The Preterite and the Imperfect: Part 1 Posted by on Dec 9, 2007 in Spanish Grammar


Ah, the dreaded past tense.Once the Spanish learner comes to terms with ser and estar, they are thrown the curve ball of preterite and imperfect.Here is a quick review of the main uses of each.However, keep in mind that as with any grammar “rule” there are exceptions!

The preterite is used when talking about:

Events that have been completed in the past. Compré unos pantalones en el centro commercial ayer.
A series of events. Vine, vi, conquisté.
Actions repeated a specific number of times. Hablé con él tres veces.
Actions occurring for a specific period of time. Escuché música durante media hora.


The imperfect is used when talking about:

Habitual actions in the past (as in the English “used to”) De niño, yo jugaba con mis amigos después de la escuela.
Describing or setting up a scene La habitación era oscura. El viento soplaba, y las hojas del árbol pegaban contra la ventana.
Characteristics of someone or something. El hombre era alto, guapo, y amable.
The time and weather Eran las ocho de la noche y hacía mucho viento.
Age Yo tenía siete años cuando nació mi hermanito.
Mental states and physical sensations Estaba enojada y tenía frío.

One of the best ways to recognize when to use the preterite or the imperfect is to tune in to key words, or what I call “red flag words”.

Words referring to specific, completed time periods indicate that the preterite should be used:

ayer/anteayer/anoche – yesterday/the day before yesterday/last night

el año/mes/semana pasado(a) – last year/month/week

por….segundos/minutos/horas/días – for …..seconds/minutes/hours/days

hace ….años/meses/días— …. years/months/days ago

Words that refer to vague, unspecific time or repetition indicate the imperfect should be used:

todos los días – every day

cada año/mes/viernes – every year/month/Friday

siempre – always

generalmente– generally, usually

frecuentemente– frequently

en aquella época – at that time, in those days

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