preterite vs imperfect spanish blog post

Preterite vs Imperfect in Spanish: The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Both

You already know how to build sentences in Spanish, you distinguish between ser and estar, you’ve  mastered the present tense and can even use the four porques properly.

But talking about the past might be your first big challenge.

There are two simple past tenses in Spanish: the preterite and past imperfect.

The conjugations and usages are different, causing many learners confusion.

But by the time you finish reading this blog post, you’ll know the difference between preterite vs. past imperfect in Spanish, their conjugations, how to use each and more.

Contents

The Difference Between the Preterite and Past Imperfect

Both the preterite and past imperfect tenses describe actions that happened in the past.

But the main difference is that the preterite tense describes completed actions that happened at a specific time, whereas the past imperfect tense is used for actions that don’t have a specific ending (such as habitual actions).

For example:

  • I went to the beach yesterday” would require the preterite tense
  • I used to go to the beach” requires the past imperfect

Preterite Tense in Spanish

Preterite Tense Conjugations

Many learners find the preterite tense a bit more difficult than the past imperfect, usually because of the irregular verbs. But once you memorize the endings and practice, they become more and more natural.

But before we tackle irregulars, here are the preterite endings for our regular verbs:

Pronoun-AR Conjugation-ER Conjugation-IR Conjugation
Yo
-aste-iste-iste
Él/ella/usted-ió-ió
Ellos/ellas/ustedes-aron-ieron-ieron
Nosotros-amos-imos-imos
Vosotros-asteis-isteis-isteis

As you can see, the endings for –er and –ir verbs are the same. And except for a couple of letters, the pattern is the same in –ar verbs, making them easy to memorize.

Irregular Preterite Verbs

The four main groups of irregular verbs in the preterite are: traer, decir and verbs ending in -ucir, verbs with stem change, ser and ir, and orthographically irregular verbs.

1. Traer, decir and verbs ending in -ucir

The verbs traer (to bring), decir (to say) and all verbs ending in -ucir (such as conducir, producir, traducir etc.) have the following endings:

PronounConjugationExample: Traer
Yo-jeTraje
-jisteTrajiste
Él/ella/usted-joTrajo
Ellos/ellas/ustedes-jeronTrajeron
Nosotros-jimosTrajimos
Vosotros-jisteisTrajisteis

2. Verbs with stem change

There’s a group of verbs that undergo a stem change when conjugated in the preterite tense. These are the most common ones:

Andar  anduv-

Poner  pus-

Caber  cup-                         

Querer  quis-

Estar  estuv-                     

Saber  sup-  

Haber  hub-                       

Tener  tuv-

Hacer  hic-                          

Venir vin-               

Poder  pud- 

Even though the stems change, the endings are the same as all other preterite verbs (-e, -iste, -o, etc.).

Pay special attention to the first and third person singular. You may be tempted to add an accent mark like we do with regular -ar verbs, but in this case you don’t.

As an example, I’ll conjugate the verb hacer (to do, to make), since it’s the only one of this entire group that has a small irregularity: the third person singular changes to hiz-.

PronounConjugation
YoHice
Hiciste
Él/ella/ustedHizo
Ellos/ellas/ustedesHicieron
NosotrosHicimos
VosotrosHicisteis

3. Ser and ir

Ser (to be) and ir (to go) are very special verbs, not only because they are completely irregular, but also because they have the same preterite conjugation.

When dealing with sentences in the preterite, you’ll know which verb is being used based on context.

PronounConjugation of ser and estar
YoFui
Fuiste
Él/ella/ustedFue
Ellos/ellas/ustedesFueron
NosotrosFuimos
VosotrosFuisteis

4. Orthographically irregular verbs

Finally, there’s a group of verbs that have a small spelling change only in their first person singular when conjugated in the preterite.

