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"The Little Spanish Verb Book That Could"
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Entries in imperfect tense (3)


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

Learning how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the present tense alone is quite an accomplishment. Just when beginners start gaining confidence, irregular Spanish verbs spoil all the fun. Then, the necessity becomes obvious to break out of the present tense and start talking about the past. It’s understandable that beginners will get discouraged when they study Spanish verbs in the preterit past tense. 

Typically, the preterit past tense is introduced before the imperfect past tense. Learning how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the imperfect is a piece of cake compared to the preterit. There is the issue of choosing between them, though, which isn’t exactly easy. To see the big picture, consider reviewing a previous post, "Dual Past Tenses, How Do I Choose Between Them?" or download: “The Preterit and The Imperfect: A Love Story.”

Not all Spanish verb tenses are created equal

If you can make it through learning how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the preterit tense, you can make it through any other Spanish verb tense. No other Spanish verb tense is as difficult to learn as the preterit, and here are some reasons why:

  • ALL the stem changers you learned in the present tense don’t apply to the preterit tense, BUT don’t forget the group of stem changers that only change in the third person singular and plural forms of the preterit tense, for example: divertirse, dormir, and preferir to name a few.
  • Don't forget the group of spell changers that only change in the first person singular form (yo) in the preterit tense, for example: buscar, jugar, comenzar, etc.
  • There is a multitude of irregular Spanish verb stems that are unique to the preterit tense only, for example: ser, estar, ir, tener, poder, poner, etc.
  • Verb endings remain the same from one tense to another, whether regular or irregular, except for a small group within the unique irregular Spanish verbs (mentioned above) in the first and third person singular forms only of the preterit tense, for example: poder, poner, querer, and saber

To put it into perspective, the imperfect past tense has only 3 irregular Spanish verbs: ser, ir, and ver. To help you learn how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the preterit past tense, check out the strategies some teachers and students from the University of Minnesota utilize (videos included):

Strategies to learn how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the preterit tense
from the
 Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)

Good news: The present and past tenses build a bridge to the advanced tenses

Most of the irregular Spanish verb stems in the present and preterit tenses are found in the subjunctive tenses and the commands, so the groundwork will be assembled should you decide to continue on or dabble in the advanced tenses. Ironically, once you reach the advanced level, conjugating verbs really isn’t an issue anymore, it starts to become second nature. The challenge is applying the subjunctive tenses and using more sophisticated grammatical sentence structures (the perfect tenses).

My platform has been to promote the present and past tenses of Spanish verbs as a bridge to the advanced verb tenses, should you decide to continue on with your studies. But in reality, not all of us will make it to the advanced level. Instead of looking at it in black and white terms, consider using the present and past verb tenses of Spanish verbs as your goal. Significant communication can take place while utilizing the primary verb tenses. The seeds will be planted for future growth.


The 2 Most Essential Spanish Verbs Part 'Dos': 'Ser' and 'Estar' in the Past Tenses

If you missed 'Part Uno', which covers “ser” and “estar” in the present tense, feel free to read it here:
The 2 Most Essential Spanish Verbs: ‘To be’ or ....‘to be’? That is the question.

Just when “ser” and “estar” start to make sense in the present tense, you need to learn how to use them in the past. Since there are two past tenses in Spanish, the preterit and the imperfect, it’s like a quadruple challenge; the duality is squared if that is possible. Navigating “ser” and “estar” in the past reminds me of my only experience flying an airplane: you not only have to steer left and right, but keep the nose and tail even as well as the wings balanced. There’s more going on than meets the eye.

The verbs “ser” and “estar” mean “to be,” so in the past you would use them to communicate “was” and “were” depending on the subject. Observe how often you use these common verbs in English. Using “ser” and “estar” in the past requires a basic understanding of how to apply the preterit and the imperfect past tenses. To review when to use them, here is a link that I had posted earlier that provides excellent strategies to choose between the preterit and the imperfect.

The University of Minnesota's Center of Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)
Spanish Grammar Strategies Web Project: The Preterit and The Imperfect

Remember that the preterit past tense is used when there is a reference to a point of time in the past that has a definite beginning and/or ending. It’s complete, finite, a chunk of time sliced out of the past. While using the imperfect past tense you can communicate both “ser” and “estar” as “used to be.”

