Like learning to distinguish between ser and estar, deciding when to use the preterite vs imperfect tense is very important. Unlike English, Spanish has two ways to use the past tense. If you use the wrong tense, it could even change the meaning of the phrase. In this post, I will guide you when to use the preterite vs the imperfect along with the basic conjugations.
Before you can choose between preterite vs imperfect tenses, you must learn the basic conjugation patterns. Fortunately, many of tenses (especially the imperfect) are relatively straight forward and generally don’t have stem changing words. However there are some trickier common verbs such as dar, tener, and ser. Also many verbs that end in cir like producir, will be conjugated with a j-. So producir’s full conjugation would be produje, produjiste, produjo, produjimos, and produjeron.
Some other verb endings to be aware of are car, gar and zar verbs. Luckily only the yo tenses of the verbs would be irregular. For example, sacar would be saque, pagar would be pague, and comenzar would be comence. Hopefully, these tips will help you with the irregulars but you will mostly conjugate regular verbs seen below:
When to use the preterite
The preterite tense expresses one events in the past
Specific uses are:
To talk about a series of past actions:
Me levanté, fui al gimansio y desayuné. (I got up, went to the gym and ate breakfast.)
To talk about the beginning or the end of an occurrence:
La fiesta empezó a las ocho. (The party began at 8:00.)
To talk about completing tasks:
Lavaste los platos hace dos horas. (You washed the dishes two hours ago.)
Luckily, the imperfect tense is much easier to conjugate than the preterite tense. There are few irregulars and please see the chart below:
The imperfect tense expresses either continuous actions or states that occurred in the past. Thus, the imperfect is much vaguer than the preterite and here are some examples:
To describe habitual past actions:
Cuando estábamos en Costa Rica, nadábamos en el mar todos los Martes. (When we were in Costa Rica, we swam in the mar every Tuesday.)
To describe an action without reference to any beginning or end:
Bob tenía dolor en sus piernas constantemente. (Bob constantly had leg pain.)
Past Actions that go on simultaneously with another:
Mi hermana leía y mi padre trabajaba. (My sister was reading and my father was working.)
To describe emotional, physical, mental states along with other conditions:
Estaba muy feliz y quería celebrar. (I was very happy and wanted to celebrate.)
To tell time
Eran las tres de la tarde. (It was 3:00 p.m.)
Era la cuatro de la mañana. (It was 4:00 a.m.)
To describe an action or state of being that took place in the past and lasted for a certain length of time prior to another past action. (This is similar to the English use of the past perfect, but in Spanish it is used with the imperfect tense with hacía.) Another example of this is to use hacía when describing weather in the past tense. To say it was hot, use hacía mucho, calor not hizo mucho calor.
Using Both Tenses
As if these tenses weren’t tricky enough, Spanish uses both tenses in the same sentence. If you want to say what is was going on or background events, use imperfect. However, when action is interrupted by another action, use the preterite. Observe the switching of tenses below:
Mientras trabajaba, mi nieto entró. Miré mi computadora. Eran las 7:20. Fuimos afuera y me di cuenta que hacía un poco de calor. (While I was working, my grandson entered. I looked at my computer. It was 7:20. We went outside and I noticed that it was a little hot.)
I hope this post will help you conjugate and distinguish between preterite vs imperfect. If you want to test your self, check out this free quiz!