How to Use the Imperfect Tense and the Preterite Tense

       

The Imperfect Tense and The Preterite Tense are both ways to talk about actions that happened in the past. Learning when to use which is one of the more frustrating things a Spanish student has to do because we just don't think the same way in English. We have only one past tense conjugation

I went fishing.

What's the time frame of this action? Clearly the fishing took place in the past. However, we don't know anything more about the situation than that, do we? For example: did the fishing occur once or many times?

To get across to the reader or listener important information such as when or how often this event occurred we have to add some extra information:

I went fishing yesterday.
I went fishing every morning.

In the first sentence we know not only when this action happened but that it only happened once. In the second we know this event happened repeatedly.

Most of the decision to use either the preterite or the imperfect boils down to the difference in the two example sentences above. In Spanish, information as to whether the event happened once or went on for awhile is "built-in" to the conjugation you choose.

Let's start with the imperfect...

When to Use the Imperfect Tense

Note: For this lesson imperfect conjugations will be indicated like this: imperfect conjugation

Repeated, Usual, Habitual Actions

We mainly use the imperfect tense when talking about repeated, usual, or habitual actions in the past:

Los sábados yo jugaba con mi vecino.
On Saturdays I played with my neighbor.

Usualmente él llegaba temprano.
He usually arrived early.

Mi madre siempre me preparaba desayuno.
My mother would always prepare breakfast for me.

In the first example we use the imperfect jugaba (rather than the preterite jugué) because we see this happened repeatedly, over the course of many Saturdays. In the second we use the imperfect llegaba (rather than the preterite llegó) because we know from the context that this was a usual activity. And in the third we use preparaba (rather than preparó) because this was a habitual action that happened often.

Words such as "always," "frequently," "generally," "never," "often," "usually," "used to," and "would" clue us into the fact that we should use the imperfect.

Background Information

We use the imperfect to describe the setting or provide background information such as what people, places, or conditions were like at some unspecified time in the past:

La ciudad era vieja y sucia.
The city was old and dirty.

La sirenita se llamaba Ariel y tenía seis hermanas.
The little mermaid was named Ariel and she had six sisters.

Times and Ages

We also use the imperfect to state the time and people's ages in the past:

Isabel tenía ocho años.
Isabel was eight years old.

Era la una de la mañana.
It was one in the morning.

Ongoing Actions

Additionally, use the imperfect to describe actions that were ongoing or in progress at some point in the past. This is roughly equivalent to using the imperfect progressive. In these sentences, when the action began or ended is unimportant, it just happened to be occurring at that moment:

Rosa hacía su tarea a las 9:00.
Rosa was doing her homework at 9:00.

Yo dibujaba el lunes por la mañana.
I was drawing Monday morning.

Translating the Imperfect

Because in English we only have one past tense conjugation, we often have to resort to adding additional words to get our exact meaning across. Consider these sentences. All three could be translated the same way in Spanish (and vice versa):

I walked on Sundays.
I would walk on Sundays.
I used to walk on Sundays.

Yo caminaba los domingos.

When to Use the Preterite Tense

Note: For this lesson preterite conjugations will be indicated like this: preterite conjugation

Single, Completed Actions

If the imperfect is primarily used to describe actions that happened over and over again, what is the preterite used for? You're right! To talk about single, completed actions that took place at specific points in time:

El sábado yo jugué con mi vecino.
On Saturday I played with my neighbor.

Ayer él llegó temprano.
Yesterday he arrived early.

Mi madre me preparó desayuno esta mañana.
My mother prepared breakfast for me this morning.

Since the actions referred to in these examples are one-time events, we choose the preterite. In the first case we use the preterite jugué (instead of jugaba) because the playing we're referring to only occurred once, on Saturday. Likewise, in the second case we choose the preterite llegó (instead of llegaba) because we're referring to one arrival, yesterday. And lastly, mother prepared breakfast once, this morning.

Time cues such as length of time, or a specific year, season, month, day, or time of day indicate that we should be using the preterite.

What if…?

What if you have both a repeated action and a definite timeframe? Use the preterite when a completed action is repeated a specific number of times. For example:

Fui al aeropuerto tres veces ayer.
I went to the airport three times yesterday.

What if there isn't a definite timeframe in the sentence, but it's implied by context? A preterite sentence doesn't necessarily have to include a time reference (as in the second sentence below):

Ayer hice mi tarea. También miré dos películas.
Yesterday I did my homework. I also watched two movies.

The Imperfect vs. The Preterite

Differences in Meaning

This might be a good time talk about why it's called the "imperfect" tense. It doesn't have anything to do with quality, but rather the idea that the action is "incomplete;" it doesn't have a specific beginning or end. Because we're using the imperfect and not attaching a definite timeframe to these actions, we're indicating that when they began and when (or if) they ended is unknown or unimportant. For example:

Marcos se sentía enfermo.
La plaza estaba decorada para la fiesta.
Esmeralda tenía que regresar a casa.
El tiempo hacía frío.

"Marcos was feeling sick." (We don't know exactly when he started feeling bad or if he's now feeling better.) "The plaza was decorated for the party." (Who knows for how long?) "Esmeralda was supposed to return home." (We're not sure when or if she did.) "The weather was cold." (When or if the weather changed isn't important.)

