spanish preterite vs imperfect differences

Spanish Preterite vs Imperfect: Understanding the Differences

Maria Claudia Alvarado Published on January 11, 2024

In Spanish, we have different ways to talk about events and actions in the past. The imperfect and preterite are two of the most common past tenses in Spanish, and you must know when to use them to communicate your ideas with clarity. If you’ve already started your Spanish studies, you might have had some confusion choosing the correct tense. In this article, we’ll go over their purpose, differences, and when it’s correct to use them. We’ll also give you some examples to help you practice and familiarize yourself with the use of the imperfect and preterite tenses.

The Preterite Tense

The preterite tense (or pretérito indefinido) helps us describe actions completed in the past. With this tense, you can talk about things you did in the past that weren’t continuous or habitual. All the actions narrated in the preterite tense have a clear starting and ending point, like a story. 

Spanish speakers rely on the preterite tense to emphasize that an action was completed. Due to its clear structure, you can use the preterite tense to create phrases that explain a sequence of events and be precise about when each of these events took place. The preterite is also useful to express surprise: you can use it to talk about an action that ended just as suddenly as it started!

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Conjugation of Verbs in the Preterite Tense

In general, the first thing you need to do to conjugate Spanish verbs is to figure out if you’re dealing with regular or irregular verbs. Regular verbs have stems that don’t change, but with irregular verbs, the stem can be modified depending on the pronoun or tense. This is the same for the endings. With regular verbs, the endings follow a pattern but this isn’t always true for irregular verbs.

To conjugate regular Spanish verbs in the preterite tense, you need to drop the infinite ending (-ar, -er, and -ir) and add its corresponding preterite ending.

PronounPreterite -ar Verb EndingsPreterite -er/-ir Verb Endings
Yo
-aste-iste
Vos-e-e
Él/Ella/Usted-ió
Nosotros-amos-imos
Vosotros-asteis-isteis
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes-aron-ieron

Regular verbs are easier to conjugate because their conjugations follow patterns. For example, here’s how to conjugate the verb hablar. As you can see, the stem of the verb hablar, habl-, doesn’t change for any of its conjugations. Meanwhile, the ending, -ar, changes to match the pronoun. Y

PronounHablar ConjugationEnglish Meaning
YohabléI spoke
hablasteYou spoke
VoshablasteYou spoke
Él/Ella/UstedhablóHe/She/You spoke
NosotroshablamosWe spoke
VosotroshablasteisYou spoke
Ellos/Ellas/UstedeshablaronThey/You spoke

You can see a similar pattern with the regular Spanish verb vivir. While the stem, viv-, doesn’t change, the ending, -ir, changes in almost the exact manner. Here’s the conjugation chart for vivir in the preterite tense:

PronounVivir ConjugationEnglish Meaning
YoVivíI lived
VivisteYou lived
VosVivisteYou lived
Él/Ella/UstedVivióHe/She/You lived
NosotrosVivimosWe lived
VosotrosVivisteisYou lived
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesVivieronThey lived, You lived

Note that the English translation for these verbs (I spoke, I lived) shows that these are completed actions. In the case of vivir, its English translation shows that someone lived somewhere or with someone for a defined period, but that this changed later. 

Irregular Verbs in the Preterite Tense

Because irregular verbs don’t follow a set pattern, you need to learn how to conjugate them individually. Luckily, there are some things you can do to make the process easier. For example, you can start by observing the way different ways irregular verbs change and put them in smaller groups according to their characteristics. However, it’s important to note that there are some irregular verbs that, when conjugated in the preterite tense, won’t fit in any particular groups, like ir, ser, and dar

Here’s a table that shows how to conjugate these irregular verbs in the preterite tense:

PronounIrSerDar
YoFuiFuiDi
FuisteFuisteDiste
VosFuisteFuisteDiste
Él/Ella/UstedFueFueDio
NosotrosFuimosFuimosDimos
VosotrosFuisteisFuisteisDisteis
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesFueronFueronDieron

Note that irregular preterite verbs are stem-changing, so you need to become familiar with the change in their roots and endings as well. These are some other irregular verbs that modify their stem in the preterite tense:

-Decir – Dij-

-Poner – Pus-

-Saber – Sup-

-Tener – Tuv-

-Traer – Traj-

-Venir – Vin-

As you can see, there are many differences in the way these verbs change to fit the preterite tense. Looking at the stem and ending of each verb can give you a clue and save you a lot of time in the long run. The most important thing to keep in mind is that practice and patience are vital to understanding Spanish verb conjugation.

When to Use the Preterite Tense

With the preterite tense, you can point out actions that happened once or twice in the past but weren’t an everyday occurrence. The preterite can help you describe when something started and ended within specific time frames. This is an easy way to create a precise sequence of events and make sure everybody understands their order and timing. 

Here are a few ways you can apply the preterite tense:

Actions with a clear start and end:

The preterite tense is all about completed actions, but sometimes it can be hard to tell if the ending of an action is clear enough. However, there are a couple of things you can do to make sure you apply the preterite in the right way. For example, time indicators can be used to tell when an action began or finished so you can usually find them in sentences in the preterite tense. You can use concrete times or give an approximate time of the day. It’s also okay to do this with specific dates or days of the week. Note that to keep your phrase in the preterite, the action you’re describing needs to be non-habitual so it can’t last for extended periods. Here are some examples:

-El martes, nosotros nadamos en un lago por un par de horas. / On Tuesday, we swam in a lake for a couple of hours.

-Ella terminó su tarea a las 5:00 p.m. / She finished her homework at 5:00 p.m.

-Ayer encontré una billetera en el bus. / Yesterday, I found a wallet on the bus.

Sudden events:

The preterite is used to describe sudden and complete events in the past clearly and concisely. Because the focus is on the event itself, you don’t need to heavily rely on background information or context. Instead, preterite is used with time indicators or expressions to pinpoint when these actions took place. For example: 

Escuché un trueno en medio de la noche. / I heard a thunder in the middle of the night.

-De repente, la alarma de incendios se encendió. / Suddenly, the fire alarm went off.

-Ella gritó al verlo. / She screamed when she saw him.

Keep in mind that, to create a sentence in this tense, you need to make sure that the sudden action has a clear ending point. Ongoing or habitual actions aren’t suited for this tense.

Sequences of events:

A common use of the preterite is to describe actions that were completed, which is why it’s perfect to narrate the order of events in the past. In Spanish, the preterite tells us what happened in chronological order with clear beginnings and endings. This way, you won’t mix up things or get confused trying to tell your friends something that happened to you.

To create a sequence, you can start your sentence with words that indicate what happened first, like primero (first) or antes (before). If not, you can also use words that show what happened next, like luego (then), después (later), or finalmente (finally). Note that the events must follow a logical order for your phrase to make sense. Here are some examples:

-Primero tomé la linterna, y luego busqué las llaves. / First, I took the flashlight, and then I looked for the keys.

-Él subió las escaleras, y entró al cuarto. / He went upstairs and entered the room.

-Nosotros cocinamos el pavo antes de hornear el pastel. / We cooked the turkey before we baked the cake.

Direct speech:

With the preterite, we can quote what someone said in the past. In Spanish, we use preterite conjugations to recall or inform others about something we heard. Some common speech tags you can find when the preterite tense is applied this way are dijo, preguntó, and exclamó. To write dialogue in the preterite, you must remember that the actions you’re narrating need to be completed, and not ongoing. For example:

-Él dijo que fue a ver a un doctor. / He said he went to see a doctor. 

-Ella dijo, “Terminé de regar las plantas.” / She said, “I finished watering the plants.”

-Ellos preguntaron cuándo acabó la película. / They asked when the movie ended.

The Imperfect Tense

The imperfect tense or imperfecto helps us describe habits or ongoing actions in the past. Unlike the preterite, the imperfect tense is used to make clear that certain actions or events took place multiple times. This can give context or background information to a phrase, but it also has other uses.

In Spanish, it’s easy to find this tense in our day-to-day interactions to remember our past and share our memories with others. You can also use this tense to talk about people, places, circumstances, and even feelings. It’s also common to find this tense in writing and storytelling, so knowing how to use it can give you a more in-depth experience.

