to finish a sentence like: I would eat more ice cream if… Tell them that today, they will only learn how to say the would + verb half of sentences like that. This insulates them against imperfect subjunctive shock syndrome, as I like to call it.

Next, write the list of the irregulars on the board (infinitive > altered infinitive) and then the paradigm of hablar, comer and vivir, all conjugated in the conditional. Add one of the irregulars, making it four verbs in the six-holed paradigm on the board, to the right of the imperfects.

At this point, sit back and get them to compare the conditional with the future. Next, have them draw out their observations about the differences between the conditional and the imperfect. Someone will hastily say that the -ER and -IR of the imperfect are the same as the conditional. Simply tell them to slow down and look closer. When all have acknowledged the differences and similarities, ask them what they are going to have to remember in order to keep them straight.

This approach encourages metacognitive thinking and is usually better retained than piecemeal, halting approaches that don’t give them the full lay of the linguistic landscape they need to internalize in order to navigate.

End by erasing the board and doing another synoptic drill, including the conditional in the mix.


  • Author's more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.