It’s divided into three subgroups:

  • Verbs ending in -car change c  qu
  • Verbs ending in -gar change g  gu
  • Verbs ending in -zar change z  c

Only the first person singular is irregular. The rest of the forms—as well as the endings—are regular all the way:

PronounVerbConjugation
YoTocar (to touch)Toqué
YoRegar (to water)Regué
YoCazar (to hunt)Ca

When to Use the Preterite Tense

1. One-time events and completed actions that took place/started and finished at a specific moment in the past.

Mi hermano volvió a las 8. (My brother came back at 8:00.)

Ayer comí manzanas. (I ate some apples yesterday.)

2. Completed actions that took place a specific number of times or happened during a certain time period.

La semana pasada fui de compras tres veces. (I went shopping three times last week.)

Anoche me desperté dos veces. (I woke up twice last night.)

3. When you need to talk about actions that took place during a specific time period, but are not taking place anymore.

Me leí ese libro en tres días. (I read that book in three days.)

Viví en Barcelona durante siete meses. (I lived in Barcelona for seven months.)

4. With the imperfect when describing situations that changed overnight.

Estaba soltero hasta que un día conocí a María. (I was single until one day I met María.)

No quería tener hijos pero de un día para el otro cambié de opinión. (I did not want to have children, but I changed my mind overnight.)

5. When describing actions that were part of a chain of events.

Me duché, desayuné y me fui al trabajo. (I took a shower, had breakfast and went to work.)

Abrió la carta, la leyó y la tiró a la basura. (He opened the letter, read it and threw it into the trash.)

Preterite Tense Trigger Words

There are several words and phrases that show you must use the preterite tense when they appear in a sentence. They are:

  • Anoche (last night) — Anoche me fui a la cama muy tarde (I went to bed very late last night)
  • Anteanoche (the night before last) — Anteanoche no pude dormir (I couldn’t sleep the night before last)
  • Ayer (yesterday) — Ayer hizo mucho frío (It was very cold yesterday)
  • Anteayer (the day before yesterday) — Terminé el curso anteayer (I finished the course the day before yesterday)
  • Ayer + [part of the day] (yesterday [part of the day]…) — Ayer por la mañana fui al médico (I went to the doctor yesterday morning)
  • Desde el primer momento (from the first moment) — Te amé desde el primer momento (I loved you from the first moment)
  • De repente (suddenly) — De repente lo entendí todo (I suddenly understood everything)
  • Durante + [period of time] (for + period of time) — Estudié español durante cinco años (I learned Spanish for five years)
  • El otro día (the other day) — Lo vi el otro día (I saw him the other day)
  • Entonces (then) — No supe qué decir entonces (I did not know what to say then)
  • En aquel/ese momento (at that moment) — Lo entendí todo en aquel momento (I understood everything at that moment)
  • Hace + [period of time] ([period of time] ago) — Hace dos minutos terminé (I finished two minutes ago)
  • [Time period] + pasado/a (last [time period]) — Estuve en una fiesta el fin de semana pasado (I was at a party last weekend)
  • Un día (one day) — Era pobre hasta que un día me tocó la lotería (I was poor until one day I won the lottery)

Past Imperfect Tense in Spanish

The imperfect is one of those tenses you’ll love to learn because it’s super regular (only three irregular verbs in the entire tense!) and the endings are easy to remember.

Past Imperfect Tense Conjugations

Here are the endings for regular past imperfect verbs:

Pronoun-AR Conjugation-ER Conjugation-IR Conjugation
Yo-aba-ía-ía
-abas-ías-ías
Él/ella/usted-aba-ía-ía
Ellos/ellas/ustedes-aban-ían-ían
Nosotros-ábamos-íamos-íamos
Vosotros-abais-íais-íais

As it was the case with the preterite, the endings for -er and -ir verbs are exactly the same (watch out for that accent mark appearing in every person), while -ar verbs are different.

Now come the only three irregular verbs in the imperfect tense.

Take a few minutes and learn them by heart, and you’ll have done the hardest part of the job.

