Preterit vs. imperfect

The preterit and imperfect are both simple (i.e., non-compound or one-word) tenses indicating a past-time action or state. Sometimes a given English past-tense sentence may be translated into Spanish with either the preterit or the imperfect, but these two tenses have different meanings or implications.

The imperfect tense may be considered the present tense backshifted into past time. It is generally used to indicate:

  1. A past action or state being viewed as in progress. In English we often use the past progressive for this: “was/were ...-ing”.

    Mirábamos las mariposas.    We were watching the butterflies.
    Mientras ella abría la puerta... As she opened (was opening) the door...

    Two frequent examples of states in past time which are normally viewed as in progress and thus given in the imperfect:

    1. Descriptions in past time, that is, what a person, thing, or situation was like. This also includes situations such as giving the time of day, the date, the weather, one's age, etc. (unless a change or the start/end of a state is indicated, in which case the preterit is normally used).

      Mi madre era muy baja, tenía 40 años, y trabajaba sin fin.    My mother was very short, was 40 years old, and worked constantly.
      Eran las diez de la noche, había una tormenta terrible, y teníamos miedo. It was 10:00 at night, there was a terrible storm out, and we were afraid.

    2. Mental states (in progress) in past time.

      No lo sabía.    I didn't know it/that.
      Creíamos que estábamos perdidos. We thought we were lost.

  2. A past action viewed as being customary or habitual. Note that English often uses “would” or “used to” to indicate this.

    En México, yo caminaba por la playa y las gaviotas hacían circulos sin terminar en el cielo.    In Mexico, I used to walk along the beach and the seagulls would make endless circles in the sky.

* * * *

The preterit tends to “freeze” an action or state in past time, or to view it as over and done with. It is used to:

  1. Present an action or state in past time as completed or as something instantaneous. Note that expressions of time which limit the action to a more or less specific period of time —even a long period such as thousands of years— generally indicate that the action is being viewed as completed and suggest the preterit.

    ¿Quién rompió el juguete?    Who broke the toy?
    Elena bailó toda la noche. Elena danced all night.
    Los Gómez vivieron allí seis años. Mr. and Mrs. Gómez lived there six years.

  2. Give a series of sequential actions in past time, that is, “first this happened, then something else occurred, and then...”

    Vine, vi, vencí.    I came, I saw, I conquered.
    Trabajó un poco, fue a McDonalds a comer, y luego volvió a casa. She worked a bit, went to McDonalds to eat, and then returned home.

  3. Show the start or finish of an action or state, or indicate a change in a state in past time.

    Se puso enojado.    He got (became) angry.
    El cielo se anubló. The sky clouded up.

    Note, however, that it is possible to view start-up and ending actions as in progress, in which case the imperfect would be used [Se ponía enojado. He was getting angry. / El cielo se anublaba. The sky was clouding  up.].

  4. Indicate an action as interrupting a previously existing action or stated (usually given in the imperfect).

    Mientras los demás dormían, María se escapó.    While the rest were sleeping, María escaped.

[Practice 1] [Practice 2]

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Contact: Fred F. Jehle


Indiana University - Purdue University Ft. Wayne
Fort Wayne, IN 46805-1499 USA