Preterite vs Imperfect

Preterite vs Imperfect

Beside struggling with the verbs ser and estar or por and para, non-native speakers also have a hard time with preterite vs imperfect. 

For this reason, I made this article with the essential concepts about the preterite and imperfect tense. In addition, there are plenty of examples with audios to help you better understand the concepts and to practice your listening skills.

Preterite vs Imperfect: Differences

COMPLETED ACTION VS AN ONGOING ACTION

While preterite is used for actions in the past that were completed, imperfect describes actions that are seen as an ongoing process.

Examples
  • 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.

DEFINITE VS NOT DEFINITE BEGINNING AND END

Preterite tense has a definite 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.

Examples
  • Ana trabajó desde 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. 

SPECIFIC VS GENERAL

Preterite can inform when exactly an action took place. On the other hand, imperfect just gives a general idea when an action took place.

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

ACTIONS REPEATED A SPECIFIC NUMBER OF TIMES VS REPETITIVE ACTIONS

Preterite describes actions that were repeated a specific number of times. On the other hand, imperfect informs about repetitive actions (habitual or regular actions).

Examples
  • Nadábamos todas las mañanas (imperfect).→ We used to swim every morning.
  • Llamé tres veces (preterite).→ I called three times.

A Review of Preterite vs Imperfect

Pret.Imperf.
Completed actionOngoing action
Definite beginning and endNot definite beginning and end
Specify whenGeneral idea of when
Actions repeated specific number of timesRepetitive actions

When Preterite and Imperfect are in the Same Sentence

THE PRETERITE “INTERRUPTS THE IMPERFECT”

Example
  • Hacía buen tiempo cuando empezó a nevar. → The weather was nice when it suddenly started to rain.
  • Estabamos jugando cuando mis padres llegaron. → We were playing when my parents came.

THE IMPERFECT “DESCRIBE THE SITUATION” FOR THE PRETERITE

Example
  • Teníamos ganas de ir a la fiesta, pero tuvimos que trabajar. → We wanted to go to the party, but we had to work.
  • Ayer hacía bueno cuando salimos de trabajar. → Yesterday it was nice when we left work.

Verbs that Change Meaning

VerbsPreteriteImperfect
Conocer
To meetTo know or to be
familiar
Saber
To find out or to learnTo know
Querer
- To want to do something and actually doing it (+)
- To refuse (-)
- To want to do something (+)
- Not to
want to (-)
Poder
- To be able to
do something and do it (+)
- To be unable to do something despite trying (-)
To be able to do
something
Tener que
To have to do something and doing itTo have to do (to be obligated to)
something

CONOCER

Examples
  • Conocí a Juan en el 2000.→ I met Juan in 2000.
  • Conocíamos muy bien el país.→ We knew the country very well.

SABER

Examples
  • Supe que estaba embarazada porque la vi.→ I found out she was pregnant because I saw her.
  • Sabía que estaba embarazada.→ I knew she was pregnant.

QUERER

Examples
  • Él quiso ir a la fiesta. → He wanted to go to the party (and he did).
  • Él quería ir a la fiesta, pero tuvo que trabajar. → He wanted to go to the party, but he had to work.
  • No quiso leer.→ He didn’t want to read (and he didn’t).
  • No quería leer. → He didn’t want to read (but he did anyway).

PODER

Examples
  • Pudimos conducir. → We were able to drive.
  • Podíamos conducir, pero cogimos el autobús. → We could drive (could have driven), but we took the bus.
  • No pudo ganar la carrera. → He couldn’t win the race (but he tried).

TENER QUE

Examples
  • Tuvo que ir al dentista.→ She had to go to the dentist.
  • Tenía que ir al dentista, pero su dentista no trabajaba ese día.→ She had to go to the dentist, but her dentist didn´t work that day.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you are able to understand better the 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 them for my classes. They have simple explanations and a lot of grammar exercises.

In addition, If you want, I can help you practice with these tenses by using them while having a conversation during my online Spanish conversation classes.

Also, we can practice in the comment section below by answering the following questions:

  • ¿Cuántos años tenías cuando empezaste la universidad?
  • ¿Llovía cuando saliste a la calle ayer?

Hola and hi, I am Inés and I am the author of all the posts in the ConvoSpanish blog. My goal is to offer free content for people to practice their Spanish. Creating and maintaining the blog takes a lot of my free time however, due to my love of sharing Spanish with you, I will keep adding and updating the content in the blog. If you like the content of this post and believe that it helps you, please consider donating. I need coffee to keep me going while creating the posts. Aren´t they worth at least a cup of coffee? 😛 Any amount is appreciated. Donations will be used to support the free blog.


CONVOSPANISH NEWSLETTER