The following summary chart from The Spanish Verb Conjugator compares “ser” and “estar” in the present, preterit, and imperfect tenses with English equivalents. I needed a reference like this as a beginner, and honestly speaking–I could still use it to this day.

I suggest that you make as many mistakes as possible when trying out “ser” and “estar” in both past tenses. Like my classroom motto, “You have to make mistakes to learn from them.” As you ask yourself which verb and tense to use, don’t hesitate to also ask an available native Spanish speaker which tense or verb is correct. As I have mentioned before, native Spanish speakers are pretty forgiving as you are learning their language.

One of the most effective ways to learn language is through modeling. Just like when you were a child, your family modeled to you how to use your native language. Be aware, observe, and apply. But don’t worry about being perfect. “Perfection is a perfect waste of time” (author unknown).

I posted the Latin Grammy nominated song “Me fui” by the Spanish artist Bebe recently as an example of the verb “irse.” I made a mental note of the way the verb “estaba” clearly stood out in the song. It’s a good example of how “estar” is used in the imperfect past tense. Take another listen and this time pay attention to the lyrics “Dónde estaba cuando te llamaba?” (Where were you when I was calling you?) It models the imperfect tense “perfectly” in context. Here’s the link to that post where you will find the link to the YouTube video and the lyrics in Spanish with the English translation at the end of the article (We’re all connected: )

Spanish Verb Mastery Blog Post Including Links for the YouTube 'Video Official' of The Latin Grammy Nominated Song: "Me fui" by Bebe


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

Build basic verb conjugation skills in the present tense first
One of the most challenging tasks of learning how to conjugate Spanish verbs is choosing between the past tenses of Spanish: the preterit and the imperfect. Perhaps because this challenge follows a rigorous sequence of verb conjugation milestones: 

1.  Learning the subject pronouns

2.  Learning how to conjugate verbs in the present tense:

  • regular -ar, -er, and -ir ending verbs
  • irregular verb patterns in the most common Spanish verbs 

3.  Learning how to conjugate verbs in the preterit past tense:

  • regular -ar, -er, and -ir ending verbs
  • irregular verbs in the preterit (there’s a lot)  

4.  Learning how to conjugate verbs in the imperfect past tense:

  • regular -ar, -er, and -ir ending verbs
  • irregular verbs in the imperfect (there are only three!) 

Getting to this point is a huge accomplishment! Once you get used to using Spanish subject pronouns and conjugating regular verbs, you’ve laid the foundation of verb conjugation in Spanish. Next in line is learning the irregular verb patterns found in high frequency Spanish verbs, and finally applying all of these new concepts to dual past tenses in Spanish.  

From my own experience as a student and as a teacher, if you can make it through the past tenses of Spanish verbs, the following verb conjugation work doesn’t seem nearly as difficult. If you should decide not to continue to study the advanced tenses (or just dabble a little in some of them), the skills you’ve acquired this far will still allow you to navigate in Spanish very well. It’s a win-win situation.

Practice when to use each past tense
I’ve strived to motivate and support the beginner through these initial challenges with my verb guide, The Spanish Verb Conjugator, The Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Spanish Verbs. You can use it as your ‘training wheels’ until your verb conjugation skills improve. Reflexive verbs and “Verbs Like Gustar,” which are commonly used in the present and past tenses, are also included in my verb guide as well. All of the basics are covered to get you rolling. The following book exerpt summarizes when to use each past tense.

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?

Create strategies to help you decide which past tense to use
Not only will it save you time, but it is essential to rely on strategies or techniques that help you choose between the past tenses on-the-spot. The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) through the University of Minnesota, developed the "Spanish Grammar Strategies Web Project." It is designed to enhance the learning and use of Spanish grammar. 

Here is a direct link to the web page that illustrates some excellent examples of strategies that students and teachers have used to help them make the decision between the preterit and the imperfect. There are video tutorials included. Use these strategies yourself, or maybe they will inspire you to create your own personal strategies.

University of Minnesota/CARLA: Spanish Grammar Strategies Web Project/
Preterite vs. Imperfect