Choosing Preterite Vs Imperfect tense in Spanish is one of the big challenges for a Spanish learner. Both tenses are used to talk about the past, and knowing when to use each one can be quite tricky.\n\n\n\nIn this lesson, we will explain the main guidelines for choosing the right tense, and also provide you with example sentences and useful exercises for practice.\n\n\n\nWe assume the student already knows how to conjugate verbs in these 2 tenses. Otherwise, make sure to check up the "Conjugation" section of the following lessons:\n\n\n\nConjugation of verbs in Preterite TenseConjugation of verbs in Imperfect Tense\n\n\n\nAnd now let's go deep into the Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect topic.\n\n\n\n1. Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect: A general idea of the difference\n\n\n\nBoth the Preterite and the Imperfect tense are used to talk about the past, but in different modes of thinking.\n\n\n\nIn general...\n\n\n\nThe Spanish Preterite is the tense to express actions. It answers the question "What happened?".The Spanish Imperfect is the tense for background information, ongoing actions and situations... It answers the question "What was going on?".\n\n\n\nThat is a good starting point to approach the topic. Next we will study the uses of each tense more in detail.\n\n\n\n2. When to Use the Spanish Preterite\n\n\n\nThe Spanish Preterite ("Pret\u00e9rito Perfecto Simple") is a tense for actions. We use it to talk about completed actions that happened in the past. It tends to answer the question: "What happened?".\n\n\n\nThe most typical cases where the Preterite applies are:\n\n\n\nPast actions which happened once or a stated number of times:\n\n\n\nExample sentences:\n\n\n\nJuan compr\u00f3 una lavadora nueva ayer.Juan bought a new laundry machine yesterday. Estudi\u00e9 Medicina en la Universidad de Madrid.I studied Medicine in the University of Madrid. El a\u00f1o pasado estuve enfermo dos veces.Last year I was sick twice. Ana y Mar\u00eda fueron al cine la semana pasada.Ana and Mar\u00eda went to the movies last week.\n\n\n\nLook at the second sentence again: "Estudi\u00e9 Medicina...". We have used the Preterite Tense in Spanish, even though it takes years to study Medicine. But it doesn't matter how long it takes. What matter is that we have expressed it as a completed, main action ("what happened").\n\n\n\nPast actions whose duration is stated (no matter how long they took)\n\n\n\n Viv\u00ed diez a\u00f1os en Per\u00fa.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.\n\n\n\nBeginnings and ends in the past\n\n\n\nVerbs that signal the beginning or end of something, such as...\n\n\n\nempezar to begin \/ startcomenzar to begin \/ startterminar to finish \/ endacabar to finish \/ end\n\n\n\n... when they refer to past actions, they tend to be conjugated in Preterite tense:\n\n\n\nLa pel\u00edcula empez\u00f3 a las diez.The movie started at ten.Las personas comenzaron a quejarse.The people began to complain.La pel\u00edcula termin\u00f3 a las doce.The movie ended at twelve.Acab\u00e9 de contar la historia.I finished telling the story.\n\n\n\nA chain of events or actions in the past, one after another:\n\n\n\nWe use the Preterite when narrating a series of events, one after another: \u201cThis happened, then that happened,\u00a0etc.\u201d\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\nWe can illustrate the idea with the graph above. Look at it and then read the following sentences: They are chains of events, one after another.\n\n\n\n Ayer, Laura se levant\u00f3 a las siete de la ma\u00f1ana. Luego se duch\u00f3, desayun\u00f3, se visti\u00f3 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 estudi\u00e9 en un colegio p\u00fablico. M\u00e1s tarde mis padres me metieron en uno privado.I first studied in a public school. Later my parents put me in a private one.\n\n\n\n3. When to Use the Spanish Imperfect\n\n\n\nThe Spanish Imperfect is a tense\u00a0for ongoing actions and situations in the past.\u00a0That includes\u00a0background information: descriptions\u00a0of things and people,\u00a0what was going on\u00a0at some point, what\u00a0used to happen\u2026\n\n\n\nIt tends to answer the question: "What was going on?".\n\n\n\nThe most typical cases where the Imperfect applies are:\n\n\n\nDescriptions of people (physical or psychological), places or things in the past:\n\n\n\nIt makes sense, because descriptions tend to be background information:\n\n\n\nNuestra casa era grande y ten\u00eda tres plantas.Our house was big and had three floors. Mi abuela era alta y guapa. Ten\u00eda el pelo oscuro. Era una persona muy buena.My grandma was tall and pretty. She had dark hair. She was a very good person.