Preterite vs Imperfect: A Beginner’s Guide to the Past Tense in Spanish
Ready for a blast from the past?
As you may know, Spanish has two past tenses: preterite and imperfect. It’s often tricky to know which to use when, since they both refer to actions in the past. Fortunately, several general guidelines exist to help you realize when to use preterite vs imperfect.
It’s also helpful to know which Spanish phrases trigger the use of either the preterite or the imperfect, so we’ll take a look at those later.
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Preterite vs Imperfect Conjugation Rules
Preterite and Imperfect tenses are both related to the past, but they function differently.
The preterite tells you precisely when something happened in the past, while the imperfect tells you in general terms when an action took place with no definite ending.
Here’s a quick look at how to conjugate regular verbs in the preterite and imperfect forms.
(Be sure to check out our post on All You Ever Needed to Know About Spanish Simple Past Tense Verbs for a thorough rundown of both regular and irregular preterite verb conjugations.)
Preterite: Regular -ar Verbs
For example: hablar (to talk) becomes yo hablé, tú hablaste, él/ella/Ud. habló, nosotros hablamos, and ellos/Uds. hablaron
Preterite: Regular -er and -ir Verbs
Correr (to run): corrí, corriste, corrió, corrimos, corrieron
Abrir (to open): abrí, abriste, abrió, abrimos, abrieron
Imperfect: Regular -ar Verbs
So, hablar in this form becomes hablaba, hablabas, hablaba, hablábamos, hablaban.
Imperfect: Regular -er and -ir Verbs
Correr (to run): corría, corrías, corría, corríamos, corrían
Abrir (to open): abría, abrías, abría, abríamos, abrían
Phrases that Trigger the Preterite
A handful of words and phrases indicate specific time frames that signal the use of the preterite (vs imperfect). Let’s take a look at some of them!
una vez – one time/once
el otro día – the other day
ayer – yesterday
anoche – last night
la semana pasada – last week
el mes pasado – last month
el año pasado – last year
en ese momento – at that moment
durante (cinco) siglos – for (five) centuries
desde el primer momento – from the first moment
ayer por la tarde – yesterday afternoon
hoy por la mañana – this morning
hace (diez) años – (ten) years ago
hace (tres) días – (three) days ago
Verbs that (Almost) Always Use the Preterite
Furthermore, verbs used to discuss events with a certain beginning and end are almost always used in the preterite. Por ejemplo:
casarse – to marry
graduarse – to graduate
cumplir años – to have a birthday
llegar – to arrive
darse cuenta de – to realize
morir – to die
decidir – to decide
nacer – to be born
descubrir – to discover
salir – to leave
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El Preterito Imperfecto
On the other hand, you’ll be using the imperfect tense to talk about past actions without a definite end. Perhaps they are yet to be completed or they refer to a general time in the past. The imperfect form is typically used for: habitually repeated actions; time and dates; someone’s age in the past; characteristics; and mental or physical states.
Phrases that Trigger the Imperfect
Lucky for you, there are also a bunch of words and phrases that tend to 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
todos los años – every year
cada día – every day
muchas veces – many times
todo el tiempo – all the time
con frecuencia – frequently
casi nunca – almost 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
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Preterite vs Imperfect Examples
These past tense forms are often used to talk about an ongoing action or event that was interrupted. Here, the interrupted action uses the imperfect tense, while the interrupting action uses the preterite.
Caminaba a la biblioteca cuando me encontré con el amor de mi vida.
I was walking to the library when I met the love of my life.
Juana y Alberto hablaban de la reunión cuando llegué a la oficina.
Juana and Alberto were talking about the meeting when I got to the office.
Preterite vs Imperfect Statements
The rule of thumb for determining which tense to use is that the preterite talks about what you did, and the imperfect talks about what you were doing or what you used to do. Notice how the meaning changes for these verbs in the preterite vs the imperfect.
|Conocí al presidente de la organización.|
I met the president of the organization.
|Conocía al presidente de la organización.|
I knew the president of the organization.
|Ya supieron del concierto.|
They already found out about the concert.
|Ya sabían del concierto.|
They already knew about the concert.
|Ella tuvo una carta de su amiga.|
She received a letter from her friend.
|Ella tenía una carta de su amiga.|
She had a letter from her friend.
|Quise encontrar la tienda.|
I tried to find the store.
|Quería encontrar la tienda.|
I wanted to find the store.
|Yo no quise ir al centro comercial.|
I refused to go to the shopping center.
|Yo no quería ir al centro comercial.|
I didn’t want to go to the shopping center.
|No pudimos abrir la cuenta.|
We failed to open the account.
|No podíamos abrir la cuenta.|
We were unable to open the account.
|Toqué el piano.|
I played the piano.
|Yo tocaba el piano. |
I used to play the piano.
|Me comí las fresas. |
I ate the strawberries.
|Yo comía las fresas.|
I was eating strawberries./I used to eat strawberries.
Preterite vs Imperfect Exercises
To test your knowledge of when to use the preterite versus the imperfect, fill in the blank(s) by correctly conjugating the verbs in parenthesis.
1. Cuando era niña, ________ (JUGAR) con muñecas.
2. Los chicos ________ (HABLAR) en español.
3. Yo ________ (ESTAR) durmiendo cuando el teléfono ________ (SONAR).
4. Cuando Ana _______ (TENER) tres años, ________ (SER) muy pequeña.
5. Mi hermano nunca me ________ (LLAMAR) antes de las once
6. Ella nunca me ________ (DAR) ningún regalo.
7. Entonces Jessica ________ (EMPEZAR) a tocar la música.
8. Los gemelos ________ (TENER) seis años de edad cuando _______ (NACER) su hermanita.
9. Yo ________ (PINTARSE) el pelo ayer.
10. Don Quijote siempre _______ (HACER) locuras por una dama, que ________ (LLAMARSE) Dulcinea.
Check out the answer key here!
Preterite vs Imperfect Grammar Study Activities
Looking for some more ways to study and practice with the past tense in Spanish? Here are a few fun ideas:
- Use storytelling to practice the simple past verb tenses. Tell your teacher or language partner a story and ask them to correct your mistakes. Next, ask them to tell you a story, and pay close attention to their verb tenses.
- Watch your favorite TV shows, videos, or movies with Spanish subtitles turned on. When a character talks about the past, make note of how the preterite versus the imperfect is used in the subtitles.
- Take practice quizzes like this one to continue to solidify your skills!
Don’t Dwell on the Past
Mastering Spanish grammar is tough! Practicing with another person who can give you feedback and constructive criticism is one of the most efficient ways to improve. Homeschool Spanish Academy offers flexible and fun Spanish classes for every level. Our native Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala are eager to assist you in communicating about the past, present, and future. Sign up now for a free trial to see how quickly you can gain Spanish fluency.
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3. estaba, sonó
4. tenía, era
8. tenían, nació
9. me pinté
10. hacía, se llamaba
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You are very helpful in making me understand the spanish language and muchas gracias
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and let me know if this is happening to them as well? This might be a issue with my internet browser because I’ve had this happen before.
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#3 in the answer key should be estaba, not estaban.
Thank you for your comment. You’re right and I’ve made the corrections on the blog post.
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