Preterite Vs. Imperfect in Spanish – Learn to Choose!

Choosing between the Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect Tenses is one of the big challenges for the Spanish learner, and therefore we have prepared this lesson in which both explain the theory, and also provide with a couple of interesting exercises.

It is assumed that you already know how to conjugate verbs in these 2 tenses. Otherwise, make sure to check up these lessons first:


In this lesson we will go through the following points:


1. Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect: A General Idea

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 general…

  • Think of the Spanish Preterite as the tense to express actions, what happened.
  • Think of the Spanish Imperfect as the tense for ongoing actions and situations.

That is a good starting point to approach the topic. Next we will study in detail the uses of each tense.


2. Uses of Spanish Preterite

The Spanish Preterite is a tense for actions. We generally use it to talk about completed actions which happened in the past. The most typical cases where the Preterite fits 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:

This is perhaps the clearest case for Indefinido: narrating a series of actions, one after another: “This happened, then that happened, etc.” It doesn’t matter how long each individual action takes.

We can illustrate the idea with the following graph. Look at it and then read the examples sentences. Notice how the stories are told as a sequence of actions one after another:

A graphic that represents a series of actions expressed in Preterite Tense
A series of actions, one after another. A clear case where to use the Preterite

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. Uses of Spanish Imperfect

The Spanish Imperfect is a tense for ongoing actions and situations in the past. That includes descriptions of things and people in the past, as well as what was going on at some point, what used to happen…

The most typical cases where the Imperfect fits 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 use there are some keywords that we can look for, which tend to go well with the Imperfect:

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

The following 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.


– Ongoing actions and situations which can serve as background for a main action. 

Examples:

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)

As you may notice, it is not always easy for the Spanish learner to decide whether a certain action in a sentence works as main action or as background, because it’s all so relative. Fortunately, there is a little trick that can helps us in a case of doubt:

4. A trick to decide between Preterite Vs Imperfect

If there are two actions in a sentence and both of them happen simultaneously, but one takes longer than the other, the shorter one tends to be in Preterite tense and the longer one in Imperfect tense, because it is considered as “background” for the shorter action.

A graphic to illustrate the logic of the Imperfect Tense as the tense for background actions
The ongoing, longer action in Imperfect Tense. The main shorter action in Preterite.

Take 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!


5. Practice: A Quiz

Take this short Quiz to test your knowledge!:


6. Practice: An Exercise

As an exercise, 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:

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.

Solutions

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.

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