Spanish Preterit vs. Imperfect
The Spanish language has two simple past tenses—the preterit and the imperfect. The preterit is used to express completed past actions, with emphasis on a completed beginning or ending. The imperfect is used for ongoing past actions and actions that are repeated in the past. But these general statements do not adequately describe all of the uses of the preterit and imperfect, so it’s better to approach the topic with a series of simple rules and examples. Eventually, the distinctions will seem logical to you, and you will be able to use the two tenses with no problem.
I. The preterit is used in Spanish for:
A. completed actions (The beginning or end time is frequently stated as well.)
Mi amigo vino a mi casa ayer.
My friend came to my house yesterday.
Su mamá preparó la comida el domingo pasado.
Her mother prepared the meal last Sunday.
B. interrupting an ongoing action set up by the imperfect
Él estaba comiendo, y oyó un ruido en la calle.
He was eating, and he heard a noise in the street.
Todo estaba tranquilo cuando ella recibió la mala noticia.
Everything was calm when she received the bad news.
C. sudden changes of conditions or attitudes
Ella se enojó cuando supo de la huelga.
She got angry when she found out about the strike.
Carlos se puso rojo cuando el profesor llamó su nombre.
Carlos became red when the professor called his name.
D. describing a series of past actions
La muchacha regresó a casa, se baño, se vistió, y salió otra vez.
The girl returned home, took a bath, got dressed, and went out again.
Benjamín fue al banco, dejó su carro en un taller, y regresó a casa a pie.
Benjamin went to the bank, took his car to a repair shop, and returned home on foot.
II. The imperfect is used in Spanish for:
A. past action that was ongoing or that occurred repeatedly (with no emphasis on the beginning or end of the action)
Ella esperaba el día de su boda con mucha anticipación.
She awaited her wedding day with great anticipation.
Él usaba los mismos zapatos todo los días.
He used the same shoes every day.
B. background actions that will be interrupted (The preterit effects the interruption.)
Ella comía cuando su hermano le tiró la pelota a su cabeza.
She was eating when her brother threw the ball at her head.
Ellos viajaban por Francia cuando su abuelo se murió.
They were traveling through France when their grandfather died.
C. physical conditions or mental attitudes that are ongoing in the past
Yo tenía ganas de comer chocolate.
I wanted to eat chocolate.
Sara no estaba lista para asistir a la universidad.
Sara was not ready to attend college.
D. expressing age and time in the past
Eran las cuatro de la tarde, y él ya tenía hambre.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and he already was hungry.
Ella tenía quince años, y su hermanita tenía solamente cinco.
She was fifteen years old, and her little sister was only five.
III. Some additional uses of the preterit and imperfect in Spanish
In addition to the rules stated above, some special situations exist for the use of the preterit and imperfect of which you should be aware. They involve the verbs saber, conocer, querer, and poder:
Saber in the preterit means “to find out.”
Ella supo de la fiesta a tiempo para asistir.
She found out about the party on time to attend.
Saber in the imperfect means “to know.”
Yo sabía que ella iba a la fiesta.
I knew that she was going to the party.
Conocer in the preterit means “to meet.”
Él la conoció en una discoteca.
He met her at a discoteque.
Conocer in the imperfect means “to know” or “to be acquainted with.”
Ella no lo conocía cuando él era joven.
She didn’t know him when he was young.
Querer in the preterit means “to try.”
Yo quise abrir la puerta, pero estaba cerrada con llave.
I tried to open the door, but it was locked.
Querer in the imperfect means “to want.”
Ella quería comer salsa de tomate en todo.
She wanted to eat ketchup on everything.
No querer in the preterit means “to refuse.”
La niña no quiso acostarse.
The child refused to go to bed.
No querer in the imperfect means “not to want.”
Ricardo no quería ir al cine con ellos.
Richard did not want to go to the movie theater with them.
Poder in the preterit means “to manage to.”
Pude abrir la caja, pero solamente con un cuchillo.
I managed to open the box, but only with a knife.
Poder in the imperfect means “to be able to.”
Yo podía alcanzar el estante porque soy alto.
I could reach the shelf because I am tall.
Here is Preterit vs. Imperfect – Ejercicio 1 for you to print and fill out. The answers are in Spanish and English on pages 2 and 3 of the worksheet. You will benefit from doing this exercise once, then waiting a few days, and doing it again. You should repeat it until you can successfully do it without referring to the answers.
Vea también: Pretérito e Imperfecto – Ejercicio 2