Welcome to our grammar lesson on the differences between the Preterite and Imperfect tense in Spanish.
In this lesson, we will learn how to choose between Preterite and Imperfect, and how to to mix them in sentences and paragraphs.
Then we will practice with several useful exercises.
For clarity, we will associate the color orange with the Preterite, and the color green with the Imperfect.
Note: In holaquepasa.com, we also have a separate grammar lesson for each tense, where we explain its conjugations and provide more example sentences:
Preterite vs Imperfect – The general idea
We use both the Preterite and the Imperfect to talk about the past, but in different ways.
- The Preterite is the tense for main actions. It answers the question: “What happened?”.
- The Imperfect is the tense for background information: descriptions, habitual actions, ongoing situations… It answers the question: “What was going on?”.
Let’s go a bit more into detail for each tense.
Uses of the Preterite Tense
The Preterite is a tense for main actions. We use it to talk about completed actions that happened in the past.
It tends to answer the question: “What happened?”.
Some specific cases where we use the Preterite are:
- Past actions which 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. (past action that happened once)
El año pasado estuve enfermo dos veces.
Last year I was sick twice. (past action that happened a stated number of times)
Viví diez años en Perú.
I lived in Peru for ten years. (duration is stated)
La película empezó a las diez.
The movie started at ten. (expresses beginning or ending)
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 seven in the morning. Then she showered, had breakfast, got dressed, and went shopping. (a chain of events, one after another)
Uses of the Imperfect Tense
The Imperfect is a tense for background information in the past.
It tends to answer the question: “What was going on?”.
Some cases where we use it are:
- 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 for something else
- time frames in the past: date, time, age…
Nuestra casa era grande y tenía tres plantas.
Our house was big and it had three floors. (a description in the past)
Cuando yo era niño, mi padre trabajaba en una fábrica. Todos los días volvía a casa muy tarde.
When I was a child, my father worked in a factory. Every day he came home very late. (habitual actions in the past)
Era el año 2005 cuando…
It was the year 2005 when… (background info for something else, as well as time frame)
Cuando yo tenía 20 años…
When I was 20… (background info for something else, as well as time frame)
Preterite and Imperfect in the same sentence
Imagine our Spanish teacher wants us to translate a sentence that contains two different verbs.
He tells us that one of the verbs should be in Imperfect, and the other one in Preterite.
In that case, this trick will usually work:
If a sentence includes 2 past actions that happened simultaneously, but one took longer than the other, the longer action tends to be in Imperfect, because it is considered “background information” for the shorter action. That the shorter action tends to be in Preterite.
We can understand it visually with the following graph:
Ayer hacía buen tiempo y por eso salí.
Yesterday there was good weather, so I went out.
Now that we know the basic theory, we are going to practice how to choose between Preterite and Imperfect with useful exercises.
Try to do the exercises yourself before checking the analysis and the solution.
Exercise 1: Choose Preterite or Imperfect
In the following sentences, try to decide what’s the right tense for each verb:
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 at the company for 25 years.
8. She married twice.
Analysis of each sentence
1. This sentence, without any other context, is just stating fact, a completed action I did yesterday → Preterite
2. Again, a completed action that happened once, 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 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 is a chain of events, one after another → both verbs in Preterite
6. Another chain of events. Maybe each event was several years long, but it is still a chain of events one after another → Preterite
7. This is an action with a stated duration → Preterite.
8. This is an action that happened a stated number of times → Preterite
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 la compañía.
8. Ella se casó dos veces.
Exercise 2: Preterite and Imperfect in the same sentence
All of the following sentences includes two verbs.
In each sentence, one verb should be in Preterite and the other one in Imperfect. Try to decide it!:
1. I was walking at the park when I saw her.
2. I bought a watch because I needed it.
3. When we were at the beach, we saw Roberto.
4. Did you notice that the room was empty?
5. I met a guy who was living in the jungle.
1. “Walking at the park” and “seeing her” both happened at the same time. But walking took longer, so it is considered background information. In other words: What was going on? I was walking. What happened? I saw her. → was walking = Imperfect, saw = Preterite
2. “Buying the watch” and “needing it” both happened at the same time. But needing it is longer, so it is considered background information for why I bought it. In other words: What was going on? I needed a watch. What happened? I bought it. → bought = Preterite, needed = Imperfect
3. Same thing, both happened at the same time, but “being at 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
Solutions: the sentences in Spanish
1. Yo paseaba por el parque cuando la vi.
2. Compré un reloj porque lo necesitaba.
3. Cuando estábamos en la playa, vimos a Roberto.
4. ¿Notaste que la habitación estaba vacía?
5. Conocí a un tío que vivía en la jungla.
Exercise 3: A story in one paragraph
The following paragraph tells a story, and we have highlighted and numbered the verbs.
Again, try to decide between Preterite and Imperfect for each verb:
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 if she wanted (15) to marry him. She said (16) no and the prince returned (17) to his kingdom.
1 and 2 = Background information, what was going on at the time, before the story really begins. Ongoing situation → Imperfect
3 and 4 = Description of her looks and age → Imperfect
5 = Still talking 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 five events, one after another → Preterite
13 = Background info for other actions that appear in the sentence → Imperfect
14 and 15 = This one is a bit tricky. He asked whether she wanted to marry him. If we consider those two actions (him asking, her wanting to marry him or not), him asking is the 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 chain of events one after another → Preterite
Solution: the story 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 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) 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.