When you’re taking Spanish lessons, you may be confused by new concepts and grammar rules. In Spanish, there are two different ways to describe the past; the imperfect and the preterite. Here, Carmichael, CA Spanish teacher Joan B. shares some helpful hints to help you describe the past in Spanish…
As a beginning Spanish speaker, it can be difficult to determine which form of the past tense you should use: imperfect vs. preterite. Once you learn the following simple tricks, however, you should be able to figure out which tense to use in any situation where you need to describe the past in Spanish.
Let’s start by looking at the differences between the imperfect and the preterite.
The imperfect is used to describe past actions that have no clear beginning and end. This includes descriptions, age, weather, time, and emotions. It also refers to repeated action (translated as “used to”) such as, “iba todos los veranos” (I used to go every summer). Learn more about conjugating the imperfect tense.
The preterite is used to describe a completed action in the past, with a clear beginning and end. For example, “ayer fui al cine” translates to “yesterday I went to the movies.” This is an action that occurred once, instead of many times over a period of time. Learn more about conjugating the preterite tense.
How to Decide?
Sometimes, sentences in Spanish will only use one form of the past tense, and you will have to decide between imperfect vs. preterite. Other times, there are contextual clues that will allow you to use both forms in the same sentence.
When to Use Both
A common use of the preterite and imperfect within one sentence is when the imperfect describes an ongoing past action, and the preterite describes an action that interrupted the ongoing action. For example, “mientras leía el libro, ella me llamó” (while I was reading the book, she called me). Whenever you see the word mientras in a sentence describing the past, you can be sure that the imperfect will immediately follow mientras, and that the preterite will be used to describe any subsequent action that interrupts the ongoing action.
Watch out for sentences that use the word cuando. Some sentences with cuando function similarly to mientras in the sense that there’s an imperfect followed by the preterite, for example, “cuando caminaba en el parque, vi un accidente” (when I was walking in the park, I saw an accident). In other cases, however, the order of tenses can be reversed, “cuando llegué a casa, mi madre estaba cocinando” (when I arrived home, my mother was cooking).
Understanding the imperfect and the preterite can be confusing, but if you identify the type of action being described and watch for contextual clues, you should be able to recognize which form of the past tense to use.
Interested in learning more about imperfect vs. preterite? Taking lessons with a private instructor is a great way to get customized and personalized help on your way to becoming a fluent Spanish speaker! Sign up with a Spanish tutor hoy!
Joan B. lives in Carmichael, CA and has been teaching high school Spanish for more than 18 years. A lover of language, she’s studied French, Arabic, and Italian and spent time living in Spain. Joan aims to help students improve on tests and increase their conversational ability when traveling to Spanish-speaking countries. Learn more about Joan here!
Photo by Zachary R