Conjugation of Verbs in the Imperfect Tense

Once you have identified a verb as regular, all you need to do is drop its ending (-ar, -er, -ir). Then, you must replace it with the ending (-aba, -abas, -abamos, -aban) that corresponds to the pronoun you’re using in your phrase. The good thing about regular verbs is that their conjugations tend to have many similarities. Almost all verbs are regular in their imperfect forms, so you won’t have as much trouble once you’re familiar with their patterns.

PronounImperfect -ar Verb EndingsImperfect -er/-ir Verb Endings
Yo-aba-ía
-abas-ías
Vos-abas-ías
Él/Ella/Usted-aba-ía
Nosotros-abamos-íamos
Vosotros-abais-íais
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes-aban-ían

Below, we’ll look at the imperfect conjugations for the verbs jugar and comer to help you see what this is all about. Here’s the conjugation table for jugar in the indicative imperfect tense:

PronounJugar ConjugationEnglish Meaning
YojugabaI played
jugabasYou played
VosjugabasYou played
Él/Ella/UstedjugabaHe/She/You played
NosotrosjugabamosWe played
VosotrosjugabaisYou played
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesjugabanThey/You played

And here’s the conjugation table for comer in the imperfect tense:

PronounComer ConjugationEnglish Meaning
YocomíaI ate
comíasYou ate
VoscomíasYou ate
Él/Ella/UstedcomíaHe/She/You ate
NosotroscomíamosWe ate
VosotroscomíaisYou ate
Ellos/Ellas/UstedescomíanThey/You ate

Here you can see that both the verb jugar and the verb comer keep their respective stems (jug- and com-) untouched. Meanwhile, the endings change to match the pronouns in an identical manner. This pattern holds for the rest of the regular verbs, and learning it can help you save a lot of time. Keep in mind that it’s always best to look at each conjugation chart individually to make sure you’ve got the conjugation forms right before committing to memorizing them.

Irregular Verbs in the Imperfect Tense

Irregular verbs can take more work but you shouldn’t be scared of them. Irregular verbs rarely follow the same conjugation patterns, so trying to learn their different forms might seem impossible at times. Luckily, there are only three verbs that are irregular in the imperfect tense: ir, ser, and ver. Below, you can see how each of these verbs changes depending on the pronoun:

PronounSerIrVer
YoEraIbaVeía
ErasIbasVeías
VosErasIbasVeías
Él/Ella/UstedEraIbaVeía
NosotrosÉramosÍbamosVeíamos
VosotrosÉraisIbaisVeíais
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesEranIbanVeían

When we put these verbs side by side, it’s easy to see similarities despite them being irregular verbs. While their endings follow the same pattern, their stems change in a way that requires you to pay attention to each of their conjugations. 

When to Use the Imperfect Tense

The imperfect tense is fairly easy to understand if we keep in mind its main purpose, which is to express continuity. With the imperfect tense, we can give context or background information to our sentences. It can come in handy if you want to talk about something that happened years ago that had an impact on the present, or just remember things you used to do when you were a kid.

These are the different ways in which you can apply the imperfect tense in Spanish:

Continuous or repeated actions:

The imperfect tense focuses on past actions that happened multiple times or continuously. This means that, instead of building a sense of shock, the imperfect tense creates familiarity. For example, instead of saying that it wasn’t the first time someone performed a specific action or found themselves in a certain situation, you can use the imperfect tense to describe how often this happened.

Some Spanish time expressions you can use to give more sense of time to your phrases are todos (every), cada (every), desde (since), and en ese tiempo (back in that time, but you can also use it for days, weeks, months, and more). Note that the “used to” in the English translations for these phrases tends to point out the event or action that is constantly repeated. Here are some examples:

-Él escribía cartas durante todo el tiempo que estuvo en Portugal. / He used to write letters during the entire time he was in Portugal.

-A ellos les gustaba viajar a la playa en el verano. / They used to like traveling to the beach in the summer.

-Tú gastabas todo tu dinero en juegos de arcade en esa época. / You used to spend all your money on arcade games back then.

Habits:

In Spanish, you can use the imperfect tense to describe habits you or someone else had in the past. We do this to provide context or background information, but it can also serve as a way to remember things we enjoyed doing. The imperfect tense focuses on the repetition of actions, so it can be ideal to make clear that these were customary events.

