Preterite vs Imperfect - Table of Contents
Preterite and Imperfect: A First Look
The preterite tense and the imperfect tense are both used to talk about the past in Spanish. The student of Spanish must learn when to use one tense or the other and this is a frequent source of frustration for many beginning and intermediate students. However, the difficulty students encounter is often due to the fact that textbooks describe how to form these two tenses without first explaining the basic differences between them and why Spanish requires two different verb forms to talk about the past. The following two sections show when to use the preterite tense and when to use the imperfect. You'll notice that the examples below are all in English. This is because, for now, I want you to focus on the different ways we talk about the past in English without worrying about new Spanish verb forms yet. We will begin to look at how to form the preterite and imperfect in the next section of this review.
Use the preterite tense to...
- refer to an action or event in the past that is viewed as completed.
- I went to the store yesterday.
- Miguel bought a computer last night.
- We attended a concert last Saturday.
- refer to a specific number of times an action or event occurred in the past.
- Marta went to the movies five times last week.
- My brother took the placement test three times.
- say how long an action or event lasted.
- Maricela studied for four hours last night.
- I played football for three hours yesterday.
- refer to the beginning or ending of an action or event in the past.
- The class began at 5:30 PM.
- The game ended at 4:00 PM.
- narrate a series of actions or events that occurred in the past.
- I entered the house, walked into the kitchen and grabbed a soda. Then, I ran upstairs, turned on the TV and went to bed.
In all of the above examples, the verbs in bold would be translated using the preterite tense in Spanish. Now let's look at when to use the imperfect.
Use the imperfect tense to...
- say how frequently an action or event occurred in the past (without specifying the exact number of times it occurred).
- I used to watch a movie every Friday night.
- My friends and I used to play soccer every afternoon.
- She would visit her parents often.
- refer to an action or event in the past that is viewed as in progress or on-going.
- I was reading a novel when she called.
- My kids were playing in the park when the storm hit.
- describe physical or mental states or conditions in the past.
- Juan was very sick and tired.
- My brothers were very angry.
- describe past characteristics of someone or something.
- Miguel was a very tall, handsome and intelligent guy.
- Our house had three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
- tell time in the past.
- It was 5:00 in the afternoon when she arrived.
- tell one's age in the past.
- Alberto was 12 years old when his family moved to Europe.
In all of the above examples, the words in bold would be translated using a single verb in the imperfect tense in Spanish. Now that you have a basic idea of what types of sentences require the preterite and what types require the imperfect, let's take a look at how to form these two tenses.
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