Preterite vs Imperfect in Spanish: Master the Differences, Uses and Conjugations of the Past Tenses
When talking about the simple past in Spanish, you have two main choices: the preterite and the imperfect tense.
The conjugations and usages are slightly different, causing many learners confusion.
The essential difference to know is that the preterite is used for past actions that are fully completed and were done once at a specific time and the imperfect is for actions that were repeatedly performed in a past period of time.
Read on to find out the key differences between preterite versus the imperfect in Spanish, their conjugations, how to use each and what words usually trigger each tense.
- The Difference Between the Preterite and the Imperfect
- The Preterite Tense in Spanish
- The Imperfect Tense in Spanish
- Preterite and Imperfect Example Sentences
- How to Practice the Preterite vs. Imperfect in Spanish
- Preterite vs. Imperfect Tense Quiz: Test Your Skills!
- And One More Thing…
The Difference Between the Preterite and the Imperfect
As stated above, both the preterite and past imperfect tenses describe actions that happened in the past.
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).
Here’s the verb endings for these tenses:
Yo fui a la playa ayer. (I went to the beach yesterday.)
This verb is in the preterite tense because the action (going to the beach) happened once, at a specific time—yesterday.
Yo iba a la playa cuando vivía en México. (I used to go to the beach when I lived in Mexico.)
This sentence uses iba instead of fui because “going to the beach” was a routine (or habitual) past action. And vivía (I lived) is in the imperfect tense as well because I lived in Mexico for an ongoing, unspecified amount of time.
The Preterite Tense in Spanish
As we said above, the preterite tense is used for completed actions in the past.
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 momento / en 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 (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)
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 regular verbs:
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 a stem change
- Ser and ir
- Irregular verbs with a spelling change in the first person singular
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:
2. Verbs with a stem change
Several verbs 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.
Here’s an example of the verb hacer (to do, to make) conjugated in the preterite. It’s the only one of this group with a slight irregularity—the third person singular changes to hiz-.
3. Ser and ir
Ser (to be) and ir (to go) have the same preterite conjugation. So you’ll know which verb is being used in a sentence based on context.
|Ser Preterite Conjugation
|Ir Preterite Conjugation
4. Irregular verbs with a spelling change in the first person singular
When conjugated in the preterite, these verbs have a small spelling change in their first-person singular.
It’s divided into three subgroups, which we can see below:
|c → qu
|Tocar (to touch)
|g → gu
|Regar (to water)
|z → c
|Cazar (to hunt)
The 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.
When to Use the Imperfect Tense
1. Past actions that were not completed
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)
- Todos + [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 (to usually do) — Solía terminar de trabajar a las 4 de la tarde. (I used to finish work at 4 p.m.)
Past Imperfect Tense Conjugations
Here are the endings for regular past imperfect verbs:
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.
Preterite and Imperfect Example Sentences
Although both of these tenses are in the past, verbs have slightly different meanings in the preterite and past imperfect:
|Ser (to be)
|Tú fuiste la ganadora.
(You were the winner.)
|Tú eras la ganadora.
(You used to be the winner.)
|Estar (to be)
|Yo estuve en casa a las 8 anoche.
(I was home at 8 o'clock last night.)
|Yo siempre estaba en la casa a las 8.
(I was always home at 8 o'clock.)
|Hablar (to speak)
|Ella habló chino con su padre ayer.
(She spoke Chinese with her father yesterday.)
|Ella hablaba chino cuando era pequeña.
(She spoke Chinese when she was little.)
|Contar (to tell)
|Me contó un cuento sobre su niñez.
(He told me a story about his childhood.)
|Me contaba cuentos sobre su niñez.
(He used to tell me stories about his childhood.)
|Comer (to eat)
|Nosotros comimos comida italiana el lunes.
(We ate Italian food on Monday.)
|Nosotros comíamos comida italiana todos los lunes.
(We ate Italian food every Monday.)
|Escribir (to write)
|Ellos escribieron este libro el año pasado.
(They wrote this book last year.)
|Ellos escribían libros.
(They used to write books.)
How to Practice the Preterite vs. Imperfect in Spanish
Immerse Yourself in Authentic Spanish Content
The best way to master grammar concepts like tenses is to hear how native speakers use them naturally. You could start by watching Spanish videos on an immersion program like FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
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 quiz where you need to use the right tense and conjugation for a bunch of different phrases.
You can also find plenty of practice videos on YouTube, such as this one.
Watch Explainer Videos
YouTube is full of more explanation videos of the differences between the preterite and the imperfect tense in Spanish. One of my favorites is this video:
Preterite vs. Imperfect Tense Quiz: Test Your Skills!
Read the sentences below and conjugate the infinitive verbs into the preterite or imperfect tense:
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!
And One More Thing…
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FluentU has a wide variety of videos, as you can see here:
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Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
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