Take a Practice Quiz Preterit vs. Imperfect - differences and signifier phrases
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|
|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|
|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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