When to use preterite and when to use imperfect

When to use preterite and when to use imperfect in Spanish? Today we will learn it together!

Although there isn’t a general rule, almost always the preterite is equivalent to the simple past in English, while the imperfect can be translated as used to + verb or was/were + gerund.

But of course there’s more to learn about the difference between preterite and imperfect, and that’s why we are here.

First, we will focus on the contrast between both, and then we will see some specific uses for the imperfect.

Are you ready? Let’s go!

When to use preterite and when to use imperfect

The preterite indicates the end of a complete action in the past, while the imperfect doesn’t, therefore we don’t know if the action finished or not.

You will see this difference in all of the following uses!

Once / many times

The preterite is used to express that an action happened once at a specific point in the past:

En 2015 viajé a Barcelona.

On the other hand, the imperfect is used with actions that occurred many times, such as habits:

Cuando era adolescente, iba a Barcelona todos los años.

In this case, we aren’t talking about those actions as much as the circunstances that surround an event or a stage in someone’s life.

But when an action is repeated in the past and we mention a certain number of times, we use the preterite because we are showing a limit:

Cuando era adolescente, viajé a Barcelona cinco veces.

Complete / ongoing

The preterite expresses a complete action in the past, while the imperfect is used to express that an action is ongoing, not finished yet.

Ese día llovió mucho. (= it stopped raining at some point)

Ese día llovía mucho. (= in that very moment in the past it was raining and it didn’t stop raining)

El perro cruzó la calle. (= the dog managed to cross the street)

El perro cruzaba la calle. (= the dog was crossing the street, but we don’t know if he managed to do it)

Descriptions

We always use the imperfect to describe people, animals or objects.

We are telling what things were like in a specific moment and those characteristics don’t change in the past:

Mi abuelo era alto y rubio.

My grandpa didn’t stop being tall and blonde from one second to the next. Since the preterite always indicates the end of an action, we can’t use it here.

We aren’t really talking about an action, a movement, or an event, but just qualities that remain in time.

However, when we describe events there are two possibilities. It depends on the speaker’s perspective.

If we use the preterite, the speaker considers the event from the start to the end:

La fiesta fue horrible. (= a terrible night)

If we use the imperfect, since we aren’t considering the end, there’s a possibility for change:

La fiesta era horrible. (= but I met a nice guy and we enjoyed the rest of the night)

Now the party isn’t the main event anymore, and it works rather as the context for ‘I met the guy’.

We will get back to this in a few lines!

Past continuous: estaba / estuve estudiando

Estuve + gerund refers to an action that lasted for a certain amount of time, a specific event:

Ayer estuve caminando en el parque.

On the other hand, estaba + gerund is almost always used as the context for another action:

Ayer estaba caminando en el parque cuando vi a mi profesor.

That’s why if you use it alone, it feels like the information is incomplete:

Ayer estaba caminando en el parque… (= and? What happened?)

Also, with imperfect the action can be interpreted as interrupted. Again, we will see this in a few lines!

But before, let’s talk about simultaneous actions.

Simultaneous actions

When two actions or events in the past take place at the same time, we use the imperfect:

Encontré mi primer trabajo cuando estaba en la universidad.

In that example, ‘I was in college’ is parallel to ‘I found my first job’, the former also working as the context for the main action.

Mientras mamá leía la novela, papá miraba la tele. (= at the same time)

If you use the preterite, the meaning changes a little bit. Let’s see an example:

Aprendí a manejar un auto automático porque mi hermana tenía uno.

I’m saying that my sister had an automatic car, so I borrowed it to learn how to drive. Compare it with:

Aprendí a manejar un auto automático porque mi hermana tuvo uno.

Now, since the preterite indicates the end of an action, what I’m really saying is that my sister had an automatic car, stopped having it, and then I learned how to drive.

Interrupted actions

The imperfect tense expresses that an action or event didn’t reach its end, because it was interrupted by another one.

Estaba viendo el partido cuando se cortó la luz. (= the power went out)

Corríamos en el parque y, de repente, empezó a llover. (= the rain interrupted my walk)

El presidente estaba respondiendo, pero el periodista lo interrumpió. (= the journalist didn’t let him answer)

In the three examples above, the actions might have finished afterwards or not, but it’s not relevant.

When the speaker chooses the imperfect, they aren’t focusing on the action or the event as something that finished, but rather as a process in which other things happened.

Main actions / context

We always use the imperfect to describe a context. If we choose the preterite, that action is the one that really matters for us. Let’s see an example:

El sábado hacía mucho frío.

That could be the context for something else we haven’t said yet, maybe the beginning of a story.

Or it could also be the answer for a question where the main action is mentioned:

—¿Por qué no fuiste al club el sábado?
—El sábado hacía mucho frío.

But if we choose the preterite, that would be exactly what we want to communicate the weather:

El sábado hizo mucho frío.

The difference between preterite and imperfect in stories

Take a look at cuentoscortos.com, choose a random tale, and pay attention to the contrast!