On the other hand…

Let's look at the same examples, this time with preterite conjugations and definite timeframes. Now we are explicitly stating when the action started, lasted, or ended, and therefore indicating that the timeframe is important. Because of this we are subtly indicating that a change has occurred:

La semana pasada Marcos se sintió enfermo.
La plaza estuvo decorada por un mes.
Esmeralda tuvo que regresar a casa el martes.
El tiempo hizo frío hace dos días.

"Last week Marcos got sick." (Marcos started feeling sick last week.) "The plaza was decorated for one month." (But it isn't anymore.) "Esmeralda had to return home on Tuesday." (And she did.) The weather was cold two days ago." (But it's much warmer now.)

Note: Due to their meanings, some verbs tend to be conjugated in the imperfect tense and some verbs are more naturally preterite. Because the verb soler means "to usually" or "to be in the habit of" it cannot be used in the preterite.

Due to the differences in emphasis between a preterite and imperfect conjugation, some verbs will have significant differences in meaning when translated. Hopefully by now these variations will make some sense to you. Notice how the preterite tends to signal a change:

 

imperfect:

preterite:

conocer:

Conocía a Ana.
I knew Ana.

Conocí a Ana.
I met Ana.

poder:

Podía salir.
I was able to leave.

Pude salir.
I managed to leave.

no poder:

No podía terminar.
I was not able to finish.

No pude terminar.
I failed to finish.

querer:

Quería hablar.
I wanted to speak.

Quise hablar.
I tried to speak.

no querer:

No quería leer.
I didn't want to read.

No quise leer.
I refused to read.

saber:

Sabía la razón.
I knew the reason.

Supe la razón.
I found out the reason.

tener:

Tenía guantes.
I had gloves.

Tuve guantes.
I got gloves.

The Imperfect & the Preterite Together

It's not at all uncommon to have both preterite and imperfect conjugations in the same sentence. In fact, it happens a lot. The imperfect (or the imperfect progressive) is used to explain what has happening when a preterite action occurred:

Los perros dormían cuando Carlos entró.
The dogs were sleeping when Carlos entered.

Cuando llegaron a la carretera el tiempo hacía calor.
When they reached the highway the weather was hot.

Yo me caí mientras que estábamos corriendo.
I fell while we were running.

Era, Fue, Estaba, Estuvo? How Do I Say "Was" in Spanish?

Translating "was" into Spanish is doubly difficult because not only do we need to think about which tense to use, imperfect or preterite, we also need to choose which verb to use, ser or estar. All the the basic rules for both ser/estar and imperfect/preterite still hold true, we just need to consider them together:

 

imperfect:

preterite:

estar:

background information of condition or location, timeframe is unknown or unimportant

condition or location with a definite timeframe, condition is no longer true or relevant

ser:

background information of an inherent characteristic, timeframe is unknown or unimportant

inherent characteristic with a definite timeframe, characteristic is no longer true or relevant

Some examples:

Martín estaba deprimido.
Martín was depressed.
(We're not sure or it doesn't matter how Martín is feeling now.)

Martín estuvo deprimido.
Martín was depressed.
(We know Martín in no longer depressed; he's feeling better now.)

Sr. Gallegos era un buen maestro.
Mr. Gallegos was a good teacher.
(We're not sure or it's not important if Mr. Gallegos is still teaching.)

Sr. Gallegos fue un buen maestro.
Mr. Gallegos was a good teacher.
(We know Mr. Gallegos is no longer teaching; he has retired or died.)

Under normal circumstances you're more likely to need imperfect forms of ser and estar so when in doubt, use the imperfect. If you're talking about something with a specific beginning, duration, or end, switch to the preterite.

Note: The difference between era and fue (and other ser conjugations) is a very subtle one and often has more to do with the speaker's attitude toward the circumstances than it does to grammar. Era and fue are largely interchangeable.

For Visual Learners

If you're still having trouble with the imperfect and the preterite, sometimes it can be advantageous to imagine a timeline. On the right side is the present (we'll ignore the future for now). Toward the left is the past.

If you know with any certainty when the action happened, you should be able to pinpoint on the timeline (with an arrow) exactly when it happened. For example:

On Saturday his friend went to the baseball game.

On the other hand, if you find it difficult to pin down, you may have to indicate only an indefinite range (with a squiggly line) of the action. For example:

His friend was a good baseball player.

So, what good does this do us? Whenever you would draw an arrow you should use the preterite; whenever you would draw a squiggly line you should use the imperfect. Like this:

El sábado su amigo fue al partido de béisbol.
Su amigo era un buen jugador de béisbol.

One more example:

Esperanza broke her arm when she was a girl.

This sentence has two verbs which will both go on the timeline: "Esperanza broke her arm" and "Esperanza was a girl." One of the verbs was a one-time event, the other was a situation with an indefinite time frame so we'll use both an arrow and a squiggly line.

Therefore:

Esperanza rompió su brazo cuando era niña.

Imperfect vs. Preterite: A Final Note

One of the reasons learning when to use the preterite or the imperfect is so difficult is that it's not an exact science. Sometimes you can switch from one tense to the other without substantially changing the meaning of the sentence. Other times you'll completely change the meaning. There may be times when reading Spanish that you won't be able to tell why the author used the conjugation he or she did because it won't seem to follow any of the rules. Just roll with it. As you get more and more used to reading Spanish you'll be able to pick up on the subtle nuances that let you know why a verb is conjugated the way it is.

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