Spanish has two past tenses, the preterite and the imperfect. Why is it so difficult for many students to understand when to use preterit vs. imperfect? The guidelines in this lesson will help you select the appropriate tense in the battle of preterit vs. imperfect!.
The preterite is used to describe completed actions in the past.
Escribí una carta a mi abuela.
I wrote a letter to my grandmother.
Llegamos a casa muy tarde anoche.
We got home very late last night.
Mis niños jugaron en el parque.
My children played in the park.
The imperfect is used for habitual actions or ongoing past actions with no reference to beginning or ending.
Mi carro no tenía radio.
My car didn't have a radio.
Hace años no existía la computadora.
Years ago the computer didn't exist.
Yo siempre andaba en bicicleta cuando era joven.
I always used to ride a bike when I was young.
Pensaba pasar una temporada en Madrid.
I was planning to spend a spell in Madrid.
Sometimes, these past actions were interrupted by another action:
Tú estabas en el área cuando la alarma fue activada.
You were in the area when the alarm went off.
¿Estaba alguien fumando cerca de usted cuando empezó el ataque de asma?
Was somebody smoking next to you when the asthma attack started?
Spanish has two past tenses, the preterite and the imperfect.
The guidelines below will help you select the most appropriate tense.
Completed Actions - Preterite
The preterite is used to describe completed actions in the past:
Pasó una semana. - A week went by.
Hablé con el director. - I spoke with the director.
Hice mi tarea. - I did my homework.
Ongoing Past Actions - Imperfect
The imperfect is used for ongoing past actions. These actions tend to be interrupted by another action. For example:
Caminaban por la calle cuando empezó a llover.
They were walking down the street when it began to rain.
Juan se bañaba cuando llegaste.
Juan was taking a shower when you arrived.
Background Information - Imperfect
The imperfect is used to give background information which sets the stage for the principal action:
Era un día muy bonito, no hacía calor y había una brisa muy fresca.
It was a very nice day, it wasn't hot and there was a very fresh breeze.
Todos estábamos preocupados por el examen: Adolfo sudaba, Gabriel repasaba su tarea y Lupe no podía dejar de hablar.
We were all nervous about the exam: Adolfo was sweating, Gabriel was reviewing his homework, and Lupe couldn't stop talking.
Simultaneous Actions - Imperfect
Simultaneous actions are expressed with the imperfect:
Mientras pescaban, hablaban del partido de fútbol.
While they were fishing they talked about the soccer game.
Habitual Past Actions - Imperfect
When you want to refer to habitual past actions in situations that would require "used to" or "would" in English (e.g. I used to smoke; we would always meet at the arcade) use the imperfect in Spanish.
Yo jugaba tenis cada fin de semana cuando era niño.
I used to play tennis every weekend when I was a child.
Siempre hacíamos excursiones en bicicleta.
We would always go for bike rides.
Mental State or Feelings - Imperfect
If it is a verb which indicates a state of mind or feelings, rather than a change of state of mind, then use the imperfect:
Yo no me sentía bien. - I didn't feel well.
No sabíamos quién era. - We didn't know who it was.
Estaban muy enojados. - They were very angry.
Change in Mental State or Feelings - Preterite
Changes in one's mental state or feelings are expressed with the preterite. This is often expressed with the reflexive form and corresponds to "become + adjective" in English:
Me enfermé del estómago. - I got sick to my stomach.
Se enteró del error. - He found out about the error.
Te enojaste con el árbitro. - You got mad at the referee.
There are some cases in which two distinct English verbs will be needed to express what can be conveyed by the use of the preterite and imperfect in Spanish. Remember that the preterite refers to the beginning or ending of an action and the imperfect refers to an ongoing condition. For example:
Conocí a Miguel en 1998. - I met Miguel in 1998.
Yo conocía a Miguel en 2000. - I knew Miguel in 2000.
Juan supo las noticias y se enojó.
Juan found out about the news and he got mad.
Juan sabía las noticias y estaba enojado.
Juan knew about the news and was angry.
Tuve que ir a la junta.
I had to go to the meeting.
Tenía que ir a la junta.
I was supposed to go to the meeting.
Single Act [completed] Habit/Customary Action ['used to/would do']
Fui al centro ayer. De joven iba al centro.
'I went downtown yesterday.' 'As a youth, I used to go downtown.'
'As a youth, I would go downtown.'
Pedro comió una manzana. Pedro siempre comía manzanas.
'Peter ate an apple.' 'Peter always used to eat apples.'
'Peter would always eat apples.'
Series of single acts [completed] Event in progress ['was doing']
Fui a casa y recibí una llamada. Caminaba en casa cuando vi el accidente.
'I went home and got a call.' 'I was walking when I saw the accident.'
Event contained in time frame Situation/Circumstance
Viajé mucho el año pasado. (ya no) Hacía sol cuando llegué.
'I travelled a lot last year.' 'It was sunny when I arrived.'
Trabajé todos los días el mes pasado. Entonces tenía quince años.
'I worked every day last month.' 'I was fifteen then.'
To decide between preterite and imperfect in past time narration, it sometimes helps to ask whether the verb reflects an action or event ( = preterite), or a situation/circumstance/state of affairs ( = imperfect).
The English forms 'used to do', 'would do', 'was/were doing' correspond pretty closely to the Spanish imperfect. Although the Spanish preterite frequently corresponds to the English -ed ending, this is not always the case. English -ed can also mark imperfect actions, particularly in the case of "stative" verbs (verbs that do not represent states rather than actions).
Yo quería ir al cine. 'I wanted to go to the movies.'
Entonces vivíamos en l'Argentina. 'At that time we lived in Argentina.'