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Spanish Verb Mastery Tutorial: The Preterit vs. The Imperfect


Spanish verbs in the past tenses: The Preterit vs. The Imperfect

This Spanish Verb Mastery Tutorial will tell you what you need to know to conjugate Spanish verbs in the past tenses: The Preterit vs. The Imperfect.

The preterit and the imperfect are constantly joined at the hip when dealing with the past in Spanish. Choosing between them is not easy. Just like balancing on your own without training wheels, learning to balance between the preterit and imperfect is a skill to develop with practice. 

The preterit past tense in Spanish is used when events in the past are completed with reference to the beginning or end of the action. It is also used for a series of completed events in the past.

        “I washed the dishes.”
              Lavé los platos; or 

       “I washed the dishes, I swept the floor, and I cleaned the bathroom.” 
              Lavé los platos, barrí el piso y limpié el baño.

The imperfect past tense in Spanish is used to describe action in progress or for habitual, repeated actions in the past.   

       “I was washing the dishes.”; or “I used to wash the dishes.”
              Lavaba los platos.

The imperfect describes the background as other actions occur simultaneously or interrupt the action. The interrupting actions are often in the preterit tense.  

       “I was washing the dishes and I was sweeping the floor when you called me.” 
              Lavaba (imperfect) los platos y barría (imperfect) el piso cuando me llamaste (preterit). 

Remember that you are describing the past in the way that you want to paint the picture of what happened. Is the point in time that you are referring to completed? Is there focus on the beginning or end of the action? Was it already in progress? Was it habitual, something you used to do?

Communicating age and time in the past provide excellent examples of the past tenses in Spanish. Try to view the past as “completed” vs. “in progress.” For example, to describe a trip you took to New York with your family when you were nine years old: the point in time is part of that ninth year, it was already in progress, your ninth year wasn’t finished yet. Remember that age is communicated using tener + number + años. Age in the past always uses the imperfect: 

       Cuando yo tenía (imperfect yo form of tener) nueve años...
               “When I was nine years old...”

To finish the sentence, you have some options depending on how you want to describe the trip. 

To convey that the trip was completed, use the preterit:

       Cuando yo tenía nueve años, mi familia y yo fuimos (preterit nosotros of ir) a Nueva York.
                “When I was nine years old, my family and I went to New York.”

To refer to the trip as a background description, in progress, or habitual, use the imperfect again:

       Cuando yo tenía nueve años, mi familia y yo íbamos (imperfect nosotros of ir) a Nueva York.
                “When I was nine years old, my family and I were going/used to go to New York.” 

One would think clock time in the past is completed already, but time is ongoing, and it is always in progress. Clock time always uses the verb ser, and clock time in the past always uses the imperfect of ser

       Eran (imperfect 3rd per. plural of ser) las ocho cuando él me llamó (preterit él of llamar). 
                 “It was eight o’clock when he called me.”   


Related Spanish Verb Mastery Blog Posts:

Dual Past Tenses of Spanish Verbs: How Do I Choose Between Them?

Why are Spanish Verbs in the Preterit Tense So Hard to Learn?

The Preterit and The Imperfect Spanish Verbs: A Love Story


(This tutorial was excerpted from The Spanish Verb Conjugator: The Beginner's Guide to Mastering Spanish Verbs. Copyright Roche Publishing.)