\n\n\n\nContinuous or habitual actions in the past\n\n\n\nWe use the Imperfect to talk about how things were in the past (all the time), or what used to happen regularly. It makes sense, because it is background information: we are painting a picture of how things were at the time.\n\n\n\nFor this specific use there are some keywords and phrases which tend to go well with the Imperfect:\n\n\n\nKeywords and Phrases for the Imperfect tense:\n\n\n\nantes time agosiempre alwaysnormalmente usuallya veces sometimesa menudo oftentodos los d\u00edas every dayuna vez a la semana once a weekdos veces al a\u00f1o twice a year\n\n\n\nThe following is an example text that includes a couple of keywords:\n\n\n\n De ni\u00f1o, mi padre trabajaba en una f\u00e1brica. Todos los d\u00edas sal\u00eda temprano y no volv\u00eda a casa hasta la noche. A veces llegaba muy cansado y no ten\u00eda mucho tiempo para pasarlo con nosotros.In my childhood, my father used to work in a factory. Everyday he left home early and didn\u2019t come back until late in the evening. Sometimes he arrived very tired and didn\u2019t have any time to spend with us.\n\n\n\nOngoing actions and situations that serve as background information for something else.\n\n\n\nWhen talking about the past, we mix the Preterite and the Imperfect a lot. Frequently we find sentences where one verb in Preterite, and another verb is in Imperfect Tense.\n\n\n\nObviously this can get confusing for the Spanish learner. But you must stick to the principle: the Preterite for main action, the Imperfect for background information.\n\n\n\nRead the following sentences that mix Preterite and Imperfect Tense. Then we will give you a trick that can help in sentences that mix Preterite and Imperfect:\n\n\n\n Ayer hac\u00eda buen tiempo y por eso sal\u00ed.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 d\u00eda, en el parque, vi a una mujer que jugaba al f\u00fatbol 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 ten\u00eda 20 a\u00f1os 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)\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n4. A trick for sentences that mix Imperfect and Preterite tense\n\n\n\nIf there are two past actions in the same sentence and both of them happened simultaneously, but one took longer than the other, then the longer one tends to be in Imperfect tense, because it is considered \u201cbackground information\u201d for the shorter one.\n\n\n\nThe ongoing, longer action in Imperfect Tense. The main shorter action in Preterite.\n\n\n\nTake a moment to review the last example sentences, applying the trick. For example, in the first sentence, "I went out" is shorter than "there was good weather". It works!\n\n\n\n\n5. Practice the Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect with this text\n\n\n\nHere is a good exercise to practice the Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect tenses: We invite you to read this story in English, where we have highlighted and numbered the verbs. For each verb, try to decide if it should be translated as Preterite or Imperfect in Spanish. After the English text you can find the solutions for each verb, and finally the whole text in Spanish:\n\n\n\nOnce 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\u2019t 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.\n\n\n\nSolutions\n\n\n\n1 and 2 Background, what was going on at the time, before the story begins \u2192 Imperfect\n\n\n\n3 and 4 Description of her looks and age \u2192 Imperfect\n\n\n\n5 Still talking about background, what was going on: she didn\u2019t have a husband at the time \u2192 Imperfect\n\n\n\n6 A prince arrived. That happened. Main action \u2192 Preterite\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n7 Description of the prince \u2192 Imperfect\n\n\n\n8, 9, 10, 11, 12 A sequence of five actions one after another \u2192 Preterite\n\n\n\n13 Background for another main action \u2192 Imperfect \n\n\n\n14 Main action of this sentence: he asked something \u2192 Preterite\n\n\n\n15 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 \u2192 Imperfect. \n\n\n\n16 and 17 A sequence of two actions one after another \u2192 Preterite\n\n\n\nFinally, here is the text in Spanish:\n\n\n\nHab\u00eda (1) una vez una princesa que viv\u00eda (2) en un gran castillo. Era (3) guapa, alta y rubia. La princesa ya ten\u00eda (4) 25 a\u00f1os y a\u00fan no ten\u00eda (5) un esposo. Un d\u00eda lleg\u00f3 (6) al castillo un pr\u00edncipe de un reino lejano. Era (7) un poco feo, pero tambi\u00e9n amable y divertido. Invit\u00f3 (8) a la princesa a pasar el d\u00eda con \u00e9l y ella acept\u00f3 (9). Montaron (10) a caballo, navegaron (11) por un lago y se hicieron (12) muchos regalos. Por la noche, mientras miraban (13) las estrellas, \u00e9l le pregunt\u00f3 (14) si quer\u00eda (15) casarse con \u00e9l. La princesa dijo (16) que no, y el pr\u00edncipe regres\u00f3 (17) a su reino.