Because we’re talking about ongoing actions, you need to provide a time frame that indicates that these actions or events took place multiple times. Some words you can use to help you give a clear message are desde (since), cada (every), and cuando (when). If you want to be more specific, you can combine these words with other time indicators, like this: todos los años/meses/días (every year/month/day), cada lunes/día/fin de semana (every Monday/day/weekday), desde que tenía cinco años/era niño/vivía ahí (since I was five/was a kid/lived there), and more. Here are some examples:

-Yo montaba a caballo con mi padre todos los fines de semana. / I used to go horse riding with my father every weekend.

-Nosotros practicamos esgrima desde los seis años. / We used to practice fencing since we were six years old.

-Por años, ella pintaba cuadros de animales para mejorar su técnica. / For years, she used to paint pictures of animals to improve her technique.

Descriptions:

With the imperfect tense, we can talk about the way the past used to look like. Because most things aren’t constantly changing how they look, the imperfect tense can help you give a clear description of the nature of the past. You can use it to describe the previous state of people, animals, objects, places, and even the perception of time. Spanish speakers usually use this to compare the past to the present, or simply to recall the past.

In these cases, we use the imperfect conjugations of the verbs tener and soler to indicate that we’re pointing out continuity in the past. For example:

-La casa tenía un techo rojo. / The house used to have a red roof.

-Los días solían ser más largos cuando era niño. / The days used to be longer when I was a kid.

-Ella tenía el pelo de color rosado cuando la conocí. / She used to have pink hair back when I met her.

Age:

Since the imperfect tense focuses on the continuous past, it makes sense that it’s the best option to talk about the age you used to have. Age is the most ongoing action we can perform since it encompasses a whole year in time and, in Spanish, we use the imperfect to remember the things that happened in that period. When you use the imperfect to describe age, you can point out the things you used to like, what you used to do, who you used to interact with, and how you used to feel.

Some Spanish words you can use to highlight continuity are cuando (when) and desde (since). Note that the verb tener also plays an important role in this kind of sentence in the imperfect tense. Here are some examples:

-No salía mucho de casa cuando tenía doce años. / I didn’t use to go out of the house too much when I was twelve.

-Cuando tú tenías cinco, le tenías miedo a la oscuridad. / When you were five, you used to be scared of the dark.

-Él quería ser doctor cuando tenía veinte años. / He used to want to be a doctor when he was twenty years old. 

The Differences Between Preterite and Imperfect

To use the preterite and imperfect tenses correctly, you need to be sure that it fits the purpose of your sentence. This can be hard when you see them used in the same text side by side. But, knowing the differences in their uses can help you tell one tense from the other. These are a few ways you can tell them apart:

Type of Action

With the preterite and the imperfect tenses, you can specify which actions were continuous and which weren’t. This is a vital aspect of communication because it helps separate ongoing actions from actions with a definite beginning and end. 

The preterite tense is also useful if you want to talk about sudden or unexpected actions. For example, you can write a phrase in the preterite to express that someone else’s actions took you by surprise. On the other hand, the imperfect tense conveys a feeling of familiarity, so it can help you talk about actions you grew used to over time.

For example:

-Él encontró un zorro en su jardín. / He found a fox on his garden.

In this sentence, the verb “encontrar” is used in the preterite to express that something unexpected happened. While we aren’t being given time frames or expressions that convey shock, there’s also nothing that tells us that this was a recurrent event. As a result, the sentence points out that the action of finding a fox in the garden was a one-time thing and not something normal for the subject. 

Here’s another example:

-El encontraba monedas olvidadas en la lavadora. / He used to find forgotten coins in the washing machine.

Meanwhile, this sentence uses the imperfect tense to showcase that finding forgotten coins in the washing machine was a regular event. Again, note that there aren’t any specific time frames, yet it’s still easy to tell that this is something that has happened before thanks to the imperfect conjugation of the verb encontrar.

Frequency

We can use the preterite and imperfect tenses to give a clear idea of the frequency with which events took place in the past. When we talk about the past, we rely entirely on description. But, without the right words and grammar, our phrases can lose sense and clarity. Luckily, with the help of these two tenses, you can communicate if something happened once or many times.

