Welcome to our grammar lesson about Spanish Preterite vs Imperfect, where we will learn and practice how to choose between these past tenses.
Learning to choose between Preterite and Imperfect is always a challenge for Spanish learners.
In this lesson, we will explain the guidelines for choosing the right tense, and how to mix them in sentences and paragraphs.
We will also provide useful exercises for practice.
In holaquepasa, we also have a specific grammar lesson for each tense, to study their conjugations and also read about their main uses:
For clarity, from this moment on we will associate the color orange with the Preterite, and green with the Imperfect.
Preterite vs Imperfect – the general idea
We use both the Preterite and the Imperfect 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 go more into detail for each tense.
Uses of the Preterite
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 types of sentences where we use the Preterite are:
- 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
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 end)
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. (a chain of events, one after another)
Uses of the Imperfect
The Imperfect is a tense for ongoing actions and situations 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 in the past
- Time frames: date, time, age…
- Ongoing actions and situations that serve as background info for something else
Nuestra casa era grande y tenía tres plantas.
Our house was big and it had three floors. (a description in the past)
De niño, mi padre trabajaba en una fábrica. Todos los días volvía tarde.
During my childhood, my father used to work in a factory. Everyday he came back late. (habitual actions in the past)
Era el año 2005 cuando empecé la carrera.
It was the year 2005 when I started my degree. (background info for something else, as well as time frame)
Cuando tenía 20 años, tuve un accidente de coche.
When I was 20 I had a car accident. (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 includes two verbs.
He tells us that one of the verbs should be in Imperfect, and the other in Preterite.
In that case, this 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, the longer action tends to be in Imperfect, because it is considered “background information”, and 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, and because of that I went out.
Now we are going to practice the topic Preterite vs Imperfect with some exercises.
Try to do the exercises yourself before checking the solutions.
Exercise 1: Choose Preterite or Imperfect
In the following sentences, try to think what is the right tense for each verb, choosing between Preterite and Imperfect:
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.
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 yesterday → 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. Maybe each event was several years long, but it is still a chain of events → 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 la compañía.
8. Ella se casó dos veces.
9. Yo paseaba por el parque cuando la vi.
Exercise 2: Preterite and Imperfect in the same sentence
Each of the following sentences includes two verbs.
In all of them, one verb should be in Preterite and the other in Imperfect:
1. I bought a watch because I needed it.
2. When we were at the beach, we saw Roberto.
3. Did you notice that the room was empty?
4. I met a guy who was living in the jungle.
1. Buying the watch and needing it happen 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
2. Same thing, both happen at the same time, but being at the beach takes longer than seeing Roberto → were = Imperfect, saw = Preterite
3. Both happen at the same time, but the room being empty is longer than noticing it. → notice = Preterite, was = Imperfect
4. At this point, we are sure you don’t even need the explanation 😀 → met = Preterite, was living = Imperfect
Solutions: the sentences in Spanish
1. Compré un reloj porque lo necesitaba.
2. Cuando estábamos en la playa, vimos a Roberto.
3. ¿Notaste que la habitación estaba vacía?
4. 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 which tense is right for each verb before checking the solutions:
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 → 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 was whether 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 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 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.