Note: this post is about the USE of Spanish Preterite Tense and Spanish Imperfect Tense. It is supposed that you already know about their conjugation. If you don’t, check out these posts first:
Learning to choose correctly between the Spanish Preterite Tense (“Pretérito Indefinido”) and the Imperfect Tense (“Pretérito Imperfecto”) is one of the big challenges for Spanish learners.
In this post, we will go through this whole topic, starting with an explanation of the Preterite Tense (what it is and cases where it is used). Then we will study the Imperfect Tense. Finally, we will do an exercise where we need to chose between both tenses. But first, a trick!
As a general trick, try to think of the Spanish Preterite as the tense to express WHAT HAPPENED and the Spanish Imperfect to express WHAT WAS GOING ON. Yes, the difference between those two is not always obvious, but it’s a good starting point.
Spanish Preterite – Introduction
The Spanish Preterite is main tense to talk about actions and events. It used to describe completed actions and events that HAPPENED in the past.
It is NOT used to describe actions or events that were GOING ON (regular actions in the past, actions that serve as background for others), or to describe people or things (physically or psychologically).
Spanish Preterite – Cases
– Individual actions or events, that happened once or a certain number of times (the duration of the action doesn’t really matter):
Ayer Juan compró una lavadora nueva = 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.
– Actions for which the duration is explicitly mentioned are always expressed in Preterite tense:
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 series of 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 semanal. = Yesterday, Laura got up at 7 A.M. Then she showered, had breakfast, got dressed and went to do the weekly 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 got mein a private one.
Imperfect Tense – Introduction
The Spanish Imperfect is the Tense to describe what WAS GOING ON: it is used to describe places, things and people (physically or psychologically) in the past. Also, to talk about actions or situations that were happening regularly in the past. Finally, it also serves to describe actions that, within a story or sentence, serve as background for another main action.
Spanish Imperfect – Cases
– Descriptions of people (physical or psychological), of places, of things… in the past:
Nuestra casa era grande y tenía tres plantas. = Our house was big and it 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 were happening regularly in the past:
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 descriptions that serve as background for another main action.
Ayer llovía mucho y por eso no salí. = Yesterday it was raining a lot and because of that I didn’t go out. (main action: didn’t go out. Background action: it was raining)
El otro día, en el parque, vi a una mujer que jugaba al fútbol con su hijo = The other day, at the park, I saw a woman who was playing with her child (main action: I saw. Background action: she was playing).
Cuando tenía 15 años tuve un accidente de coche = When I was 15 I had a car accident. (Main action: had a car accident. Background: I was 15).
Exercise: A Translation
As an exercise, we invite you to read this short text in English, where we have highlighted the verbs in black and numbered them. For each verb, try to decide if it should be translated as Preterite or as Imperfect in Spanish. After that we will offer you the solution for each verb, and then 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, they 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.
1 and 2 = Background, what was going on before the story starts → Imperfect
3 and 4 = Description of her looks and age → Imperfect
5 = Still background, she didn’t have a husband at the time → Imperfect
6 = A prince arrived. It happened. Main action → Preterite
7 = Description of the prince → Imperfect
8, 9, 10, 11, 12 = 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 not so easy to explain, but let’s give it a try: As we said, there is a main action in this sentence: he asked something. And what he asked is if she wanted to marry him. If we consider those two actions (he asked, she wanted or not), him asking is the main, shorter action. Her wanting (or not) is, in comparison, sort of in the background, because it happens at the same time but it’s longer, so → Imperfect.
16 and 17 = Two actions one after another → Preterite
So here is, finally, 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.