PronounSerIrVer
YoEraIbaVeía
ErasIbasVeías
Él/ella/ustedEraIbaVeía
Ellos/ellas/ustedesEranIbanVeían
NosotrosÉramosÍbamosVeíamos
VosotrosEraisIbaisVeíais

When to Use the Past Imperfect Tense

1. Past actions that were not completed (i.e., actions that lasted in time).

Mi hermano descansaba. (My brother was getting some rest.)

Yo leía un libro. (I was reading a book.)

2. Describing people, things, places and situations in the past.

La casa era grande y tenía tres balcones. (The house was big and had three balconies.)

El niño era muy guapo. (The boy was very handsome.)

3. To set the stage for another past action.

The second past action will normally need the preterite. It’s usually used to say that someone was doing something (imperfect), when all of a sudden something happened (preterite).

In fact, it’s very common to see the imperfect of estar followed by the gerund in these contexts.

Yo dormía cuando el teléfono sonó. / Yo estaba durmiendo cuando el teléfono sonó. (I was sleeping when the telephone rang.)

Cuando empezó a llover estábamos en el parque. (We were in the park when it started raining.)

4. When you want to talk about repeated or habitual actions in the past.

De pequeño solía leer mucho. (I used to read a lot when I was a child)

Solía ir a casa de mis abuelos cada sábado. (I used to go to my grandparents’ house every Saturday.)

(Note that in Spanish you can just say “de pequeño” or “de joven” (When I was young). You don’t have to say, even though you can, “Cuando era pequeño” or “Cuando era joven.”)

5. When talking about someone’s age in the past.

Cuando tenía 10 años me rompí una pierna. (When I was 10 years old I broke my leg.)

Fui a los Estados Unidos cuando tenía 15 años. (I went to the United States when I was 15 years old.)

6. When telling the time or talking about time in the past.

Eran las 12:00 cuando llamaste. (It was 12:00 when you called.)

Era muy tarde cuando volví a casa. (It was very late when I came back home.)

Imperfect Tense Trigger Words

As with the preterite, there are some words and expressions that automatically trigger the use of the past imperfect in a sentence. Here are the most common ones:

  • A menudo (often) — De pequeño comía helado muy a menudo (I often ate ice cream when I was a child)
  • Algunas veces (at times) — Algunas veces mi madre no me dejaba comerlo (At times my mother would not let me eat it)
  • A veces (sometimes) — A veces escuchaba a los Beatles (Sometimes I listened to the Beatles)
  • Cada [time period] (every [time period] — Cuando era joven iba de fiesta cada día (I used to go partying every day when I was young)
  • Con frecuencia / frecuentemente (frequently) — Frecuentemente volvía a casa tarde (I frequently came back home late)
  • Casi nunca (almost never) — Casi nunca tenía dinero (I almost never had any money)
  • En aquel tiempo / en aquella época (at that time) — Era muy buen estudiante en aquel tiempo (I was a very good student at that time)
  • Mientras (while) — Tú estudiabas mientras yo limpiaba (You were studying while I was cleaning)
  • Muchas veces (many times) — Muchas veces no sabía qué responder (Many times I didn’t know what to answer)
  • Todas/os + [time period] (Every [time period] — De pequeño iba a la escuela todos los días (I used to go to school every day when I was a child)
  • Todo el tiempo (all the time) — Ella lloraba todo el tiempo (She used to cry all the time)
  • Soler (used to) — Solía terminar de trabajar a las 4 de la tarde. (I used to finish work at 4 p.m.) 

Why Learn the Preterite vs. Imperfect in Spanish?

While most native speakers will understand if you accidentally use the wrong past tense, you’ll need to master the preterite and past imperfect eventually if you want to speak conversational Spanish.

And in some cases, the implications of a sentence can drastically change if you choose the wrong tense.

Take this sentence for example:

El hombre no sabía que tenía un hermano. (The man did not know that he had a brother.)

This sentence is in the past imperfect tense since we used sabía and tenía. This is because we’re describing a situation in the past that’s not finished.

