Welcome to our grammar lesson about the Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect tenses, and how to choose between them.
Choosing between Preterite and Imperfect is quite a challenge for Spanish learners. Both are past tenses but we use them in different circumstances.
In 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.
It is important to note that we have a separate grammar lesson for each of these tenses. Ideally you should read them first, because they contain many examples of their use:
And now let’s go deep into the Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect topic.
1. Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect – A General Idea
Both the Preterite and the Imperfect tense are used to talk about the past, but in different modes of thinking.
- The Preterite is the tense to express main actions. It answers the question “What happened?”.
- The 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 review the main uses of both tenses.
2. Uses of the Preterite
In our lesson about the Preterite Tense, we explained and gave examples of the main uses of the Preterite Tense.
We said that it is a tense for actions. We use it to talk about completed actions that happened in the past. And it tends to answer the question: “What happened?”.
Then we got more specific about some types of sentences where we use it, such as:
- Past actions which happened once or a stated number of times
- Past actions whose duration is stated
- Beginnings and ends in the past
- A chain of events or actions in the past, one after another
3. Uses of the Imperfect
Again, in our lesson about the Imperfect Tense, we went into detail and gave examples of the main uses of the Imperfect Tense.
We explained that is a tense for ongoing actions and situations in the past. That includes background information: descriptions of things and people, what was going on at some point, what used to happen…
And it tends to answer the question: “What was going on?”.
Then we mention more specifically some cases where we use it, such as:
- Descriptions of people (physical or psychological), places or things in the past
- Continuous or habitual actions in the past
- Ongoing actions and situations that serve as background information for something else
4. Preterite Vs Imperfect in sentences with more than 1 verb
The guidelines we have given until now are all fine, but when a sentence contains several verbs, it can get confusing.
Let’s suppose our teacher wants us to translated a sentence that contains two verbs. He tells us that one of the verbs should be in Imperfect Tense, and the other In Preterite.
In this cases, the following trick will usually work:
If 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 action tends to be in Imperfect tense, because it is considered “background information”, whereas the shorter action tends to be in Preterite Tense.
Ayer hacía buen tiempo y por eso salí.
Yesterday there was good weather, and because of that I went out.
You can see it visually in the following graph:
5. Practice Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect
For the rest of the lesson, we are going to practice the topic Preterite VS Imperfect with some exercises.
First we will translate several sentences from English to Spanish, trying to decide wether the verbs should be in Preterite or Imperfect tense. Then we will do the same with a longer text that tells a story.
We will use the color green for the Imperfect and orange for the Preterite.
Try to do the exercises yourself before looking at the solutions.
Exercise 1: some Sentences
What tense should we use for each verb in the following sentences?:
1. I went to the park yesterday.
2. The Spaniards discovered America in 1492.
3. As I child, I used to play video games everyday.
4. My grandfather was always fun.
5. We ate and then we went to the beach.
6. First he lived in Denmark and then in Spain.
7. You worked in that company for 25 years.
8. She married twice.
9. I was walking at the park when I saw her.
1. This sentence, without any other context, is just stating fact, a completed action I did today → Preterite
2. Again, a completed action that happened once in history, staten as a simple fact → Preterite
3. This is an action, but it is a HABITUAL action, something I used to do regularly. That makes it more like background information, how my life was like at the time → Imperfect
4. This is a description of a person in the past → Imperfect
5. This sentence expresses a chain of events, one after another → both verbs in Preterite
6. This is another chain of events. It’s true that each event is probably years long, but it is a chain of events anyway → Preterite
7. This is an action whose duration is stated → Preterite.
8. This is an action that happened a stated number of times → Preterite
9. This sentence contains two verbs and it is NOT a chain of events one after another. Both actions happened at the same time, but “I was walking” took longer than “I saw her”. So according to the trick we learned, “I was walking” is Imperfect (background information) and “I saw her” is Preterite (main action).
Solutions: the sentences in Spanish
1. Yo fui al parque ayer.
2. Los españoles descubrieron América en 1492.
3. De niño, jugaba a videojuegos todos los días.
4. Mi abuelo era siempre divertido.
5. Comimos y luego fuimos a la playa.
6. Primero vivió en Dinamarca y después en España.
7. Tú trabajaste 25 años en esa compañía.
8. Ella se casó dos veces.
9. Yo paseaba por el parque cuando la vi.
Exercise 2: a longer Text
We invite you to read this story in English, where we have highlighted and numbered the verbs. Again, try to decide the tense in which each verb should be translated:
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.
1 and 2 = Background information, what was going on at the time, before the story really 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 chain of five actions, one after another → Preterite
13 = Background info for other actions that appear in the sentence → Imperfect
14 and 15 = This one is a bit challenging. The main action in this sentence is the fact that 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. So 14 is Preterite and 15 is Imperfect.
16 and 17 = A sequence of two actions one after another → Preterite
Solutions: 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.