Preterite and Imperfect: The Champion’s Guide to the Star Tenses of Spanish Past
Without realizing it, I bet you’ve told several shocking lies while learning Spanish.
Lies through which you’ve effectively killed off a couple of people.
I can imagine you right now, thinking, “Say what? Hold on, Franko. What are you saying? That’s crazy!”
And yet, here I am, telling you the truth: You have probably spread awful rumors about the lives and deaths of several people while learning Spanish.
Let me explain myself. You already know how to build sentences in Spanish, you distinguish between ser and estar, you are able to use the four porques properly and you have even mastered the present tense without a problem.
But then… the past. Oh, please, no! The Grammar Monster strikes again. Spanish, with its richness and nuances, boasts no less that nine (yes, nine!) past tenses. But not to worry, my friend. Some of them are rarely used even by native speakers, and others are so easy that you will shed only tears of joy when dealing with them.
However, two of these tenses (paradoxically called “simple tenses”) have become a real headache factory: the preterite and the imperfect. Well consider this post your Advil and don’t turn back. We’ve just gotten started.
In the following sections I will reveal all the mysteries behind these two tenses, and I am absolutely sure that by the end of this post, you will smile again.
Plus, I’ll explain why you’ve effectively killed someone while learning Spanish, and how to never make that mistake again. Keep on reading to find out why.
Do I Really Need to Distinguish Between Preterite and Imperfect?
The answer is evidently a big yes, you do! Just as we have multiple past tenses in English, you simply could not get away with only using one past tense in Spanish—especially now that you know there are nine.
It’s pretty obvious that you will need the preterite and the imperfect for different purposes and in different contexts, and as you will see in a few minutes, for there is quite a definite line dividing the realms of these two tenses.
However, sometimes it’s not just a question of something happening once in a specific moment in time or repeated various times. Sometimes you can kill a person with your choice! Have a look at the following example:
El hombre no sabía que tenía un hermano. (The man did not know that he had a brother.)
This sentence may seem a safe one. You are just stating the fact that the man did not know he had a brother. We have used sabía (imperfect) and tenía (imperfect) because we are describing a situation in the past that is not finished. No problem.
Now imagine you mistakenly (or not) use the preterite, and instead of sabía, you say supo, or instead of tenía, you use tuvo. Look at what happens:
El hombre no supo que tenía un hermano. (The man did not know that he had a brother.)
In this case he never knew, because he was dead before getting to hear the news. Here’s what happens when we use tuvo:
El hombre no sabía que tuvo un hermano. (The man did not know that he had had a brother.)
He didn’t know he had had a brother—who, by the way, is no longer living because you used the preterite.
There, you have just killed two people in 10 seconds! If you describe the same situation in the past by using the preterite, you are finishing the action, and also often the lives of the people involved. So watch out before you use the preterite in Spanish.
This is just one example of how using the preterite or the imperfect can change the meaning of a sentence, and even people’s fate. So if you want to master these two tenses in an easy and funny way, that’s where we’re going next. And I assure you it’s easier than it looks.
For a big boost to your learning, you can also check out these concepts in action on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
The Spanish Preterite Tense
How to conjugation the preterite tense
Legend has it that the preterite is one of the most difficult tenses in Spanish, especially when it comes to the conjugation of irregular verbs, but I don’t believe that to be true. We do indeed have a few irregular verbs which you will be tempted to just learn by heart, but there aren’t too many, and they are not all that irregular if you look closely.
But before we tackle irregularities, here are the preterite endings for our regular verbs:
-AR: cantar (to sing)
-ER: correr (to run)
-IR: vivir (to live)
As you can see, the endings for -ER and -IR verbs are exactly the same, and except for a couple of letters, the pattern is the same in -AR verbs. Easy as pie.
The problem may come when you try to conjugate irregular verbs. Some people think the best way is to learn them by heart individually. On the other hand, I think it is much better to group them, and once you know which verb is in which group and what their endings are, you can just relax and be proud of yourself for having saved literally days of unnecessary study.
