Preterite vs Imperfect

Preterite vs Imperfect - Part I: General Concepts

In this mini-lesson you will learn the use of preterite vs imperfect and the main differences between the two.

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.

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 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. 

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

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 them for my classes. They have simple explanations and a lot of grammar exercises.


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.


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