Preterite vs Imperfect

Master Which Past Tense to Use

One of the most difficult things people who are learning Spanish come across is which past tense to use. There are several past tenses in Spanish but the two most common ones are the preterite (or the past simple) and the imperfect which are also the easiest to confuse.

In this blog post we will help you work out when to use the preterite and when to use the imperfect so that when you come to talk or write in the past in Spanish you will be able to with ease.

More than one past tense

Let’s look at some different examples to see why there is more than one past tense:

Yesterday I went to work. – this describes a one-off completed action.

I used to work part-time but now I work full-time. – this describes an ongoing or a repeated past action that happened over a longer time.

I was watching television when the phone rang. – This involves two different past actions; “I was watching television” describes the background action that was already happening when a one-off action took place (“the phone rang”) at a certain point during that time.

As you can see from these examples, there is more than one past tense and they depend on how often the action occurred and for how much time. This is what you need to think about in order to work out which tense to use in Spanish.

The preterite tense

The preterite tense is used to talk about actions that were completed in the past:

Let’s look at some examples:

– I left – Salí
– We went – Fuimos
– He arrived – Llegó
– They swam – Nadaron

If you need to learn how to conjugate the preterite verbs you can read the previous blog post which is all about the preterite here:

“How to Master the Preterite Tense in Spanish”

As a quick recap the regular verbs are conjugated like this:h

-ar verbs

é
aste
ó
amos
asteis
aron

Be careful with hablo (no accent) is the yo form of the present tense – I speak. However by putting the accent on the this makes it the past tense in the he/she form – hablóhe/she spoke.

Also note that the nosotros form: hablamos happens to be the same in present and past tenses! You just have to try to work it out in the context of what is being said.

The -er and -ir verbs have exactly the same conjugation:

– í
– iste
– ió
– imos
– isteis
– ieron

Here are some examples of regular verb sentences in the preterite:

– Yo comí ensalada ayer. – I ate salad yesterday.
– ¿Qué bebiste? – What did you drink?
Nadamos en el mar. – We swam in the sea.

Straightforward so far, right?

Must-Know Irregular Preterite Verbs

The tricky part is learning the common irregular verb patterns. Here we will list the ones you definitely need to start by learning:

ir / ser (to go / to be)
fui
fuiste
fue
fuimos
fuisteis
fueron

estar (to be – temporary/location)
estuve
estuviste
estuvo
estuvimos
estuvisteis
estuvieron

tener (to have)
tuve
tuviste
tuvo
tuvimos
tuvisteis
tuvieron

dar (to give)
di
diste
dio
dimos
disteis
dieron

ver (to see)
vi
viste
vio
vimos
visteis
vieron

hacer (to do/make)
hice
hiciste
hizo
hicimos
hicisteis
hicieron

querer (to want)
quise
quisiste
quiso
quisimos
quisisteis
quisieron

decir (to say/tell)
dije
dijiste
dijo
dijimos
dijisteis
dijeron

As you can see there are patterns to watch out for to make your learning easier. Ir and ser are exactly the same, dar and ver are almost the same and estar and tener are similar. Also, the endings are the same for most of them.

When to use the preterite in Spanish

1. To talk about a completed action

Anoche no dormí bien.Last night I didn’t sleep well.
La semana pasada no trabajé.Last week I didn’t work.
El año pasado fuimos a Alemania.Last year we went to Germany.

2. Talking about a specific time or date

El examen fue el ocho de mayo.The exam was on 8th May.
Llegamos a las nueve de la mañana.We arrived at 9 a.m.
Salí de casa a las siete de la tarde.I left the house at 7 p.m.

The Imperfect Tense

Whereas the preterite tense is used to talk about actions that took place at specific times, the imperfect is used to talk about things that happened in the past in an ongoing sense or things that you “used to do”.

How to conjugate imperfect verbs

Again there are only two sets of endings to learn for the regular verbs:

-ar verbs:

-aba
-abas
-aba
-ábamos
-abais
-aban

-er/-ir verbs:

-ía
-ías
-ía
-íamos
-íais
-ían

You will be pleased to know that there are only three irregular verbs:

Ser (to be)
era
eras
era
éramos
erais
eran

ir (to go)
iba
ibas
iba
íbamos
ibais
iban

ver (to see)
veía
veías
veía
veíamos
veíais
veían

When to use the imperfect tense

1) Repeated actions

A common use of the imperfect tense is to talk about ongoing actions that took place in the past. This often involves “used to …”.
Let’s look at some examples so that you can understand when to use it:

Cuando era más joven jugaba al fútbol cada fin de semana.
When I was younger I used to play football every weekend.

Vivía en Londres con mi familia.
I used to live in London with my family.

Estudiaba francés pero ahora studio español.
I used to study French but now I study Spanish.

2) Descriptions of people or places

When you are describing something or someone in the past you would use the imperfect tense. Again this ties in with the “ongoing” sense because something would have looked that way for a longer time.

Here are some examples:

El ladrón era alto y moreno.
The thief was tall and dark.

El hotel era grande y moderno.
The hotel was big and modern.

Mi mejor amigo en el colegio tenía el pelo rubio y era muy divertido.
My best friend in school had blonde hair and was really fun.

3) Age in the past

This is a strange one because you think about being a certain age for one year only (a completed amount of time), however in Spanish you need to use the imperfect tense. This is one that you will just have to try to remember. Whenever you say how old someone was in the past you need to use “tenía” because remember in Spanish when you talk about age you say that someone “has” or “had” so many years rather than “is” so many years as we do in English.

Cuando yo tenía quince años iba a la piscina cada sábado.
When I was 15 years old I went to the pool every Saturday.

Juan tenía veinticinco años cuando tuvo un accidente en su moto.
Juan was 25 when he had an accident on his motorbike.

4) Time in the past

When talking about specific times that things happened in the past you must use the imperfect tense of “ser”; era or eran.

Era la una cuando llegaron.
It was one o’clock when they arrived.

Eran las cuatro cuando la fiesta empezó.
It was 4 when the party started.

5) Two actions happening at once

When you talk about two things happening simultaneously you would use the imperfect tense for both.

María preparaba la cena mientras Juan arreglaba el salón.
Maria prepared dinner whilst Juan tidied the lounge.

Using the imperfect and preterite in the same sentence

Sometimes you will find that you need to use both an imperfect verb and a preterite verb in the same sentence. For instance, this is the case if you are talking about a one-off action (preterite) that happened whilst something else was already happening (imperfect).

Yo veía la television cuando mi amigo me llamó.
I was watching television when my friend called me.

Mientras conducía al trabajo descubrí una araña en el coche.
Whilst I was driving to work I discovered a spider in the car.

Paseaba al perro en el parque cuando vi a mi compañero Pedro.
I was walking the dog in the park when I saw my colleague Pedro.

As you can see from the above examples, if you learn the basic rules about when to use the preterite and imperfect you will be able to talk easily in Spanish about things that happened in the past.

Remember that if you make a mistake by using the wrong past tense, do not worry because the person you are talking to will still understand what you are saying which is the main thing.

 
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