Irregular preterite verbs
The three main groups of irregular verbs in the preterite are:
1. Traer, decir and verbs ending in -ucir
The verbs traer (to bring), decir (to say) and all the verbs ending in -ucir (conducir – to drive, producir – to produce, traducir – to translate, etc.) have the following endings:
Note that there is no accent in the third person singular -jo ending. Here are traer and traducir conjugated:
traje trajimos traduje tradujimos
trajiste trajisteis tradujiste tradujisteis
trajo trajeron tradujo tradujeron
Remember that decir keeps its vowel change (e → i) from the present tense (decir → digo) in all the persons:
2. Verbs with stem change
There is a group of verbs that undergo a stem change when conjugated in the preterite. 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-
All of these verbs add the same endings to their stems, which is something to be thankful for:
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 will 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-.
hice (no accent!) hicimos
hizo (no accent!) hicieron
3. Ser and ir
Ser and ir are very special verbs, not only because they are completely irregular, but also because the have the exact same preterite conjugation. Yes, it seems very weird, but it’s the truth. When dealing with sentences in the preterite, you’ll know which verb is being used based on content.
For example, take the sentence “Ayer fui a una fiesta.” We cannot translate this as “I was at a party yesterday” because we use estar in this kind of context (Ayer estuve en una fiesta), so the only possible translation here is “I went to a party yesterday.”
Here’s one more: “Ayer fui el ganador.” This can only mean I was the winner yesterday, since you don’t “go to a winner.”
4. Orthographically irregular verbs
Finally, there is a group if verbs which, although in terms of endings they can be treated as regular, have a small spelling change in their first person singular when conjugated in the preterite. This group of verbs is 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:
tocar (to touch)
regar (to water)
cazar (to hunt)
And that’s it! Now you have mastered the preterite conjugation. You may be wondering though, when to use this tense. And that’s just what you will learn in the next section.
Uses of the preterite
All right, getting to the good stuff: When do you need to use the preterite?
1. Use the preterite for one-time events and completed actions that took place or 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.)
Juan me dijo la verdad. (Juan told me the truth.)
Me mudé a Polonia en 2007. (I moved to Poland in 2007.)
2. Use the preterite for 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.)
Mis vecinos pintaron la casa seis veces el año pasado. (My neighbors had their house painted six times last year.)
3. Use it when you need to talk about actions that took place during a specific period of time, but are not taking place anymore:
Fui a la universidad durante cuatro años. (I went to college for four years.)
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. Use the preterite alongside 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.)
Todo estaba en su sitio hasta que llegaste. (Everything was in its place until you arrived.)
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. Finally, use the preterite 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.)
Llamé a mi madre, saqué al perro a pasear y me fui a dormir. (I called mom, took the dog for a walk and went to sleep.)
Abrió la carta, la leyó y la tiró a la basura. (He opened the letter, read it and threw it into the trash.)
There are several words and phrases which, when appearing in a sentence, trigger the preterite. Here you have a list of the most common ones:
- 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] [por la mañana, por la tarde, por la noche, al mediodía…] (yesterday morning, afternoon, at night, at noon…): 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] [dos días, tres semanas, cuatro años…] (two day, three weeks, four years ago): Hace dos minutos terminé. (I finished two minutes ago.)
- la semana, el mes, el año, el martes, el fin de semana… + pasado/a (last week, month, year, Tuesday, weekend…): 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.)
The Spanish Imperfect Tense
The imperfect is one of those tenses you’ll love to learn. Why? Because it’s super regular (only three irregular verbs in the entire tense!) and the endings are really easy to remember.
How to conjugate the imperfect tense
Here are the endings for regular imperfect verbs:
-AR: cantar (to sing)
-ER: correr (to run)
-IR: vivir (to live)
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. But believe me, these endings are really easy to learn. Besides, the first and third person forms in each conjugation are identical, so there’s yet another reason to love this tense.
Now come the only three irregular verbs in the imperfect tense. You can take a few minutes of your time and learn them by heart, and you will have literally done the hardest part of the job. Here you have the three irregular verbs fully conjugated:
Nothing else! Really, you gotta love the imperfect.
Now let’s turn to its use.
Uses of the imperfect
Using the imperfect can be a walk in the park if you follow a few rules:
1. Use the imperfect for past actions that are not seen as completed, i.e., actions that lasted in time.
Imagine you open a window through which you can see what happened in the past. Every action taking place at the moment you open the “window of the past” will be expressed by using the imperfect.
