Preterite vs Imperfect In Spanish
By Ivy do Carmo
Have you started studying Spanish recently? Then you are probably struggling with some aspects of the Spanish grammar that are quite different from what you are used to in English. Along with the differences between por vs. para and ser vs. estar, another pair that confuses the Spanish beginners is the preterite vs. imperfect in Spanish.
Therefore, in this article we will learn in details what is the difference between preterite and imperfect in Spanish and how to use each one of them correctly.
First of all, don’t feel terrify with the notion that there are two different past tenses in Spanish, because the same happens in English. We have the Simple Past, the Past Continuous, the Past Perfect and the Past Perfect Continuous, do you remember?
Before you say that you don’t and that you are now more confused than before, here are some examples of sentences with the English past tenses:
I ate a lot yesterday. (Simple Past)
I was eating a lot that summer. (Past Continuous)
I had eaten a lot before you arrived. (Past Perfect)
I had been eating a lot when you called me. (Past Perfect Continuous)
Even if you do it without realizing, it is quite normal to mix different past tenses in the same sentence. We do that so we can make clear which action happened first. Notice these examples:
I wanted to eat the sandwich even though I had already eaten a whole pizza.
(It is clear that the person first ate the whole pizza and then wanted to eat the sandwich, right?)
I was eating a piece of cake even though I had not been eating sugar for a whole week.
(It is also clear that first the person spent a whole week without eating sugar and then he ate a piece of cake, do you see?)
In conclusion, the English language has different past tenses and you have been using them naturally all your life. Over time, the same will happen regarding the verbs in Spanish. To help you with that, let’s now see the difference between preterite vs imperfect in Spanish.
Preterite vs Imperfect In Spanish: Preterite
Preterite is used to talk about actions that happened in the past and that don’t have any relation with the present. The action happened once in the past and that is it, done. The Spanish preterite corresponds to the Simple Past in English. Here are some examples:
How can you conjugate the Spanish verbs in this verb tense? The regular verbs always end the same way, so all you have to do is memorize these preterite endings:
If the verb ends with -AR:
|Él / Usted||-ó|
|Ellos / Ustedes||-aron|
If the verb ends with -ER or -IR:
|Él / Usted||-ió|
|Ellos / Ustedes||-ieron|
Let’s see some sentences in the Spanish preterite with verbs using these regular endings:
Llegué a casa de Rosa a las diez de la noche.
(I arrived at Rosa’s house at ten p.m.)
La semana pasada nos divertimos mucho con tu abuela.
(Last week we had much fun with your grandmother.)
Ayer mis amigos comieron pizza.
(Yesterday my friends ate pizza.)
Nuestro perrito también viajó con nosotros.
(Our puppy also traveled with us.)
Vosotros aprendisteis con facilidad la lengua española.
(You learned Spanish easily.)
However, since learning a new language is no bed of roses, of course there is a catch here. The preterite endings we saw above only apply to the regular verbs, and some of the most commonly used verbs in Spanish take irregular forms.
Therefore, how can you know, for example, the verbs ser, estar, hacer, tener and ver preterite? Since these verbs are used in many day-to-day situations, try to memorize the preterite irregular form of at least the most common ones. This chart will help you with that:
Ser / Ir
|Vosotros||fuisteis||estuvisteis||tuvisteis|| hicisteis || disteis || |
| Ellos /|
|fueron|| estuvieron ||tuvieron||hicieron||dieron||vieron||dijeron||quisieron|
Now, let’s see some sentences in the Spanish preterite with verbs that have irregular endings:
El año pasado tuve que comprar un coche nuevo.
(Last year I had to buy a new car.)
Estuvimos esperando por ti toda la tarde.
(We have been waiting for you all afternoon.)
El cocinero hizo una receta deliciosa.
(The cooker made a delicious recipe.)
Ellos quisieron regresar a casa temprano.
(They wanted to go home earlier.)
El sábado pasado fue estrenada una película buenísima.
(Last Saturday it was released a very good movie.)
As we have mentioned before, we use the preterite to talk about an action that happened in a specific time or date in the past. Since these actions already happened and finished, you can say exactly when they have occurred.
To do so, Spanish has many adverbs of time, such as ayer (yesterday), semana pasada (last week), el año pasado (last year), hace mucho tiempo (for a long time), etc. See how these expressions are used in the sentences below:
Ayer fuimos al cine.
(Yesterday we went to the movie theater.)
La semana pasada compré una computadora nueva.
(Last week I bought a new computer.)
El año pasado hicimos un viaje a Perú.
(Last year we made a trip to Peru.)
