Which verb tense should I use? The preterite tense (pretérito indefinido), or the imperfect tense (pretérito imperfecto)? When you are learning Spanish as a foreign language, you will sooner or later run into this infamous dilemma – the Spanish pretérito indefinido vs imperfecto. And even if you already know the basics, you still might have trouble using them correctly. Or maybe you just mix them up. These two Spanish past tenses are simply tricky!
All examples in this article will be highlighted in the following way: red for pretérito indefinido, and blue for pretérito imperfecto.
The contrast between the Spanish preterite and imperfect tense is one of the most difficult grammatical obstacles you will face while learning Spanish. Since they are among the most common verb tenses in the Spanish language, you must prepare to deal with them at an early point in your learning progress. We have made a deeper study on this topic, based on experience by learners. Learners who have worked and struggled with these tenses, before finally reaching the next level of learning Spanish. Hopefully this article will help you stay calm and start dominating the infamous battle: the pretérito indefinido vs imperfecto.
Unfortunately there are a lot of misconceptions out there, regarding the preterite and imperfect tense. Many sources and textbooks provide rules and trigger words to make it easy to decide which tense to use. Many of these rules and guidelines are helpful, but the problem is that many of them are only half true. This may serve to confuse students who are trying to learn how to use Spanish verbs correctly. That is why it’s important to understand the fundament of how to use them.
But why is it really this hard to understand the difference between the preterite and the imperfect tense? The answer is quite simple;
Why is it so difficult to understand?
So, why is it so hard for learners to deal with the contrast between these two tenses? They seem to come 100% naturally for all native Spanish speakers – they instinctively know when to use one or the other.
Well, here is probably the main reason: in English we mainly use just one verb tense in many of these situations; the preterite tense. However, in Spanish we have to consider different aspects when we speak about the past – point of view, timeline and even mood. In English we don’t need to think about this to the same extent.
We can say: “When I saw you yesterday, the skies were blue and the sun was shining”, and use only the preterite tense. In Spanish, the first one of the verbs above is seen as a completed action (preterite) at the point in time we refer to, while the two next ones are seen as ongoing actions (imperfect).
The key to understanding the principles of the two verb tenses, is to get into the right mindset; we have to focus on the exact point in time that we are referring to. Then we have to think about whether the action was completed or ongoing from that point of view.
Pretérito Indefinido vs Imperfecto – the main principles
We use the Spanish pretérito imperfecto mainly for ongoing and habitual actions in the past – with no definite beginning or end. We use the pretérito indefinido for completed actions at a specific point in time. To be more specific, we can break them up into these main uses:
1. Actions that were completed within the time period we are referring to
– Ayer comí pan
(I ate bread yesterday, and the action was completed yesterday)
2. Actions that started in the time period we are referring to
– El año pasado empecé a estudiar
(The action itself started last year. Even though I might still be studying, the focus is on the beginning)
1. Ongoing actions and states of being at the time we are referring to
– Ayer hacía calor, y por eso fui a la playa
(It was hot yesterday, it was an ongoing condition while I went to the beach)
2. Habits and routines in the past
– De pequeño comía chocolate cada fin de semana
(The action of eating chocolate is habitual, and the time period “de pequeño” does not have a definite ending)
3. Repetitive actions in the past
– David bebía una cerveza tras otra
(Repetitive action that went on for an indefinite period of time. It is not clear exactly how many drinks David had)
4. Planned or anticipated actions in the past
– Iba a llover
(It was going to rain, it was an anticipated/expected event)
These are the main rules for using the two tenses. When you start to understand the concepts behind them, you can rely on them.
Keep in mind that there are shades and nuances to all of these rules – small changes in the mood or point of view may force us to use a different verb tense. We have to look at the context and point of view to decide which tense to use
The Spanish Pretérito Indefinido – A Short Recap
Basically, you use the preterite tense when you are talking about a single action in the past, that either started or ended at a certain point in time. We use it when we are talking about a terminated time period that has no relation to the present. The action must have a definite ending.
These events or actions are usually fixed and factual; they did happen and they were completed. Very often they are one time events, but they can also be repeated events if there is a definite ending.
