Spanish Preterite VS Imperfect – How to choose

This post is about two verb tenses in Spanish: the Preterite and the Imperfect, and more specifically about their uses and how to combine them in sentences. It is assumed that you already know how to conjugate verbs in these tenses. Otherwise, make sure to check up these lessons first:

Both the Preterite and the Imperfect tense are used to talk about the past. Choosing between them is one of the big challenges for Spanish learners.

In this lesson we will go through this points:

  1. A general idea about Preterite VS Imperfect
  2. Spanish Preterite. Main uses
  3. Spanish Imperfect. Main uses
  4. Practice: Text
  5. Practice: Quiz!


1. A general idea about Preterite VS Imperfect

In general…

  • Think of the Spanish Preterite as the tense to express actions, what happened.
  • Think of the Spanish Imperfect as the tense for descriptions in the past. Also, to express what used to happen regularly. Lastly, to talk about the background of other actions: what was going on when they happened.

That is a good starting point to approach the topic. We well now talk in detail about each tense.





2. Spanish Preterite. Main Uses

The Spanish Preterite is a tense for actions. We use it to talk about completed actions which happened in the past. Its main uses are: 

– Past actions which happened once or a stated number of times (no matter how long they took):

Juan compró una lavadora nueva ayer = Juan bought a new laundry machine yesterday.

Estudié Medicina en la universidad de Madrid = I studied medicine in the University of Madrid.

El año pasado estuve enfermo dos veces = Last year I was sick twice.

Ana y María fueron al cine la semana pasada = Ana and María went to the movies last week.


– Past actions whose duration is stated (no matter how long they took):

Viví diez años en Perú = I lived in Peru for ten years.

Lola y Pablo fueron amigos durante toda su infancia. = Lola and Pablo were friends during all their childhood.


– A sequence of past actions, one after another:

Ayer, Laura se levantó a las siete de la mañana. Luego se duchó, desayunó, se vistió y se fue a hacer la compra. = Yesterday, Laura got up at 7 A.M. Then she showered, had breakfast, got dressed and went to do the shopping.

Primero estudié en un colegio público. Más tarde mis padres me metieron en uno privado. = I first studied in a public school. Later my parents put me in a private one.


3. Spanish Imperfect. Main Uses

The Spanish Imperfect is a tense to describe things and people, and also to tell what used to happen or what was going on. 

That includes situations or actions that serve as background for another action.

The main uses of the Imperfect are:


– Descriptions of people (physical or psychological), places or things in the past:

Nuestra casa era grande y tenía tres plantas. = Our house was big and had three floors.

Mi abuela era alta y guapa. Tenía el pelo oscuro. Era una persona muy buena = My grandma was tall and pretty. She had dark hair. She was a very good person.


– Actions that used to happen regularly in the past:

For this specific case there are some keywords that can help you identify the Imperfect as the right tense to use. Here are some of these Keywords for Imperfect tense:

  • antes = time ago
  • siempre = always
  • normalmente = usually
  • a veces = sometimes
  • a menudo = often
  • todos los días = every day
  • una vez a la semana = once a week
  • dos veces al año = twice a year

This is an example text that includes a couple of keywords:

De niño, mi padre trabajaba en una fábrica. Todos los días salía temprano y no volvía a casa hasta la noche. A veces llegaba muy cansado y no tenía mucho tiempo para pasarlo con nosotros.

In my childhood, my father used to work in a factory. Everyday he left home early and didn’t come back until late in the evening. Sometimes he arrived very tired and didn’t have any time to spend with us.


– Actions or situations that were going on and may serve as background for a main action. 

Ayer hacía buen tiempo y por eso salí. = Yesterday there was good weather and that’s why I went out. (The main action, «I went out», is Preterite tense. The background circumstance, «there was good weather», Imperfect tense)

El otro día, en el parque, vi a una mujer que jugaba al fútbol con su hijo = A few days ago, at the park, I saw a woman who was playing soccer with her child (The main action, «I saw», is Preterite tense. The background action, «she was playing», Imperfect tense)

Cuando tenía 20 años tuve un accidente de coche = When I was 20 I had a car accident. (The main action, «had a car accident», is Preterite tense. The background circumstance, «I was 20», Imperfect tense)

It is not always easy for the Spanish learner to decide if a certain action in a sentence works as main action or as background, because it’s all so relative.

A little trick is: If there are two actions in a sentence and both of them happen simultaneously, but one takes longer than the other, the one that takes longer tends to serve as background and is expressed in Imperfect tense. Read the examples above again and try to notice that. For example, in the first sentence, «I went out» is shorter than «there was good weather».




4. Practice: Text

As an exercise, we invite you to read this short text in English, where we have highlighted and numbered the verbs. For each verb, try to decide if it should be translated in Preterite or Imperfect in Spanish. Below the English text you can find the solution for each verb, and finally the whole text in Spanish:

Once upon a time, there was (1) a princess who lived (2) in a big castle. She was (3) pretty, tall and blonde. The princess was (4) already 25 and still didn’t have (5) a husband. One day a prince arrived (6) at the castle from a far away kingdom. He was (7) a bit ugly, but also friendly and fun. He invited (8) the princess to spend the day with him and she accepted (9). They rode (10) horses, sailed (11) on a lake and made (12) each other many presents. At night, while they were (13) looking at the stars, he asked (14) her in she wanted (15) to marry him. She said (16) no and the prince went back (17) to his kingdom.

Solution

1 and 2 = Background, what was going on at the time, before the story begins Imperfect

3 and 4 = Description of her looks and age Imperfect

5 = Still talking about background, what was going on: she didn’t have a husband at the time Imperfect

6 = A prince arrived. That happened. Main action Preterite

7 = Description of the prince Imperfect

8, 9, 10, 11, 12 = A sequence of five actions one after another → Preterite

13 = Background for another main action Imperfect

14 = Main action of this sentence: he asked something Preterite

15 = This one is a bit challenging: As we said, there is a main action in this sentence: he asked something. What he asked is if she wanted to marry him. If we consider those two actions (him asking, her wanting to marry him or not), the first one is the main, shorter action. Her wanting (or not wanting) is, in comparison, longer: her feelings about him at the time → Imperfect.

16 and 17 = A sequence of two actions one after another → Preterite

Finally, here is the text in Spanish:

Había (1) una vez una princesa que vivía (2) en un gran castillo. Era (3) guapa, alta y rubia. La princesa ya tenía (4) 25 años y aún no tenía (5) un esposo. Un día llegó (6) al castillo un príncipe de un reino lejano. Era (7) un poco feo, pero también amable y divertido. Invitó (8) a la princesa a pasar el día con él y ella aceptó (9). Montaron (10) a caballo, navegaron (11) por un lago y se hicieron (12) muchos regalos. Por la noche, mientras miraban (13) las estrellas, él le preguntó (14) si quería (15) casarse con él. La princesa dijo (16) que no, y el príncipe regresó (17) a su reino.


5. Practice: Quiz!

Take this short Quiz to test your knowledge!: