Pretérito Imperfecto – When to use it

This post is about the usage of the Pretérito Imperfecto. I will assume that you already know the conjugation in this tense. If you don’t, click here to read our post about the Conjugation of Imperfecto first and then come back here to learn about its usage.

The basic idea

Before we give you some especific cases, let’s see the basic idea behind Imperfecto.

When Spanish teachers attempt to explain the difference between Imperfecto and Indefinido (another past tense), they realize it’s not easy to give a precise explanation.

Many students are left thinking, for example, that Imperfecto is for “actions that take a lof of time”, and Indefinido for “quick actions”. Or they think Imperfecto is for “not completed actions”, and Indefinido for “completed ones”.

Although it’s understandable why students take those notions, we don’t recommend thinking about it that way. Because both Indefinido and Imperfecto refer to past actions (which means that, looking back from the present, the are all completed), and it actually doesn’t matter so much if the action is quick or takes a lot of time.

The real difference is the relative role the action plays in the story, distinguishing 2 roles:

Role 1: Something WAS WAS GOING ON. Emphasis on its “in progress” aspect.

Role 2: Something HAPPENED. No emphasis on its “in progress” aspect.

We will use Imperfecto for Role 1 (What was going on), and Indefinido for Role 2.

Take this two sentences in English:

Last night I was going home and…   (IMPERFECTO)

Last night I went home and…    (INDEFINIDO)

I’m giving the same information, but differently. In the first case, I’m treating it as an action in progress, (what was going on), maybe because I plan to talk about something else that happened when “going home” was still in progress.

In the second case, I’m treating it more as closed, done thing. Maybe because I want to move on with the story and tell what happened afterwards. 

I know, this is all very subtle, but don’t worry. For the moment, just take the idea that Imperfecto is used for “what was going on” rather than “what happened”. With that idea in mind, we will now study two easy cases where Imperfecto is used. 

Easy Case 1 of Imperfecto: Descriptions in the past

Yes, descriptions of things, of places, of people (both physical and psychological/emotional).

It makes sense, right? “This is how my old house was, this is how my grandmother looked, this was her character…” When you think about it, all those things fit better with “what was going on”, than with “what happened”. So our basic idea stands true.

Here’s a description of my old house in the countryside:

“Mi casa estaba en el campo, cerca de Madrid. Era grande y tenía un jardín con muchos árboles y flores.”

And a description of how my grandmother was, both physically and psychologically:

“Mi abuela María era una mujer alta y delgada. Tenía el pelo rubio. De carácter era muy educada y amable con todo el mundo. Adoraba a sus hijos. Le gustaba coser y también leer novelas románticas.”

Easy Case 2 of Imperfecto: Actions that happened  continually, regularly or frequently in the past

Let’s say I talk about my life when I was 10 years old. I talk about where I was living at the time, how many people lived in my house, what was my daily routine, some stuff that I did once a week… Doesn’t that sound to you like “what was going on” in my life, rather than “what happened”? Exactly!

For this case, you can look for (and use) some signal words that indicate regularity or frequency. These signal words almost always introduce Imperfecto:

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…

Let’s see some examples. In the first one, I will talk about how many people lived in my house, and what my parents were doing for a living at the time. All thins things “were going on” rather than “happened”:

“En mi casa vivíamos 5 personas: mis padres, mis dos hermanos y yo. Mi padre trabajaba como cirujano en un hospital de la zona. Mi madre se quedaba en casa y cuidaba de nosotros.”

And now about our daily routine. You will notice some signal words:

“Todos los días, mi padre se levantaba muy temprano. Se duchaba, desayunaba y se iba a trabajar. Normalmente iba en autobús, pero a veces lo hacía en bicicleta.

Una vez al mes, mi madre nos llevaba a un zoológico que había cerca de casa. Esos eran mis días favoritos. Me encantaba ver los animales.”

OK, so those are 2 easy cases. What about the more difficult ones?

You can learn the most advanced stuff in this post: How to mix Imperfecto and Indefinido in sentences.