– La semana pasada fui al trabajo todos los días
(Last week is a terminated time period. Even though the action was a repeating event that happened every day, we can still see it as completed in this context)
The Spanish Pretérito Imperfecto – A Short Recap
With the Spanish imperfect tense we are usually talking about habitual actions, repetitive events, ideas and plans. These are actions that do not have a defined aspect of time. We use it to describe things or persons in the past, to describe the context in a certain time period or to talk about habits and repetitive actions in an indefinite time period. If you are telling a story, you can set the scene and talk about the surroundings using the imperfect. Then you describe the main actions using the preterite.
Use the imperfect when you can’t say for sure if the action has ended, seen from the point in time you are referring to.
– For example: “when I was young…”
(We can not say for sure exactly when I stopped being young, so we use the imperfect: “cuando era joven…”)
Comparing the pretérito indefinido vs imperfecto
Now we can start comparing the way we use the two tenses. In many online resources and Spanish learning textbooks you will find certain words or expressions that trigger the use of either the preterite or the imperfect tense.
Preterite: Specific dates and time periods like yesterday, last week, May 10th, last year, etc. often trigger the use of the preterite.
Imperfect: Words indicating continuation, repetition or habit like always, every day, often, rarely, etc. often trigger the use of the imperfect.
These rules of thumb are often a good indication of which tense you should use, but be careful – they are not always true. You have to consider the context and the point of view in order to make the right choice. With practice and a lot of Spanish reading, you will get the feel for this.
Let’s start comparing some different uses of each tense, and see how they can mix together!
Pretérito Indefinido vs Imperfecto – Comparison 1
Specific actions in the past (pretérito indefinido) vs Habits and repetitive actions (pretérito imperfecto)
– El lunes fui al parque
(I went to the park on Monday, it was a specific action which was completed within the fixed time period)
– Los lunes siempre iba al parque
(I always went to the park on Mondays. This describes a routine, it happened every Monday for an unspecified amount of time)
Pretérito indefinido vs imperfecto:
– Los lunes iba al parque, pero una vez fui a la playa
(Again, the first part of the sentence describes a routine, the repetitive action of going to the park every Monday, but in the second part the preterite is used to say that one specific time I went to the beach instead. Hopefully you see the difference between the repetitive and ongoing actions, and the specific and completed actions)
Pretérito Indefinido vs Imperfecto – Comparison 2
Past actions within a closed time period (pretérito indefinido) vs descriptions of things and persons (pretérito imperfecto)
– Pedro vivió en México por 3 años
(Pedro lived in Mexico for 3 years. By using the preterite tense like this, it is implied that the time period is over and he no longer lives there)
If we were to say “Pedro vivía en México…” we would rather be establishing a context for talking about something that happened while he still was living there
– Pedro era de España y su casa en México era roja
(With the imperfect tense we here describe that Pedro was from Spain, and we also explain that his house was red. These are not specific actions, but rather long lasting states of being)
Pretérito indefinido vs imperfecto:
– Pedro vivió en México por 3 años, aunque era de España
(Here you can see the contrast between the two forms. Pedro only lived in Mexico for 3 years, but the fact that he was (being) from Spain is a description that doesn’t change)
Pretérito Indefinido vs Imperfecto – Comparison 3
Past events listed after each other (pretérito indefinido) vs descriptions of context and surroundings (pretérito imperfecto)
– Ayer por la mañana María desayunó, salió de la casa y fue al trabajo
(A specific time is mentioned and María completed all of these actions within that specific time)
– Ayer hacía sol y María estaba muy contenta
(In this case a specific time is also mentioned. Since the imperfect tense is used we know that the sunny weather and Marías good mood were ongoing events that lasted for an indefinite period of time. The reader will often expect something to follow after this sentence, as the use of the imperfect tense establishes the context to talk about more specific events)
Pretérito indefinido vs imperfecto:
– Ayer hacía sol, y María estaba muy contenta cuando desayunó, salió de la casa, y fue al trabajo
(In this sentence the two verbs in the imperfect tense describes the mood and the context, while the verbs in the preterite tense tell us the important events of the story. Notice that the sunny weather and Marías good mood lasted the whole time while she had breakfast, went out and left for work)
Pretérito Indefinido vs Imperfecto – Comparison 4
Stating beginnings and ends (pretérito indefinido) vs ongoing actions happening at the same time (pretérito imperfecto)
– De repente empezó a llover
(Suddenly it started raining. Even though the action of raining is an ongoing event, the focus is on the start)
– Estaba lloviendo y yo corría en el parque
(It was raining and I was running, two actions going on simultaneously)
Pretérito indefinido vs imperfecto:
– Yo corría y escuchaba música cuando empezó a llover
(The simultaneous actions of running and listening to music were interrupted when it started to rain. Notice how the story changes or takes a turn when the verb in preterite tense comes in)
Pretérito Indefinido vs Imperfecto – the key to understanding
We have now studied a few cases where the Spanish pretérito indefinido and the pretérito imperfecto act differently. We have also seen how we can use them to complement each other to tell a full story.
