Preterite vs Imperfect - Part I: General Concepts

Preterite vs Imperfect

Beside struggling with the verbs ser and estar, non-native speakers also have a hard time with the PRETERITE and IMPERFECT tenses. These tenses are used to talk about the past, but they have some differences. In this mini-lesson you will learn the use of preterite vs imperfect and the main differences between the two.


While PRETERITE is used for actions in the past that were completed, IMPERFECT describes actions in the past that were not  completed.

  • Jugué con mis amigos ayer (preterite). → I played with my friends yesterday. 
  • Jugaba con mis amigos (imperfect). → I used to play with my friends/I would play with my friends/I was playing with my friends. 

PRETERITE tense informs about the beginning and the end of a past action, although it is not always clearly mentioned. However, IMPERFECT describes past actions without a clear beginning or end.

  • Ana trabajó de las 8:00 de la mañana hasta las 5:00 de la tarde en la fábrica (preterite). → Ana worked from 8:00am to 5:00pm at the factory.
  • Ella trabajó ocho horas en la fábrica (preterite). → She worked eight hours at the factory. 
  • Ana trabajó en la fábrica (preterite). → Ana worked at the factory. 
  • Ana trabajaba en la fábrica (imperfect). → Ana used to work at the factory/Ana would work at the factory/Ana was working at the factory. 

PRETERITE states specifically when an action took place. On the other hand, IMPERFECT just gives a general idea when an action took place.

  • Los chicos estuvieron enfermos anoche (preterite). → The boys were sick last night. 
  • Los chicos estaban enfermos (imperfect). → The boys were sick. 

In addition, IMPERFECT tense describes a continuing or an ongoing action, while PRETERITE expresses a completed action that “interrupts” the imperfect.

  • Ella leía (imperfect). → She was reading.
  • Ella leía cuando él empezó a cantar (imperfect + preterite). → She was reading when  he started signing. 

A Review of Preterite vs Imperfect

Completed actionNot completed action
Clear beginning and the endNot clear beginning and the end
Specify whenGeneral idea of when
No expresses a continuing or an ongoing actionExpresses a continuing or an ongoing action

Final Thoughts

Now, you are able to understand the general use of preterite vs imperfect. I advise you to practice with grammar exercises as much as you can to get used to these verb tenses. Also, practice the language in general. As I always say, the more you practice the better. One day, you will get to the point that you will know what tense to use just because it sounds “well”.

If you are interested on learning more and practice these concepts, I recommend a couple Spanish grammar books that are great and I use for my classes. They have simple explanations and a lot of grammar exercises.


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