Let’s see this excerpt taken from a version of Caperucita Roja (Little Red Riding Hood) for children:

Había una vez una dulce niña que quería mucho a su madre y a su abuela. Les ayudaba en todo lo que podía y como era tan buena el día de su cumpleaños su abuela le regaló una caperuza roja. Como le gustaba tanto e iba con ella a todas partes, pronto todos empezaron a llamarla Caperucita roja.

Un día la abuela de Caperucita, que vivía en el bosque, enfermó y la madre de Caperucita le pidió que le llevara una cesta con una torta y un tarro de mantequilla. Caperucita aceptó encantada...

The imperfect always describes the context, the characters, habits, parallel actions, etc.

The preterite introduces new actions that make the story go forward. Think of it as a timeline with main events that occur one after another in a chronological order.

Check some other tales out and try to understand why in each case they are using preterite or imperfect!

a couple crossing the street - the difference between preterite and imperfect
Estaba lloviendo y la pareja estaba cruzando la calle cuando saqué la foto. Foto de Oleg M Kulishov en Pexels

Specific uses for imperfect

There are some cases when you will only use the imperfect.

Reported speech

When we use reported speech, a verb in the present tense is conjugated in imperfect:

Teresa: “No me siento bien” -> Teresa dijo que no se sentía bien.

If in the original message there’s a verb in imperfect, it stays in imperfect:

Pedro: “Antes tomaba té todas las noches” -> Pedro dijo que antes tomaba té todas las noches.

To verify information

When you don’t remember something or you aren’t totally sure about it and you need to ask to check the information, you should use imperfect.

—Ayer no hice nada en todo el día.
—¿Pero no tenías un examen ayer?
(= I don’t remember if you had an exam yesterday or not)

—El sábado fui a comer con mi vecina.
—Ah, sí. ¿Cómo se llamaba?
(= You have told me, but I can’t remember her name)

Politeness

We can use the imperfect with a few verbs (such as llamar, venir, buscar, querer, necesitar, etc.) to sound more polite when asking for something.

Hola, llamaba para sacar un turno con el dentista. (sacar un turno = to make an appointment)

Buenas tardes, quería un café con leche y dos medialunas, por favor.

Conditional sentences

In everyday Spanish, we tend to replace the verbs in conditional with imperfect.

It can be either a second condictional, to express a hypothetical situacion in the present:

Si tuviera dinero, lo compraría -> Si tenía dinero, lo compraba (= If I had money, I would buy it)

Or a third conditional to talk about an unreal situation in the past:

Si hubiera sabido, no habría/hubiera ido -> Si sabía, no iba (If I had known, I wouldn’t have gone)

Fiction

Children frequently use the imperfect to describe a fictional situation when they are playing, but adults can do it sometimes too.

Entonces estabas en el castillo y yo iba a rescatarte, pero tenía que pelear con el dragón…

When to use preterite and imperfect: special verbs

There are some verbs that change their meaning depending on whether you use them with a verb tense or the other.

This happens because, again, the preterite always is used to express a very specific action in the past, while the imperfect describes a more general state.

Conocer: conocí / conocía

Conocí means to meet someone for the first time:

Conocí a Pablo en 2018. (= I met him in 2018)

Conocía means to be familiar with someone or something:

Nos llevamos muy bien porque conocía a su primo. (= we got along well because I knew his cousin)

Saber: supe / sabía

Supe means to find something out, to realize:

Supe la verdad cuando leí el libro. (= I found out the truth)

Sabía means to have information in your head, to be aware of something:

Sabía que la situación en ese país era terrible. (= I was aware of that)

Poder: pude / podía

Pude means to manage to do something:

Pude salir del aeropuerto con una visa de tránsito. (= I managed to do it)

Podía means to have the ability to do something:

Cuando era adolescente, podía hablar italiano con más fluidez.

And that’s all for today!

Do you want to learn more Spanish?

I hope you have enjoyed this article about when to use preterite and when to use imperfect in Spanish!

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Thank you very much and until next time,

Kevin.

3 thoughts on “When to use preterite and when to use imperfect”

  1. This was so helpful, thank you! Right now I’m in high school learning Spanish, and this has been the most comprehensive guide I’ve seen online. All other ones seem to leave out at least one detail, so thank you! Can you use preterite with all verbs when asking a question to sound polite, as long as it makes sense within the context of the sentence? Or are there some verbs that you just can’t do this with, even if it would make sense?

    1. Hey, Antonia! Thank you very much for your kind words 🙂

      I’m glad you liked my article! You can share it with your friends and classmates so that all of you pass this class 😉

      As for your question, you can use imperfect (not preterite) to sound polite especially with the verbs I mentioned there (llamar, venir, querer, necesitar) because those are the ones we usually use for requests! E.g. “venía para hablar con el director” (I came to talk to the director).

      With other verbs, it would sound more like a description or the context of a main action: “conducía para hablar con el director” (I was driving and something happened).

      I’m not sure if I answered your question, but If not, feel free to message me again!

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