So now open that window, and you will see that…
Los niños jugaban al fútbol. (The children were playing football.)
Mi hermano descansaba. (My brother was getting some rest.)
Yo leía un libro. (I was reading a book.)
2. Consequently, you can use the imperfect for 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.)
El agua estaba demasiado fría. (The water was too cold.)
3. Use the imperfect to set the stage for another past action.
This second past action will normally need the preterite. It’s usually used to say that someone was doing such and such a thing (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. (I was sleeping when the telephone rang.)
Yo estaba durmiendo cuando el teléfono sonó.
Ella leía cuando llegué. (She was reading when I arrived.)
Ella estaba leyendo cuando llegué.
Cuando empezó a llover estábamos en el parque. (We were in the park when it started raining.)
4. Use the imperfect when you want to talk about repeated or habitual actions in the past.
More often than not, you will be able to translate the imperfect as “used to + infinitive” in these kinds of sentences:
De pequeño solía leer mucho. (I used to read a lot when I was a child)
(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.”)
Solía ir a casa de mis abuelos cada sábado. (I used to go to my grandparents’ house every Saturday.)
De joven me gustaba montar en bici. (I used to like riding a bike when I was young.)
5. You can also use the imperfect when talking about someone’s age in the past.
The expression “Cuando tenía X años” (When I was X years old) will come in handy:
Cuando tenía 10 años me rompí una pierna. (When I was 10 years old I broke my leg.)
Fui a EE.UU. cuando tenía 15 años. (I went to the States when I was 15 years old.)
Aprendí a leer cuando tenía dos años. (I learned how to read when I was two years old.)
6. Last but not least, use the imperfect when telling the time or talking about time in the past:
Eran las 12:00 cuando llamaste. (It was 12:00 when you called.)
Cuando me desperté eran las 7:00. (It was 7:00 when I woke up.)
Era muy tarde cuando volví a casa. (It was very late when I came back home.)
As it happened with the preterite, there are some words and expressions that automatically trigger the use of the 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 hora/día/semana/mes… (every hour, day, week, month…): 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 + las noches, los días, las semanas, los meses… (Every night, day, week, month…): 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.)
There is also a verb, soler, which can be roughly translated as “use to.” It’s often used in the imperfect, as you can see in the following examples:
Solía terminar de trabajar a las 4 de la tarde. (I used to finish work at 4 p.m.)
Mi hermana solía jugar con muñecas. (My sister used to play with dolls.)
Solíamos ir al cine cada viernes. (We used to go to the cinema every Friday.)
Preterite and Imperfect: A Challenge
Up until now we have been looking at examples next to their explanations and translations, so it was pretty easy to understand why the preterite or the imperfect was needed in each case.
But how would you react if you were left alone in front of a text where all the verbs were missing? Or what would you do if you had to describe in Spanish what you did at your last job?
Treat the following examples as a personal challenge. Read the sentences below and try to guess why I have used the preterite or the imperfect in each case before consulting the solutions. If you have read the previous sections carefully, I am sure you will not have any problem in solving the puzzle. Have fun!
La niña tenía (1) el pelo largo y rubio, y los ojos azules. Miraba (2) por la ventana cuando, de repente, oyó (3) un grito. Se dio (4) la vuelta y vio (5) que su madre estaba (6) de pie, con las manos cubiertas de sangre.
Mi abuelo nunca supo (7) que tenía (8) un hermano.
Mi abuela no sabía (9) que tuvo (10) una hermana.
En aquel tiempo era (11) normal tener perros en casa, pero mi madre no quería (12). Cada día yo pedía (13) varias veces que me comprara un perro, pero nunca decía (14) que sí. Un día, sin embargo, llegó (15) a casa con el pequeño Chuckles en una caja.
Todos los martes solía (16) ir al cine cuando tenía (17) 20 años. Una vez fui (18) con mi hermano y vimos (19) una película tan triste que acabamos (20) los dos llorando.
(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) Cada día 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.
This is all you need to know to master the simple past tenses. Don’t worry if you can’t remember everything now. It may take some time until it sinks in, but I hope you have enjoyed reading this post as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.