Preterite vs. Imperfect
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.
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.
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:
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:
|one time||the other day|
|the day before yesterday||the night before last|
|yesterday morning||yesterday at noon|
|last night||last night|
|this morning||this afternoon|
|last week||last month|
|last year||at that moment|
|yesterday afternoon||this morning|
|(two) years ago||(two) days ago|
|last (Monday)||last week|
|for (three) centuries||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|
|to turn a certain age||to arrive|
|to realize||to die|
|to decide||to be born|
|to discover||to leave|
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
- mental or physical states
Check out these examples:
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.
|so many times||every year|
|every day||many times|
|every week||all the time|
|once in a while||for a while|
|at that time||several times|