Hopefully, you now have a feel for what it’s all about – but maybe you still think that it’s just a little bit confusing. In that case, don’t worry! It is completely normal and you will get the hang of it with reading and practice.
The truth is that the key to understanding the difference between the Spanish imperfect tense and the preterite tense is not only to know all the “rules” and the most common uses – in fact, these rules get broken all the time, because in many cases you can use either one of the tenses in similar phrases to tell the story from different points of view.
So, if that’s the case,
then what is the key to understanding the difference?
Perspective and intuition
That is the answer.
If you can get into a habit of seeing those past actions from the right perspective at that point of time when they were happening, you will soon enough establish an intuition for how to use these verb tenses correctly.
This intuition is what the native Spanish speakers have, that learners have to practice in order to obtain. A great way to practice is to read Spanish texts regularly. Pay attention to the perspective of the text and how the verb tenses are used.
Build up you feel for the Spanish verbs
In the end we will look at some more contrasts between these two past tenses, so that you can get into a habit of thinking about the perspective and start building your feel for the language.
Here you will see that you often can use the preterite and the imperfect tense in the same phrases, in order to make a slightly different meaning;
Study of contrasts
Ayer yo hablé contigo
This sentence in preterite tense is complete, it has a definite ending and it states a fact. I spoke with you yesterday.
Ayer yo hablaba contigo
This sentence is not perceived as complete, the reader will be expecting something to follow. What happened while we spoke?
Michael Jackson fue un cantante
The use of the preterite tense here sets the focus on the fact that he no longer is a singer. It makes it clear for the reader that from the writer’s point of view, his singing career belongs to a terminated period of time.
Michael Jackson era un cantante
We can use the imperfect tense to describe Michael Jackson as a singer, by going back to a point in time where he was still alive and active. That is the perspective from which we speak about him in this case, and when we use the imperfect like this it’s probably an introduction to tell more about his career as a singer.
Ayer hizo mucho viento
Even though it’s more common to use the imperfect tense when describing the weather, we can also use the preterite tense – in this case it is clear that the event has a definite end. A better example would be: Ayer hizo mucho viento, pero hoy hace buen tiempo.
Ayer hacía mucho viento
In this case we use the imperfect tense to describe the weather yesterday – any definite beginning or end of the weather condition is not clear. We often use this mode to establish an atmosphere before talking about something else that happened that day, for example: Ayer hacía mucho viento cuando fui al trabajo.
David bebió 5 cervezas
If we use the preterite tense we know that we are talking about a terminated time period, we know for sure how many drinks David had, and that he finished them all.
David bebía una cerveza tras otra
The use of the imperfect tense makes this action a repeated event that goes on for an indefinite amount of time. He was having one beer after another.
Now, read all of the phrases in red and blue once more, and think about their perspective and mood.
The pretérito indefinido and the pretérito imperfecto are two of the most common past tenses in Spanish. They often refer to the same time periods, therefore, many students mix up these two tenses. To learn more about the Spanish past tenses, read our short story Un Excelente Mentiroso. It is written in the past tense, using both the preterite tense and the imperfect tense.