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"The Little Spanish Verb Book That Could"
–Steven Roll, t

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"A ready instructional reference; thoroughly 'user friendly'" The Midwest Book Review

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Entries in Irregular Spanish verbs (6)


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



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