Free Language Lessons

The Spanish Preterite vs the Imperfect: The Past Tenses in Spanish
By:Sean McCauley

One item that new Spanish speakers often find confusing is the fact that Spanish has two past tenses: the preterite and imperfect. The preterite usually refers to actions that are seen as completed. On the other hand, the imperfect, in general, refers to actions in the past that are seen as not yet completed.

First, let’s look at some rules for the preterite. The pretierite is used for actions that can be seen to be single events, for example, El habló a Juan (He spoke to John). The peterite can also be seen as events that have been repeated a certain number times or actions that have occurred in specific time period: Ayer, estornudé cinco veces (Yesterday, I sneezed five times.) The Preterite can also refer to chain of events that occurred: desperté, comí desayuno, y fui a trabjao (I woke up, ate breakfast, and went to work)

Just like the preterite, there are certain rules that are specific to the imperfect. First, actions that were done habitually in the past use the imperfect, for example, Siempre yo le hablaba a ella por los mañanas. (I would speak to her every morning) The Imperfect can also be used to set up another action. For example, miraba la television cuando él me llamó (I was watching television when he called me) Please note that miraba is imperfect while llamó is preterite. The imperfect can also be used to tell time and state one’s age. Eran las ocho de la noche. (It was eight o clock at night) Ella teniá diez años. (She was ten years old)

As you are probably well aware, in English we have only one past tense, and it does not matter if the action is completed or not. If we were to say, "the woman was beautiful" this could imply that the women was beautiful in her youth, but maybe not anymore. It could also mean that we just saw a woman a few minutes ago and she was (and still is) beautiful.

Now, in Spanish this would be expressed two different ways. If we were to say the woman was beautiful at one point in her life, but not anymore we would use the preterite and say: la mujer fue bella. If we wanted say the women was beautiful and imply that she still is beautiful then we would then use the imperfect and say: la mujer era bella.

Now the preterite and the imperfect seem tricky at first, but after awhile it becomes second nature. If you continue to study Spanish, I guarantee you will pick it up. It is like they say, practice makes perfect.

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