preterite vs imperfect spanish blog post

Preterite vs Imperfect in Spanish: Differences, Conjugations, Usages and More

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.


The Difference Between the Preterite and Past Imperfect

SubjectPreteritePast Imperfect
Yo-é, -í-ab, -ía
-aste, -iste-abas, -ías
Él/ella/usted-ó, -ió-aba, -ía
Nosotros-amos, -imos-ábamos, -íamos
Vosotros-asteis, -isteis-abais, -íais
Ellos/ellas/ustedes-aron, -ieron-aban, -ían

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

Now let’s look at these two sentences in Spanish, and notice how the meaning slightly changes based on which tense I use:

Yo fui a la playa ayer. (I went to the beach yesterday.)

Yo iba a la playa cuando vivía en México. (I used to go to the beach when I lived in Mexico.)

In the first sentence, I used the preterite tense because the action (going to the beach) happened once, at a specific time—yesterday.

The second sentence has two instances of the imperfect. I used 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.

Preterite and Past Imperfect Examples

Although both of these tenses are in the past, verbs have slightly different meanings in the preterite and past imperfect.

Here are some examples of verbs in both of these past tenses—as you compare the sentences, remember that verbs in the preterite happened and ended at a specific time, whereas the imperfect past is used for unspecified durations of time and habitual past actions.

VerbPreterite SentenceImperfect Sentence
Ser (to be)fuiste la ganadora.
(You were the winner.)
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.)

Preterite Tense in Spanish

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)

Verbs Commonly Used in the Preterite Tense

  • Comenzar (to begin) — Yo comencé a aprender español hace dos años. (I began learning Spanish two years ago.)
  • Terminar (to finish) — Mi hermana terminó su tarea a las nueve y media. (My sister finished her homework at 9:30.)
  • Empezar (to start) — La reunión empezó a las ocho. (The meeting started at eight.)
  • Acabar (to end) — La película acabó antes de que él llegara. (The movie ended before he arrived.)
  • Morir (to die) — La planta murió porque no tenía sol. (The plant died because it did not have sun.)
  • Nacer (to be born) — Yo nací en los Estados Unidos. (I was born in the United States.)
  • Cumplir (to turn [an age]) — Las gemelas cumplieron 21 el miércoles. (The twins turned 21 on Wednesday.)

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

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
  • 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

2. Verbs with 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 (-e, -iste, -o, etc.).

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.

PronounSer Preterite ConjugationIr Preterite Conjugation

4. Orthographically irregular verbs

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:

Verb EndingChangesExample VerbExample Conjugation
-carc → quTocar (to touch)Yo toqué
-garg → guRegar (to water)Yo regué
-zarz → cCazar (to hunt)Yo ca

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.

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)
  • 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:

Pronoun-AR Conjugation-ER Conjugation-IR Conjugation

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.


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. You could start by watching Spanish videos on an immersion program like FluentU, which helps you learn new words and grammar in context through authentic Spanish content with interactive subtitles. While watching a video you can see the Spanish and English translations at the same time, making it easier to spot instances of the preterite and past imperfect.

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, 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.

Try This Practice Exercise

Read the sentences below and conjugate the infinitive verbs into the preterite or imperfect tense, depending on the context. Then, check your answers below:

La niña 1. tener el pelo largo y rubio, y los ojos azules. 2. Mirar por la ventana cuando, de repente, 3. oyer un grito. 4. Darse la vuelta y 5. ver que su madre 6. estar de pie, con las manos cubiertas de sangre.

Mi abuelo nunca 7. saber que 8. tener un hermano.

Mi abuela no 9. saber que 10. tener una hermana.

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

Todos los martes 16. soler ir al cine cuando 17. tener 20 años. Una vez 18. ir con mi hermano y 19. ver una película tan triste que 20. acabar los dos llorando.

Solutions and explanations:

1. Tenía — We use the imperfect when describing people.

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

3. Oyó — De repente triggers the preterite.

4. Se dio — One-time, completed events require the preterite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Era — En aquel tiempo triggers the imperfect.

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

13. Pedía — Todos los días triggers the imperfect.

14. Decía — 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. Llegó — Un día triggers the preterite.

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

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

18. Fui — Una vez triggers the preterite.

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

20. Acabamos — 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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