Preterit vs. Imperfect - differences and signifier phrases
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Overview

Many students have trouble knowing when to use the preterit past or the imperfect past 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 following verb will be in the preterit or imperfect.

General Preterit Uses

Generally, the preterit is used for actions considered completed, 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.

  • 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 Preterit

Some words and phrases are very helpful in indicating specific time frames and therefore signal the use of the preterit.

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

Verbs that are Preterit by Nature

Some verbs are preterit by nature since they have a very definite beginning and ending.

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

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. They can be actions that were repeated habitually, actions that set the stage for another past tense event, for time and dates in the past, for telling a person’s age in the past, to describe people (characteristics) in the past, and to communicate mental or physical states in the past. For descriptions, think of describing what people used to be like in a photograph.

  • Cuando era niña, jugaba con muñecas. (When I was a child, I played with dolls.)
  • Los chicos hablaban en español. (The boys used to speak 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

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
cada día/semana/mes/año every day/week/month/year muchas veces many times todas las semanas every week
con frecuencia frequently mucho
nunca
a lot
never
todos los años every year
casi nunca almost never por lo general generally todos los días everyday
de vez en cuando
once in a while por un rato for a while todo el tiempo all the time
en aquella época at that time varias veces several times    

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