It’s easy to distinguish when someone is using the imperfect tense because of the role it plays. We use the imperfect to pinpoint habits or recurrent events, so we use time expressions like desde (since), cada (every), and cuando (when) to make this clear. Meanwhile, the preterite describes actions that have a clear start and ending point and don’t repeat.

For example, we can say, “Jorge tomaba jugo de naranja desde que era niño” (Jorge used to drink orange juice since he was a kid) to specify that the action of drinking orange juice is something Jorge has been doing since childhood. But, it’s also possible to rephrase this to the preterite to imply the opposite, “Jorge toma jugo de naranja” (Jorge drinks orange juice).

Storytelling

The preterite and the imperfect tense are both frequently used in storytelling. In Spanish, most literature works are narrated in the past tense, so don’t be surprised if you run into these tenses while you read a Spanish book. These tenses allow us to talk about the past with precision, and they can be a valuable tool for worldbuilding or setting if you’re writing a story in the past.

For example, with the preterite, you can describe the way things used to look and imply that they don’t look the same in the present. This creates contrast and can serve as a way to transition between ideas or display the passing of time. At the same time, you can use the imperfect tense to explain that different events or actions took place multiple times, which can save you space in your story and help you focus on the important parts.

You might see them both used in the same paragraph, like this: 

“En la noche, la familia veía la televisión. Entonces, el teléfono sonó” (At night, the family used to watch TV. Then, the phone rang).

When placed together, these two sentences show the contrast between a frequent action (watching TV at night), and a sudden and unexpected event that interrupts the normalcy of the situation (the phone rang). This is a great way to build tension in your stories when using the Spanish past tenses!

Examples of Preterite and Imperfect Usage

If you want to become fluent in Spanish, you need to be able to use the preterite and the imperfect tenses when it’s necessary. Sometimes, you might even need to use both in the same paragraph! At first glance, this doesn’t seem so complicated: the preterite is used for actions with a clear beginning and ending, and the imperfect is for ongoing events or actions that took place multiple times. 

You can also easily tell apart the imperfect and preterite by their translations to English. The imperfect tense translations use “used to” while the preterite tense ones rely on verb conjugation. Here are a few examples to show you how to use the preterite and the imperfect tense together.

-Solíamos tener un reloj en la pared de la sala. Una noche, el reloj se cayó y se rompió. / We used to have a clock on the wall. One night, the clock fell and broke.

-Nosotros tomabamos el mismo camino de regreso a casa. Pero, un día, encontramos un perro herido. / We used to take the same way back home. But, one day, we found a wounded dog.

-Cuando nuestro abuelo era niño, le gustaba una canción. Él dijo que llamó a una estación de radio y pidió que la tocaran. / When our grandfather was a kid, he used to like a song. He said he called a radio station and asked them to play it.

Ways to Practice Preterite vs Imperfect

To learn how to use these two Spanish past tenses with confidence, you need to practice regularly. However, this can be hard if you don’t know someone who speaks Spanish or you don’t live somewhere where you can hear the language. Luckily, many Spanish resources can help you learn the language from zero. For example, you can use Spanish learning apps to study useful words and phrases. Spanish books, on the other hand, can provide you with tons of examples to understand how to conjugate verbs and apply grammatical rules. At the same time, there are many Spanish YouTube channels you can watch for free to learn Spanish at your own pace.

Keep in mind that learning how to properly use these two past tenses requires patience and constancy. Be patient with yourself and use the study method and tools that best fit your needs to stay encouraged. This way, you’ll make faster progress and enjoy your study sessions.

Preterite vs Imperfect: Final Thoughts

Once you master the difference between the preterite and imperfect tense, you can create clear phrases in the Spanish language. These are tenses that can help you be more precise about the past in Spanish. You can use them to describe settings in a story, point out habits, or even talk about sudden events that shocked you. It might be hard to distinguish these Spanish tenses at the beginning but, with practice, you will master the Spanish imperfect and preterite in no time!

Maria Claudia Alvarado

Maria Alvarado is a content writer and translator from Lima, Peru. She graduated from the Savannah College of Arts and Design in 2017 with a Bachelor’s degree in Writing. She is fluent in Spanish and English, has intermediate knowledge of French and German, and is learning Japanese. She hopes to bring consciousness about the importance of language learning through her articles and aspires to learn as many languages as possible.

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