Many students have trouble knowing when to use the preterite tense or the imperfect tense, as they both refer to actions in the past. There are several general rules you can follow to know when to use one tense or another. Additionally, many Spanish phrases tend to be used only with the preterite or only with the imperfect, so memorizing them is very helpful! In this article, we’ll take a look at the general uses of both tenses, as well as helpful “trigger” phrases.

Pair Work

One way this pair of tenses is often used is to talk about an ongoing action or event that was interrupted in the past. In such case, the interrupted action is given in the imperfect tense, while the interrupting action is given in the preterite.

For example:


Caminaba por el centro cuando me encontré con el hermano de mi mejor amiga.
I was walking downtown when I ran into my best friend's brother.

Lourdes y Marco hablaban del examen cuando llegué a clase.
Lourdes and Marco were talking about the test when I got to class.

The Preterite

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
the day before yesterday
the night before last
ayer por la mañana
yesterday morning
ayer al mediodía
yesterday at noon
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. Here are a few examples.

to get married
to graduate
cumplir años
to turn a certain age
to arrive
darse cuenta de
to realize
to die
to decide
to be born
to discover
to leave

The Imperfect

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
  • a person’s age in the past
  • characteristics
  • mental or physical states

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 that often signal that a verb should be used in the imperfect.

a menudo
rara vez
a veces
algunas veces
at times
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
casi nunca
almost never
a lot
por lo general
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
Ready to practice?
Master Preterite vs. Imperfect with our interactive video lessons.