Preterite vs. Imperfect in Spanish

Overview

Many students have trouble knowing when to use the preterite tense or the imperfect tense since they both refer to actions in the past. There are several general rules to follow, as well as phrases to look out for. Many phrases use only one tense or the other, so memorizing them is very helpful in figuring out whether the use a verb in preterite or imperfect!

General Preterite Uses

Generally, the preterite is used for completed actions (actions that have definite beginning and end points.) These can be actions that can be viewed as single events, actions that were part of a chain of events, actions that were repeated a very specific number of times, or actions that specifically state the beginning and end of an action.

Check out these examples:

Fui al baile anoche.
I went to the dance last night.
 
Caminé al mercado, compré unos plátanos, y regresé a casa.
I walked to the market, bought some bananas, and returned home.
 
Te llamó tres veces.
He called you three times.
 
Hablé con mi madre de las dos hasta las tres.
I spoke with my mother from two o’clock until three o’clock.
 

Useful Phrases that Trigger the Preterite

There are many helpful words and phrases that indicate specific time frames, therefore signaling that the preterite should be used. Here are a few:

una vez
 
one time
el otro día
 
the other day
ayer
 
yesterday
entonces
 
then
anteayer
 
the day before yesterday
anteanoche
 
the night before last
ayer por la mañana
 
yesterday morning
ayer al mediodía
 
yesterday at noon
anoche
 
last night
ayer por la noche
 
last night
esta mañana
 
this morning
esta tarde
 
this afternoon
la semana pasada
 
last week
el mes pasado
 
last month
el año pasado
 
last year
en ese momento
 
at that moment
ayer por la tarde
 
yesterday afternoon
hoy por la mañana
 
this morning
hace (dos) años
 
(two) years ago
hace (dos) días
 
(two) days ago
el (lunes) pasado
 
last (Monday)
la semana pasada
 
last week
durante (tres) siglos
 
for (three) centuries
desde el primer momento
 
from the first moment

Verbs that are Preterite by Nature

Some verbs used to talk about events with a very definite beginning and end are almost always used in the preterite.

casarse
 
to get married
graduarse
 
to graduate
cumplir años
 
to turn a certain age
llegar
 
to arrive
darse cuenta de
 
to realize
morir
 
to die
decidir
 
to decide
nacer
 
to be born
descubrir
 
to discover
salir
 
to leave

General Imperfect Uses

The imperfect tense is generally used for actions in the past that do not have a definite end. These can be actions that are not yet completed or refer to a time in general in the past. It can also be used to talk about:

  • actions that were repeated habitually
  • actions that set the stage for another past tense event
  • time and dates in the past
  • for telling a person’s age in the past
  • to describe people (characteristics) in the past
  • to communicate mental or physical states in the past

Check out these examples:

Cuando era niña, jugaba con muñecas.
When I was a child, I used to play with dolls.
 
Los chicos hablaban en español.
The boys were speaking in Spanish.
 
Estaba durmiendo cuando el teléfono sonó.
I was sleeping when the telephone rang.
 
Cuando tenía tres años, era muy pequeño.
When he was three years old, he was very small.
 

Useful Phrases that Trigger the Imperfect

Here are some helpful words and phrases often signal that a verb should be used in the imperfect.

a menudo
 
often
frecuentemente
 
frequently
rara vez
 
rarely
a veces
 
sometimes
generalmente
 
usually
siempre
 
always
algunas veces
 
at times
mientras
 
while
tantas veces
 
so many times
todos los años
 
every year
cada día
 
every day
muchas veces
 
many times
todas las semanas
 
every week
todo el tiempo
 
all the time
con frecuencia
 
frequently
casi nunca
 
almost never
mucho
 
a lot
nunca
 
never
por lo general
 
generally
todos los días
 
every day
de vez en cuando
 
once in a while
por un rato
 
for a while
en aquella época
 
at that time
varias veces
 
several times

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