In your Spanish learning journey, you have probably come across two tenses to talk about the past: the preterite and the imperfect. These tenses are commonly used together to make a distinction between specific events in the past (preterite) and the surrounding circumstances (imperfect). Of course, there are more details involved. So, get a cup of your favorite drink, or a snack, and keep reading!
Table of Contents
Before we study in detail the interaction between the preterite and the imperfect, let’s review the main uses of each tense separately.
Uses of the preterite
|Uses of the Preterite||Examples|
|Completed events in a specific moment in the past||Nací en Colombia en 1992.|
I was born in Colombia in 1992.
|A sequence of completed actions or events in the past||Fui a la escuela hasta el año 2009 y empecé la universidad en 2010.|
I went to school until the year 2009 and I started university in 2010.
|Actions or events that aren’t usually repeated||Me gradué en 2015. |
I graduated in 2015.
As you can see, the key term with the preterite is completion. We’re referring to actions or events completed in a specific moment in the past or that have a clear beginning or end.
Uses of the imperfect
The imperfect in Spanish has four main uses:
|Uses of the Preterite||Examples|
|Habitual actions in the past||En mi primer trabajo, tenía que ir a la oficina todos los días.|
In my first job I had to go to the office every day.
|Ongoing actions in the past with no clear beginning or end||Debía clasificar documentos. |
I had to sort documents.
|Mental states or mental actions in the past||Pensaba que era el trabajo más aburrido del mundo. |
I used to think it was the most boring job in the world.
|Descriptions of the past||Mi oficina era pequeña y el aire acondicionado no funcionaba.|
My office was small and the air conditioning didn’t work.
⤷TIP Remember the concepts of time and age are included in the category “descriptions of the past,” so for these, use the Spanish imperfect:
Cuando llegué eran las cinco. It was five when I arrived.
En 2010 tenía 20 años. In 2010 I was 20 years old.
The key term with the imperfect is the description. We’re still talking about the past, but instead of focusing on one specific event or moment, we’re focusing on the descriptive background.
Although these tenses exist in both English and Spanish, they don’t always have an exact translation. For example, corría can be translated as “I ran,” “I was running,” “I would run,” or “I used to run”…do you see the challenge? Don’t worry, we’re here to help. So keep reading!
Time markers for the past tenses
Ayer llegué a casa a las 6 de la tarde. Yesterday I arrived home at 6 in the afternoon.
Mientras yo cocinaba la cena, mi hermano hacía la tarea. While I was cooking dinner, my brother was doing his homework.⇒ Check out this list we’ve created with time markers for the imperfect and for the preterite.
Interaction of the preterite and the imperfect
So, after you’ve studied the differences between both tenses and learned the time markers for each, what’s next? Well, my friend, what is next is to actually use these tenses!
In many cases you can use them in isolation; I mean, making sentences with one tense or the other. But more often than not, these two tenses interact with each other, and that’s a very common feature of the Spanish language. The choice between one or the other depends on the nuance of time the speaker wants to convey, but as a rule of thumb, the speaker uses the imperfect to bring focus to the middle of the situation and the preterite to its completion.
Let’s explore this further. Next, we’ll learn in which communicative cases the preterite and the imperfect are used together. Are you ready?
To talk about ongoing actions (imperfect) and interrupting actions (preterite)
If you’re talking about an action or event that was taking place and about the action or event that interrupted that first action, then the duo imperfect-preterite comes in handy:
Veíamos la televisión cuando sonó el teléfono.
We were watching television when the phone rang.
Pop quiz: Which is the ongoing action? Which is the interrupting action? Did you see which tense we used for each?
We use the imperfect for ongoing actions in the past and the preterite for interrupting actions.
⤷TIP When talking about ongoing actions in Spanish, you may also hear this:
Estábamos viendo la televisión cuando sonó el teléfono.
We were watching television when the phone rang.
It’s common for native Spanish speakers to use the combination estar (in the imperfect) + a verb in the present participle (ending in -ando or -iendo) as an alternative to the imperfect. Remember this is used mainly for ongoing actions!
To talk about a specific past event (preterite) and the surrounding circumstances (imperfect)
It’s also possible to use this past tense combo to refer to a specific event (or a sequence of events) in the past and its background:
Lorenzo nació la noche del 12 de mayo. Llovía a cántaros y hacía frío.
Lorenzo was born on the night of May 12. It was pouring down and it was cold.
These examples show two key concepts. First, we mention the completion of one specific event (the birth of Lorenzo) and then we move on to the description of what was going on that night (the weather).
In narrations we can combine the preterite with the imperfect when telling a story.
In this sense, I usually tell my students that the preterite and the imperfect can refer to two different communicative functions: narration and description. Narration refers to the preterite (the main action or actions that take place at specific moments in the story) and description refers to the imperfect (the background around the main events). Let’s see this in action:
Conocí a Jorge en clase de literatura argentina en la universidad. Recuerdo que él llevaba una camiseta azul y que se rió cuando llegué tarde a la clase. Ese día la profesora hablaba de Cortázar. Como llegué tarde, me senté al frente (no había más sillas disponibles) y la profesora me miró muy seria. Quería tomar notas, pero me di cuenta que no tenía mis lentes. Hacía mucho calor y afuera de la facultad un grupo de estudiantes escuchaba música y debatía de política.
I met Jorge in Argentinian literature class at university. I remember he was wearing a blue t-shirt and that he laughed when I arrived late to class. That day the professor was talking about Cortázar. As I arrived late, I sat in front (there were no more seats available) and the professor stared at me very seriously. I wanted to take notes, but I realized I didn’t have my glasses. It was very hot and outside of the building a group of students was listening to music and debating politics.
Do you remember we said we could use estar (in the imperfect) + a verb in the present participle (ending in -ando or -iendo) as an alternative to the imperfect for ongoing actions? Well, you can also use it to describe the background circumstances of an event:
Conocí a Jorge en clase de literatura argentina en la universidad. Ese día la profesora estaba hablando
hablaba de Cortázar. Estaba haciendo Hacía mucho calor y afuera de la facultad un grupo de estudiantes estaba escuchando música y estaba debatiendo de política.
I met Jorge in Argentinian literature class at university. That day the professor was talking about Cortázar. It was very hot and outside of the building a group of students was listening to music and debating politics.
Verbs that have a different meaning in the preterite and the imperfect
As you probably know, some verbs change their meaning depending on which past tense is used:
|¿Supiste que Natalia se fue a Colombia? |
Did you hear that Natalia went to Colombia?
|¿Sabías que Colombia tiene 50 millones de habitantes? |
Did you know that Colombia has 50 million people?
We have just learned when to use the preterite and the imperfect together in Spanish to make detailed narrations and descriptions of the past. Remember our main takeaway: use the imperfect to bring focus to the middle of an ongoing situation and the preterite to its completion.
To learn more about all the Spanish past tenses, don’t miss out on this post!
Also, we’ve prepared this exercise for you to practice what you’ve learned today. ¡Hasta la próxima!