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Spanish past tenses
Two of the most important Spanish past tenses are the pretérito and the imperfecto, and they can be difficult for several reasons. While the imperfecto is more or less equivalent to the English past progressive, imperfecto is more widely used, especially with verbs like estar and tener. As for the pretérito, it’s usually equivalent to the English simple past (e.g., hablé = I talked) but can also be translated as the emphatic past (I did talk). Be sure you fully understand these two Spanish tenses before continuing with this lesson.
For Spanish students, the trickiest aspect of these Spanish verb forms is that they often work together, juxtaposed not only throughout stories, but even within individual sentences. Understanding the contrasting relationship between the pretérito and imperfecto is essential to communicating in Spanish.
Imperfecto vs Pretérito
In a nutshell, the imperfecto is used for incomplete actions while the pretérito is reserved for completed ones, but of course it’s more complicated than that.
Incomplete vs Complete
Imperfecto explains what was happening, with no indication of when or even if it ended.
|Estaba en España.||I was to Spain.|
|Visitaba los museos.||I was visiting museums.|
Pretérito announces what happened, actions that were completed.
|Fui a España el año pasado.||I went to Spain last year.|
|Visité Barcelona el sábado.||I visited Barcelona on Saturday.|
Uncounted vs Counted
Imperfecto details what used to happen on a regular basis, or happened an indefinite number of times.
|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.|
Pretérito expresses what happened a specific number of times.
|Fui a España este verano.||I went to Spain this summer.|
|Visité tres museos.||I visited three museums.|
Ongoing vs New
Imperfecto indicates an ongoing state of being or feeling.
|Tenía miedo a los perros.||I was afraid of dogs.|
|A ella le gustaba la escuela.||She liked school.|
Pretérito reports a change in a state of being, a new feeling.
|Tuve miedo cuando vi al perro.||I was (got) scared when I saw the dog.|
|En ese momento, odió la escuela.||At that moment, she (suddenly) hated school.|
Background + Event
Imperfecto describes what was happening or how something was …
|Vivía en Costa Rica …||I lived (was living) in Costa Rica …|
|Queríamos dormir …||We wanted to sleep …|
… when the pretérito interrupted with news of some occurrence.
|… cuando me dijeron la verdad.||… when they told me the truth.|
|… pero el teléfono sonó.||… but the phone rang.|
Imperfecto and pretérito in action
To give you an idea of how these tenses work, together and separately, here are three similar stories using each past tense individually and then both together.
Historia en el imperfecto
Cuando tenía dieciocho años, quería ser arquitecto. Me gustaba mucho la obra de Antoni Gaudí y esperaba comprender su genialidad.
(When I was eighteen, I wanted to be an architect. I really liked Antoni Gaudí’s work and I hoped to understand his genius.)
Historia en el pretérito
Decidí estudiar en España e hice los formularios de inscripción, pero las universidades no me admitieron. Conocí a un arquitecto 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 an architect and started studying with him.)
Historia con tiempos mixtos
Cuando tenía dieciocho años, decidí que quería ser arquitecto. Me gustaba mucho el trabajo de Antoni Gaudí y me di cuenta de que debía estudiar en España. Pero conocí a un arquitecto y al final estudié con él durante 3 años.
(When I was eighteen, I decided that I wanted to be an architect. I really liked Antoni Gaudí’s work and realized I should study in Spain. But I met an architect and ended up studying with him for 3 years instead.)
Imperfecto and pretérito clues
Some Spanish words and phrases are virtually always used with the imperfecto, while others seem to stick like glue to the pretérito. These lists can help you determine which tense you need in any given sentence.
|los lunes, los martes …||on Mondays, Tuesdays …||el lunes, el martes …||on Monday, on Tuesday…|
todos los días
|every day||un día||one day|
|a menudo||often||tres, cuatro … veces||three, four … times|
|frecuentemente||frequently||muchas veces||several times|
|a veces||sometimes||de repente||all of a sudden|
|de vez en cuando||from time to time||bruscamente||suddenly|
More imperfecto vs pretérito
- Introduction to pretérito vs imperfecto
- Verbs usually in the imperfect
- Verbs with different meanings depending on tense
Pretérito vs imperfecto quizzes
Think you’ve got it? Test yourself on the difference between pretérito and imperfecto with these exercises:
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