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Learn Spanish: Preterit vs. Imperfect

Learn Spanish Grammar

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Spanish Subject Pronouns
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Spanish Plural Nouns and Adjectives
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Telling Time in Spanish
Spanish Verb Hay
Spanish Verbs Present Tense

Spanish Verb Ir
Spanish Verb Tener

Spanish Verb Estar
vs. Estar

Spanish Possessive Adjectives
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Weather in Spanish
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Spanish Verb Acabar
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Spanish Past Tense - Pretérito
Spanish Informal Commands
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Spanish Nosotros Commands (coming soon)

Spanish Past Tense - Imperfecto
Preterit vs. Imperfect
Spanish Past Participles
Spanish Present Perfect Tense
Spanish Past Perfect Tense
Spanish Formal Commands
Spanish Subjunctive Mood
Spanish Future Tense
Spanish Conditional Tense



Learn Spanish: Preterit vs. Imperfect


Learn Spanish: Conjugating Spanish Past Tense - Imperfect (Imperfecto)

This learn Spanish grammar lesson reviews the two Spanish forms for expressing the past tense - the preterit and the imperfect tenses - and using both in Spanish past tenses in the same sentence. Even though the preterit and the imperfect are both past tenses, they express different meanings. The choice between the two tenses depends on what type of events and actions are being described.

The Spanish Preterit

In general, the preterit in Spanish is used to describe specific actions that occurred at a point in time or during a certain period and that were completed. It describes what happened, what occurred.

TheSpanish Imperfect

In general, the imperfect in Spanish is used to describe ongoing or habitual actions in the past. It describes what was happening, what was going on at a certain time, or what used to be.

Use the preterit to describe: Use the imperfect to describe:

Isolated actions or repeated actions a specific number of times

Habitual actions and actions repeated an undetermined number of times

Compré una casa este año.
(I bought a house this year.)

Jugué tenis por dos años.
(I played tennis for two years.)

De niña, no vivía en una casa.
(As a child, I did not have a house.)

Cada verano, jugabamos tenis.
(Each summer, we used to play tennis.)

Actions that occurred during or at a specific time

Actions in progress for an indefinite period of time

Jugué al tenis de las 3 hasta las 5.
(I played tennis from 3 to 5.)

A las 3, jugaba al tenis con Juan.
(At 3 o' clock, I was playing tennis with Juan.)


Main actions and events

Background description such as time, weather, age and physical characteristics, emotional states and other setting elements of the main action.

Tomé un taxi y fui a la oficina.
(I took a taxi and went to the office.)

El auto chocó y yo llamé la policia.
(The car crashed and I called the police.)

Eran las 2, hacía sol y un perro dormía.
(It was two, it was sunny and a dog was sleeping.)

El hombre era joven, tenía 40 años, llevaba gafas y estaba triste.
(There was a young man, he was 40 years old, he was wearing glasses and was sad.)


The Preterit and the Imperfect used in one sentence

Both the preterit and the imperfect are often found in the same sentence.

One action interrupts the other that was in process. The ongoing action is expressed with the imperfect, while the one that interrupts is expressed with the preterit.

Escuché un ruido mientras leía un libro. I heard a noise while I was reading a book.
Cuando llegué, tú hablabas por teléfono. When I arrived, you were talking on the phone.

A sentence may also contains two specific actions or two ongoing actions.

Salimos cuando tú llegaste.

We left when you arrived.

Cenabamos mientras ustedes caminaban por la ciudad. We were dinning while you were walking through the city.