January 15, 2021 ·

The Preterite vs. the Imperfect: Your Go to Guide for Learning the two different past tenses in Spanish

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The Preterite vs. the Imperfect: Your Go to Guide for Learning the two different past tenses in Spanish

Just like the majority of other Romance languages, Spanish also has two past tenses that are used in daily conversation. These are known as the preterite and imperfect tenses. Deciding which past tense to use when speaking and writing will depend on the message that you are trying to convey. For learners who already speak another romance language, this topic is fairly familiar, but for those who are native speakers of a language that only have one past tense, it can be quite confusing. Not to worry! Our go to guide will be the key in ensuring your success in tackling this tricky topic! Let’s get started!

The fist thing that we need to do is learn how to conjugate our verbs in the past. We will begin with the preterite past tense:

-AR Verbs (hablar)ER Verbs (comer)-IR Verbs (vivir)
Yo-é (hablé)-í (comí)-í (viví)
vos-aste (hablaste)-iste (comiste)-iste (viviste)
él/ella/usted-ó (habló)-ió (comió)-ió (vivió)
nosotros/as-amos (hablamos)-imos (comimos)-imos (vivimos)
ellos/ellas/ustedes-aron (hablaron)-ieron (comieron)-ieron (vivieron)
To conjugate regular -ar verbs in the preterite, simply drop the ending (-ar) and add the corresponding ending

Now we will move on to the conjugation of regular verbs in the imperfect tense:

-AR Verbs (hablar)-ER Verbs (comer)-IR Verbs (vivir)
Yo-aba (hablaba)-ía (comía)-ía (vivía)
vos-abas (hablabas)-ías (comías)-ías (vivías)
él/ella/usted-aba (hablaba)-ía (comía)-ía (vivía)
nosotros/as-abamos (hablabamos)-íamos (comíamos)-íamos (vivíamos)
ellos/ellas/ustedes-aban (hablaban)-ían (comían)-ían (vivían)
To conjugate regular -ar verbs in the preterite, simply drop the ending (-ar) and add the corresponding ending

Now, what is the difference you ask?

Generally speaking, the preterite tense is used when we are talking about an action in the past that has been completed or has a defined start and end to the action:

  • Nacho estudió desde 13 hrs hasta 15 hrs. .
  • Nacho studied from 13 hrs to 15 hrs. (clearly stated beginning and end)

Keep in mind that the beginning and end are not always clearly stated, but rather implied:

  • Nacho estudió dos horas.
  • Nacho studied for two hours. (Implied beginning and end)

On the other hand, the imperfect tense is generally used to describe actions in the past that are not seen as completed. Use of the imperfect tense implies that there was no defined beginning or ending to the action.


  • Mis hermanos comían muchos fideos durante su niñez.
  • My brothers ate a lot of pasta during their childhood. (no definite beginning or ending)
  • Mi mama jugaba tenis cuando era chica.
  • My mom played tennis when she was little. (once again, no definite beginning or ending)

Now that we have introduced both of the preterite and imperfect verbs in Spanish, lets go into some ore detail about each of them. This will ensure your success when mastering this tricky topic.

Let’s start with the preterite. Below are some simple situations in which you should always use the preterite past form:


The preterite is used for actions that are viewed as single events:

  • Mi jefe llegó una hora tarde a la reunión.
  • My boss arrived 1 hour late to the meeting.

The preterite is used for actions that were repeated a certain number of times in the past or for a specific duration of time:

  • Nacho me llamó 3 veces anoche.
  • Nacho called me 3 times last night.
  • Yo viví en Buenos Aires por 3 años.
  • I lived in Buenos Aires for 3 years.

The preterite is used for actions that were part of a chain of events:

  • Apagué la computadora y las luces, cerré la puerta con llave, y fui a mi casa.
  • I turned off the computer and the lights, locked the door, and went to my house.

The preterite is used to indicate the beginning or end of an action:

  • El concierto empezó a las 9 pm.
  • The concert started at 9 pm.

Now we will delve deeper into the uses of the imperfect past tense!


The imperfect is used for actions that were repeated habitually in the past:

  • Nosotros íbamos al parque todos los días juntos.
  • We would go to the park everyday together.
  • Mi madre siempre charlaba con nuestra vecina. Ella era su mejor amiga.
  • My mother would always chat with our neighbor. She was her best friend.

The imperfect is used for actions that “set the stage” for another action:

  • yo estaba viendo la tele cuando mi papa llegó a casa.
  • I was watching the TV when my Dad got home.

The imperfect is used for telling time and stating one’s age:

  • Eran las ocho de la mañana
  • It was eight in the morning
  • El nene tenía 6 años
  • The boy was 6 years old

Finally, now that you have learned that the preterite and imperfect are used in different situations, it is time to look at how the meanings of these verbs can actually change depending on which past form is used. Let’s take a look at the following examples:


CONOCER


  • Conocí a Alejandro hace 3 años.
  • I met Alejandro 3 years ago.
  • En aquella época conocíamos muy bien todos los países de Europa.
  • In that time we knew very well all of the countries in Europe.

QUERER

  • Él quiso comprar el auto pero no tenía suficiente dinero.
  • He tried to buy the car but he did not have enough money.

  • Él quería comprar el auto.
  • He wanted to buy the car.

SABER

  • Nacho lo supo por primera vez el año pasado.
  • Nacho found out for the first time last year.

  • Yo sabía que ibas a aprobar el examen.
  • I knew that you were going to pass the exam.

PODER

  • Ella pudo comer la pizza entera.
  • She succeeded in eating the whole pizza.

  • Él podía ir a la fiesta.
  • He was allowed to go to the party.

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