Pretérito Indefinido – When to use it

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

The basic concept

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

When Spanish teachers attempt to explain the difference between Indefinido and Imperfecto (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 lot of time”, and Indefinido for “quick actions”. Or they think Imperfecto is for “not completed actions”, and Indefinido for “completed ones”.

But the reality is different. Actually, both Indefinido and Imperfecto refer to past actions (which means that, looking back from the present, the are all completed), and it doesn’t really matter 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, and Indefinido for Role 2.

Take this two sentences in English:

Last night I was going home and…

Last night I went home and…

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

In the second case, I’m treating it more as closed, done thing. Maybe because I want to talk about what happened after I arrived home. So there is no need to treat the “going home” as an “in progress” action.

The difference is subtle and it takes time to use both tenses correctly. For the moment, just take the idea that Indefinido is used for “what happened” rather than “what was going on”. With that idea in mind, we will study three easy cases now where Indefinido is used.

Easy Case 1 of Indefinido: Single actions in the past. No emphasis on “in progress” aspect.

Like we said, it doesn’t matter so much if the actions take a short or a long time. What matters is we don’t make emphasis on their “in progress aspect”. We are not saying they were “going on”, just that they happened. 

Examples:

“Ayer almorcé en una pizzería.”

“La semana pasada compré los regalos de Navidad para mi familia.”

“Hace dos años fuimos de viaje a Nicaragua.”

Easy Case 2 of Indefinido: A series of actions, one after another.

This is perhaps the easiest case for Indefinido. It’s when you tell a story and it keeps moving forwards through a series of actions: “I did this, then I did that, and after that I did blablaba…”.

It makes sense, because each one of the actions is opened and closed immediately, in order to move on with the story. You don’t emphasize the “in progress” aspect of any of them, you close it and move on to the next one.

Examples:

“Ayer salí de casa a las nueve. En la calle, me encontré con mi amigo Ramón. Fuimos a un café y desayunamos juntos.”

“El año pasado, en enero, fui de viaje a Roma. En marzo, estuve un par de días en Madrid. Y en septiembre, pasé dos semanas en Buenos Aires.”

Easy Case 3 of Indefinido: An action, when we mention its duration or an specific number of times it happened

Yes: whenever we mention the duration of an action, or the exact number of times it happened, we use always Indefinido, never Imperfecto.

Examples:

Viví 10 años en Londres.”

Estudié 5 años en la Universidad de Bilbao.”

“El mes pasado jugué tres veces al fútbol.”

OK, so those are 3 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.