Pretérito vs Imperfecto

Tiempos pasados

One of the most striking differences between Spanish and English is in verb tenses. For English speakers, learning how to use the various past tenses in Spanish can be very tricky (and vice versa), because Spanish has several tenses which either do not exist or do not translate literally into English.

Anyone who has studied Spanish is aware of the troublesome relationship between the pretérito and imperfecto. The imperfecto yo hablaba translates to the English imperfect "I was talking" while the pretérito yo hablé literally translates to the English simple past "I talked" but can also be translated as the English present perfect "I have talked" or the emphatic past "I did talk."

It’s vital to understand the distinctions between pretérito and imperfecto in order to use them correctly and thus express past events accurately.

The pretérito indicates

I. A single event.

Fui a España el año pasado.   I went to Spain last year.
Visité Barcelona el sábado.   I visited Barcelona on Saturday.

II. One or more events or actions that began and ended in the past.

Fui a España.   I went to Spain. 
Visité unos museos.   I visited some museums.

III. An event that occurred, interrupting another action (see imperfecto III below).

… cuando me dijeron la verdad.   … when they told me the truth.
…cuando mi hija nació.   … when my daughter was born.

IV. Changes in an existing physical or mental state at a precise moment or for a particular isolated cause

Tuve miedo cuando vi el perro.   I was scared when I saw the dog.

The imperfecto is used for

I. A habitual or repeated action.

Iba a España cada año.   I went (used to go) to Spain every year. 
Visitaba mucho la Sagrada Familia.   I often visited la Sagrada Familia.

II. An ongoing action with no specified completion.

Iba a España.   I was going to Spain.
Visitaba unos museos .   I was visiting museums.

III. Description/background information; set the scene of how things were or what was happening when there was an interruption (see pretérito III above).

Vivía en Costa Rica cuando…   I was living in Costa Rica when…
Estaba en mi cama cuando…   I was in bed when…

IV. General description of physical or mental states of being.

Tenía miedo de perros.   I was afraid of dogs.

V. Expression of the time of day or age in the past

Eran las cinco de la mañana.   It was five a.m.
Era sus cumpleaños; tenía doce años.   It was his birthday; he was twelve.

Thus the imperfecto is normally used for descriptions of the past, while the pretérito narrates specific events. In addition, the imperfecto often sets the stage for an event expressed with the pretérito.

Compare these passages

Imperfecto

Cuando tenía dieciocho años, quería ser arquitecto.
Me gustaba mucho la obra de Antoni Gaudí y esperaba comprender su genio.
  When I was eighteen, I wanted to be an architect.
I really liked Antoni Gaudí’s work and I hoped to understand his genius.

Pretérito

Decidí estudiar en España e hice los formularios de inscripción, pero las universidades no me admitieron. Conocí a un pintor y comencé a estudiar con él.   I decided to study in Spain and filled out the application forms, but the universities did not admit me. I met a painter and started studying with him.

Trigger words

This list of key words and phrases may help you figure out whether to use imperfecto or pretérito.

Imperfecto     Pretérito  
normalmente usually   una vez once
de vez en cuando from time to time   dos veces twice
antes formerly   tres/cuatro/etc. veces three/four/etc. times
los lunes on Mondays   muchas veces several times
todos los días every day   ayer yesterday
      un día one day
      el lunes on Monday
      bruscamente suddenly
      de repente all of a sudden

Different meanings

There are a few verbs in Spanish which have a different meaning depending on which past tense is used.

Verb   With pretérito With imperfecto
Conocer   to meet to know
Poder   could (was able to, succeeded) could (a possibility – no indication as to whether it happened)
Querer   to try to want, love
No querer   to refuse to not want
Saber   to learn, find out to know
Tener   to receive to have
Tener*   to get, become to be

* When used in expressions where it means "to be."
 

Spanish quizzes Past Tense Quiz

Think you’ve got it? Test yourself on pretérito vs imperfecto:

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Learn French En français : Passé composé vs imparfait

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