Llegué a la ciudad el mes pasado.
(I arrived in the city last month.)
Hace mucho tiempo que quiero conocerte.
(I have been wanting to meet you for a very long time.)
Cuando era niño, tuve clases de piano.
(When I was a kid, I had piano classes.)
El año pasado llovió muy poco en Brasil.
(Last year it rained very little in Brazil.)
Now that we have understood everything about the preterite, let’s move forward and learn about the other half of the preterite vs. imperfect problem.
Preterite vs Imperfect In Spanish: Imperfect
The imperfect tense in Spanish is used to talk about something that happened not only once but several times. Unlike the preterite, the imperfect does not care when the action occurred. The important thing is that it happened repeatedly or that it happened during a period of time.
However, before we talk more about the uses of the imperfect tense in Spanish, let’s see how can we conjugate the verbs in this verb tense. The same way as in the preterite, the regular verbs use the same endings, as you can see in the charts below:
If the verb ends with -AR:
|Él / Usted||-aba|
|Ellos / Ustedes||-aban|
If the verb ends with -ER or -IR:
|Él / Usted||-ía|
|Ellos / Ustedes||-ían|
If the verb is regular, you can rely on the two charts above to see its ending in the imperfect tense. How about the irregular tenses? You will like to know that there are only three commonly used verbs in this verb tense: ser, ir and ver. Check the chart below to see how they are conjugated:
|Él / Usted||era||iba||veía|
|Ellos / Ustedes||eran||iban||veían|
Now that we have learned how to conjugate the verbs in the imperfect tense, let’s see in which situations we can use them:
Repeated or Customary Action In The Past:
We normally use words such as siempre (always), a veces (sometimes), de vez en cuando (once in a while), normalmente (normally), todos los días (every day), etc. to talk about something that was part of a routine. See how we can use these words in the sentences below that are in the imperfect tense:
Antes venía siempre, pero ahora sólo puedo venir una vez a la semana.
(Before I used to always come, but now I only can come once a week.)
A veces cuando estaba andando en bicicleta, pensaba ‘estoy yendo muy rápido, necesito frenar’.
(Sometimes when I was riding a bike, I thought ‘I am going too fast, I have to brake’.)
A los 14 años fabricaba armas y comía una vez al día.
(At the age of 14, he manufactured weapons and ate once a day.)
Normalmente no van a misa.
(They normally don’t go to the mass.)
Él cantaba cuando era chico.
(He used to sing when he was a boy.)
(It rained a lot.)
Él podía estar nervioso, pero dormía como una piedra.
(He could be nervous, but he slept like a rock.)
Mi madre siempre llegaba tarde a las citas.
(My mother always arrived late to the appointments.)
Cuando era niña, todos los años iba al campo con mis abuelos.
(When I was a girl, every year I went to the countryside with my grandparents.)
Way Of Courtesy:
When you want to ask for something in a polite way, you also use the imperfect tense.
Quería una botella de vino.
(I wanted a bottle of wine.)
Me gustaría beber una copa de vino.
(I would like to drink a glass of wine.)
(Do you want something?)
To Talk About Ages Or The Time In The Past:
Whenever you want to refer to someone’s age in the past or tell what was the time when something happened, also use the imperfect tense.
Eran poco más de las tres de la tarde de ayer.
(It was a little after three in the afternoon of yesterday.)
Tenía Adán ciento treinta años de edad, cuando tuvo un hijo.
(Adam was one hundred and thirty years old when he had a son.)
Los niños tenían diez años.
(The kids were ten years old.)
Eran diez de la mañana.
(It was ten in the morning.)
You have now learned about the Spanish preterite and imperfect verb tenses. Did you know that you can use both verb tenses in the same sentence? See the examples below:
El presidente explicaba los sucesos, cuando una noticia de última hora interrumpió su discurso.
(The president was explaining the successes, when some last minute news interrupted his speech.)
Un joven de 32 años ha fallecido de forma súbita mientras jugaba un partido de fútbol.
(A 32-year-old young man suddenly passed away while he was playing a soccer match.)
Nos comentó que el programa empezaba a las 10 de la noche.
(He mentioned to us that the program began at ten p.m.)
Don’t worry if all of this information looked a little confusing to you. The secret to learn how to use well the Spanish verb tenses is to practice a lot. If you have a language partner, ask him to practice the verb tenses with you. You can even do it in a fun way, by for example telling him something funny that has already happened to you. You’ll see: if you practice a lot and don’t mind making some mistakes now and then, you’ll be speaking Spanish naturally in no time!
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