Choosing Preterite Vs Imperfect tense in Spanish is one of the big challenges for a Spanish learner. Both tenses are used to talk about the past, and knowing when to use each one can be quite tricky.
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.
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:
And now let’s go deep into the Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect topic.
1. Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect: A general idea of the difference
Both the Preterite and the Imperfect tense are used to talk about the past, but in different modes of thinking.
- 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 (“Pretérito Perfecto Simple”) 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 applies 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”).
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.
Beginnings and ends in the past
- empezar = to begin / start
- comenzar = to begin / start
- terminar = to finish / end
- acabar = to finish / end
… when they refer to past actions, they tend to be conjugated in Preterite tense:
La película empezó a las diez.
The movie started at ten.
Las personas comenzaron a quejarse.
The people began to complain.
La película terminó a las doce.
The movie ended at twelve.
Acabé de contar la historia.
I finished telling the story.
A chain of events or actions in the past, one after another:
We use the Preterite when narrating a series of events, one after another: “This happened, then that happened, etc.”
We can illustrate the idea with the graph above. Look at it and then read the following sentences: They are chains of events, 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 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…
It tends to answer the question: “What was going on?”.
The most typical cases where the Imperfect applies are:
Descriptions of people (physical or psychological), places or things in the past:
It 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.
Continuous or habitual actions in the past
We use the Imperfect to talk about how things were in the past (all the time), or what used to happen regularly. It makes sense, because it is 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 the 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 verb is in Imperfect Tense.
Obviously this can get confusing for the Spanish learner. But you must stick to the principle: the Preterite for main action, the Imperfect for background information.
Read the following sentences that mix Preterite and Imperfect Tense. Then we will give you a trick that can help in sentences that mix Preterite and Imperfect:
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 for sentences that mix Imperfect and Preterite tense
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 one tends to be in Imperfect tense, because it is considered “background information” for the shorter one.
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 the Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect with this text
Here is a good exercise to practice the Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect tenses: 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.
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.