Welcome to our grammar lesson on how to choose between Preterite and Imperfect in Spanish.
By the end of this lesson, you will be able to choose between these tenses, and mix them in sentences and paragraphs. We will practice the topic with several exercises.
For clarity, in this lesson we associate the color orange with the Preterite, and green with the Imperfect.
Note: At holaquepasa.com, we also have a separate grammar lesson for each tense, where we explain its conjugations and provide more examples:
Preterite vs Imperfect – The general idea
We use the Preterite and the Imperfect to talk about the past, but in different ways.
- The Preterite is the tense of the main actions. It answers the question: “What happened?”.
- The Imperfect is the tense for background information: descriptions, ongoing situations… It answers the question: “What was going on?”.
Let’s study the uses of each tense separately.
Uses of the Preterite
The Preterite is a tense for main actions. It answers the question: “What happened?”.
Some specific cases where we use the Preterite:
- past actions that happened once or a stated number of times
- past actions with a stated duration
- beginnings and endings in the past
- a chain of events in the past, one after another
Juan compró una lavadora ayer.
Juan bought a washing machine yesterday. (action that happened once)
El año pasado estuve enfermo dos veces.
Last year I was sick twice. (action that happened a stated number of times)
Viví diez años en Perú.
I lived in Peru for ten years. (stated duration)
La película empezó a las diez.
The movie started at ten o’clock. (expresses beginning or ending)
Ayer, Laura se levantó a las siete de la mañana. Luego se duchó, desayunó, se vistió y fue a hacer la compra.
Yesterday, Laura got up at seven in the morning. Then she took a shower, ate breakfast, got dressed, and went shopping. (a chain of events, one after another)
Uses of the Imperfect
The Imperfect is for background information. It answers the question: “What was going on?”.
Some cases where we use it:
- descriptions of people (physical or psychological), places and things in the past
- habitual actions and ongoing situations in the past
- actions and situations that serve as background information
- time frames in the past: date, time, age…
Nuestra casa era grande y tenía tres plantas.
Our house was big and had three floors. (description)
Cuando yo era niño, mi padre trabajaba en una fábrica. Todos los días volvía tarde a casa.
When I was a child, my father worked in a factory. Every day he would come home late. (habitual actions)
Era el año 2005 cuando…
It was 2005 when… (background info, as well as time frame)
Cuando yo tenía 20 años…
When I was 20 years old… (background info, as well as time frame)
Preterite and Imperfect in the same sentence
Imagine our Spanish teacher wants us to form a sentence that includes 2 verbs: one in Preterite and one in Imperfect.
In that case, this trick will usually work:
If a sentence expresses 2 actions that happened at the same time, but one took longer than the other, the longer action tends to be in Imperfect, because it is considered “background information”. The shorter action tends to be in Preterite.
We can understand it better with the following graph:
Ayer hacía buen tiempo y por eso salí.
Yesterday there was good weather, so I went out.
El otro día, vi a una mujer que jugaba con su hijo.
The other day, I saw a woman who was playing with her son.
Now that we know the theory, let’s practice choosing between Preterite and Imperfect with several exercises.
Exercise 1: Choose Preterite or Imperfect
In the following sentences, try to decide what’s the right tense for each verb. Then click on the grey spaces to see the solutions, and also read the analysis where we explain the reason for every choice.
1) Yo fui al parque ayer.
I went to the park yesterday.
2) Los españoles descubrieron América en 1492.
The Spaniards discovered America in 1492.
3) De niño, jugaba a videojuegos todos los días.
As a kid, I used to play video games everyday.
4) Mi abuelo era siempre divertido.
My grandfather was always fun.
5) Nosotros comimos y luego fuimos a la playa.
We ate and then went to the beach.
6) Él vivió primero en Dinamarca y después en España.
First he lived in Denmark and then in Spain.
7) Tú trabajaste 25 años en la compañía.
You worked at the company for 25 years.
8) Ella se casó dos veces.
She married twice.
Analysis of each sentence
1) This sentence simply expresses an action I did yesterday ➡ Preterite
2) Again, another action that happened just once ➡ Preterite
3) A habitual action, something I used to do. That makes it background information: how my life was at the time ➡ Imperfect
4) A description of a person in the past ➡ Imperfect
5) A chain of events, one after another ➡ both verbs in Preterite
6) Another chain of events. Each event might have taken years, but it is still a chain of events one after another ➡ Preterite
7) An action with a stated duration ➡ Preterite.
8) An action that happened a stated number of times ➡ Preterite
Exercise 2: Preterite and Imperfect in the same sentence
Each of these sentences includes two verbs, one in Preterite and one in Imperfect. Try to choose right:
1) Yo paseaba por el parque cuando vi a mis amigos.
I was walking in the park when I saw my friends.
2) Compré un reloj porque lo necesitaba.
I bought a watch because I needed it.
3) Cuando estábamos en la playa, vimos a Roberto.
When we were on the beach, we saw Roberto.
4) ¿Notaste que la habitación estaba vacía?
Did you notice the room was empty?
5) Conocí a un hombre que vivía en la jungla.
I met a man who was living in the jungle.
1) “Walking at the park” and “seeing my friends” both happened at the same time. But walking took longer, so we consider it background information. In other words: What was going on? I was walking. What happened? I saw my friends. ➡ was walking = Imperfect, saw = Preterite
2) “Buying the watch” and “needing it” both happened at the same time. But needing it takes longer, so we consider it background information. ➡ bought = Preterite, needed = Imperfect
3) Both happened at the same time, but “being on the beach” took longer than “seeing Roberto” ➡ were = Imperfect, saw = Preterite
4) Both happen at the same time, but the room being empty is longer than noticing it. ➡ notice = Preterite, was = Imperfect
5) At this point, you don’t even need the explanation 😄 ➡ met = Preterite, was living = Imperfect
Exercise 3: A story
The following paragraph tells a story.
We have highlighted and numbered the verbs. Try to decide between Preterite and Imperfect for each verb:
Había (1) una vez una princesa que vivía (2) en un gran castillo. Era (3) rubia y muy guapa. La princesa tenía (4) 25 años y aún no tenía (5) un esposo. Un día llegó (6) un príncipe de un reino lejano. Era (7) un poco feo, pero también simpático 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) 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.
Once upon a time, there was (1) a princess who lived (2) in a big castle. She was (3) blonde and very pretty. The princess was (4) 25 years old and still didn’t have (5) a husband. One day a prince arrived (6) from a faraway kingdom. He was (7) a bit ugly, but also nice and funny. 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 gave (12) each other presents. At night, as they were (13) looking at the stars, he asked (14) her if she wanted (15) to marry him. The princess said (16) no and the prince returned (17) to his kingdom.
1 and 2) Background information: what was going on at the time when the story begins ➡ Imperfect
3 and 4) Description of her looks and age ➡ Imperfect
5) Still background info, what was going on at the time: she didn’t have a husband ➡ Imperfect
6) A prince arrived. Main action that happened once ➡ Preterite
7) Description of the prince ➡ Imperfect
8, 9, 10, 11, 12) A chain of events, one after another ➡ Preterite
13) Background info for other actions ➡ Imperfect
14 and 15) This one is a bit tricky. He asked her whether she wanted to marry him. If we consider those two actions (him asking, her wanting or not wanting), him asking is the shorter action. Her wanting (or not wanting) is, in comparison, longer: her feelings about him at the time ➡ 14 is Preterite and 15 is Imperfect.
16 and 17) A chain of events one after another ➡ Preterite