If you use the preterite tense instead, the sentence becomes:

El hombre no supo que tenía un hermano. (The man did not know that he had a brother.)

This sentence implies the man never knew because he died before he heard the news.

Here’s what happens when we use tuvo (the preterite tense of tener):

El hombre no sabía que tuvo un hermano. (The man did not know that he had had a brother.)

This sentence implies that the man never knew his brother and the brother is no longer alive.

If you describe the same situation in the past by using the preterite, you’re finishing the action. (And in this case, also the people’s lives involved.)

How to Practice the Preterite vs. Imperfect in Spanish

Immerse Yourself in Spanish Content

The best way to master grammar concepts like tenses is to hear how native speakers use them naturally. And thanks to technology, you don’t need to save up for a plane ticket to experience Spanish immersion.

Start by watching Spanish videos on YouTube, movies, telenovelas or music videos. And bonus points if you do so with an immersion program like FluentU.

FluentU helps you learn new words and grammar through authentic Spanish content with interactive subtitles.

While watching a video, you can see the Spanish and English translations at the same time, allowing you to easily spot instances of the preterite and past imperfect. When you don’t know a word or phrase in the subtitles, click on it to get an instant definition, example sentences and pronunciation.

The language learning program is also available as an app on iOS and Android.

Take Online Quizzes

There are tons of free online quizzes available with a quick Google search that let you practice the preterite and imperfect.

For example, StudySpanish.com offers this free preterite vs. imperfect conjugation drill where you need to use the right tense and conjugation for a bunch of different phrases. 

Try This Practice Exercise

Read the sentences below and guess why I used the preterite or the past imperfect in each case before looking at the solutions.

La niña 1. tenía el pelo largo y rubio, y los ojos azules. 2. Miraba por la ventana cuando, de repente, 3. oyó un grito. 4. Se dio la vuelta y 5. vio que su madre 6. estaba de pie, con las manos cubiertas de sangre.

Mi abuelo nunca 7. supo que 8. tenía un hermano.

Mi abuela no 9. sabía que 10. tuvo una hermana.

En aquel tiempo 11. era normal tener perros en casa, pero mi madre no 12. quería. Todos los días yo le 13. pedía varias veces que me comprara un perro, pero nunca 14. decía que sí. Un día, sin embargo, 15. llegó a casa con el pequeño Chuckles en una caja.

Todos los martes 16. solía ir al cine cuando 17. tenía 20 años. Una vez 18. fui con mi hermano y 19. vimos una película tan triste que 20. acabamos los dos llorando.

Solutions:

1. We use the imperfect when describing people.

2. We use the imperfect when a past action lasted in time.

3. De repente triggers the preterite.

4. One-time, completed events require the preterite.

5. One-time, completed events require the preterite.

6. Actions lasting in time and descriptions of situations are expressed with the imperfect.

7. Finished actions (my grandpa is dead) are expressed with the preterite.

8. We use the imperfect with actions that lasted in time (my grandpa’s brother was still alive when he died).

9. We use the imperfect with actions that lasted in time (at that time my grandma was still alive).

10. We use the preterite because the action was already completed (my grandma’s sister was already dead).

11. En aquel tiempo triggers the imperfect.

12. My mother not wanting to have a dog was an action that lasted in time.

13. Todos los días triggers the imperfect.

14. Nunca triggers the imperfect in this kind of context when the action (or in this case, the lack of action—not saying yes) repeated itself and lasted in time.

15. Un día triggers the preterite.

16. Todos los martes signals a repeated action, and it triggers the imperfect.

17. Cuando tenía 20 años is a typical imperfect construction.

18. Una vez triggers the preterite.

19. We use the preterite with one-time, completed actions.

20. The verb acabar (to finish) signals a result or the end of an action, and we express completed actions with the preterite.

 

Congratulations—you now know everything you need to master the preterite and past imperfect in Spanish!

Don’t worry if you can’t remember everything now. It may take some time until it sinks in, but I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post as much as I have enjoyed writing it!

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