Spanish Preterite Vs. Imperfect – Learn to Choose the Right Tense

Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect

Choosing between the Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect Tense is one of the big challenges for a Spanish learner. Both the Preterite and the Imperfect appear in sentences about past actions, and knowing when to use each one can be confusing.

In this lesson, we will explain the main guidelines for choosing the right tense, and also provide you with example sentences and useful exercises so that you can practice their differences.

We 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:


In this lesson we will go through the following points:


1. Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect: A General Idea of their difference

Both the Preterite and the Imperfect tense are used to talk about the past, but in different modes of thinking.

In general…

  • The 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?”.

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


2. When to Use the Spanish Preterite

The Spanish Preterite 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?”.

The most typical cases where the Preterite fits are:

Past actions which happened once or a stated number of times:

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.

Look at the second sentence again: “Estudié 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).

If the sentence had been “When I was studying Medicine… etc”, that clearly sounds like background information for something else, so the Preterite wouldn’t fit right.


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 actions in the past, one after another:

This is perhaps the clearest case for the Preterite: narrating a series of actions, one after another: “This happened, then that happened, etc.”

A graphic that represents a series of actions expressed in Preterite Tense

We can illustrate the idea with the graph above. Look at it and then read the following sentences, which fit the pattern: they are sequences 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.
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. When to Use the Spanish Imperfect

The Spanish Imperfect is a tense for background information. That includes descriptions, what was going on at some point, what used to happen in the past… etc.

It tends to answer the question: “What was going on?”.

The most typical cases where the Imperfect fits are:


Descriptions of people (physical or psychological), places or things in the past:

This makes sense, because descriptions tend to be background information:

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 in the past:

When we talked about something that used to happen with regularity, it also sounds like background information: we are painting a picture of how things were at the time.

For this specific use there are some keywords and phrases which tend to go well with the Imperfect:

Keywords and Phrases 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 that serve as background information for something else.

When talking about the past, we mix the Preterite and the Imperfect a lot. Frequently we find sentences where one verb in Preterite, and another one is in Imperfect tense, etc.

Obviously this can get confusing for the Spanish learner. But you must stick to the rule: Preterite for main action, Imperfect for background information.

Read the following example sentences and then we will give you a trick that can be of help:

Example sentences:

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)

4. A trick to decide between Preterite Vs Imperfect in sentences with multiple verbs

If there are two past actions in the same sentence, both of them happened at the same time, but one took longer than the other, the the longer tends to be in Imperfect tense, because it is considered “background information” for the shorter one.

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 with this Text: An Exercise about Preterite Vs Imperfect

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.


6. Practice: A Quiz

Take this short Quiz to test your knowledge about Preterite Vs. Imperfect: